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Friday, 1 July 2011

Building The University Of Humanity In Camberwell by Tony Wilson

General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was unable before his death in 1912 to achieve his ambition of founding an "International University of Humanity". The First World War delayed plans to build one as his memorial. The curriculum would include: 'Women and child welfare work. Study of Moral and Religious Diseases. How to visit the Poor in the slums, the Aged, the Sick and Suffering, and the Despairing. The practice of Public Speaking. The study of principles underlying all Sociological work. Singing and its effective use amongst the masses - outdoors and in. Also the application and use of constantly increasing skill and the latest experience in promoting the best and most fruitful service for the rehabilitation of broken human earthenware."

In 1921 the Salvation Army was looking for a site in South London. They chose the present site, rather than another possible one on Denmark Hill facing Herne Hill Congregational Church, because the latter was "not in a prominent enough position for us." They chose a leading architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. There still exists correspondence between Scott and the Salvation Army, in particular with General Bramwell Booth, head of the Salvation Army (and son of William Booth). In July 1923 he wrote to Booth with a perspective of his proposals explaining that he had had long experience of the Salvation Army." Scott undertook that the two sexes studying at the college would be able to attend thi Assembly "without co-mingling either when gathering or dispersing." He stressed the importance of greenery and undertook to preserve as many mature trees as possible. Scott laid down that for 1% of the total cost he would be responsible only for the external elevations and the interior of the entrance and the assembly hall. He insisted on control of the materials used for the exterior. "This is a very important matter as a design, which is fine on paper, may be ruined by using unsuitable materials."

The Salvation Army had definite views about what it wanted. A memo of 1925 stated: "The Architectural character of the buildings fronting Champion Grove, however, was not approved and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was asked to prepare a scheme of a more monumental character and semi-military style as symbolic of the Salvation Army's work." At this stage the proposed building was referred to as a "garrison". (By the time it was opened, it was called a "college"). There was in this insistence something of a lingering siege mentality which went back to the foundation of the organisation in the 1870's when it had struggled against a hostile world. Its processions were beset by riots, sometimes by the more organised disruption by "Skeleton Armies", formed in opposition. They had also in those early days been harassed by the police and magistrates.

Scott obliged as far as he could: ''I am sending you herewith a pencil drawing showing my suggestion for showing the front more in fortress manner. It is very difficult to produce this character in a building which must necessarily have a great many windows the windows in old fortified buildings were of course very few and very small. I have done what I can to attain the necessary effect". This amounted to giving it a more monolithic look. The thin "buttresses" protruding from the external walls were presumably intended to give the necessary military air. The Salvation Army noted "The adoption of the semi-military character for the Buildings had added to the cost £50,000. This was a significant proportion out of a budget of £250,000.

The final building was to be more austere than the Salvation Army had intended. It was the original plan agreed by the client and architect, for all the windows to have stonework surrounds, carved in Gothic style. Had this been achieved, it would look quite different and not bear such a strong resemblance to Bankside Power Station (another of Scott's works). In 1925 a crisis meeting slashed the budget for the project. £80,000 was saved by omitting most of the proposed stonework. Other cuts were made. The Assembly Hall had been planned as an octagon, perhaps following Methodist inclinations to this shape which John Wesley regarded as particularly good for acoustics. The Hall was to have had pinnacles and flying buttresses. It was decided to save £10,000 by building a very simple hall. The towers on the men's and women's schools were abandoned. But they were determined to keep the central tower which was to cost £25,000, expensive when compared with the cost for the administrative block of £35,542.

Scott was not very pleased, to judge from a somewhat caustic note that he wrote to Booth. It is clear that he thought that the central tower should be cut before anything else. The tower contains a water tank sixty feet above the ground. In 1927 Scott wrote that: "The upper portion of the Tower is from a practical view a luxury and its omission would not affect the working of the college in any way." But the Salvation Army was determined to have its tower that would rise as high as the cross on the top of Saint Pauls. It would be permanently illuminated and shine over the slums of South London.

Scott found himself involved in sorting out the problems caused by the sheer weight of the tower, problems for which he was not really responsible according to the original agreement. After calling in a top specialist, who waived most of his fee, it was decided to build 25 feet foundations with reinforced concrete. There followed wrangles with the borough surveyor which Scott had to resolve. The tower was not in fact finished for the opening in July 1929 in the centennial year of William Booth's birth.

Inside the tower above the water tank on the first floor are two empty chambers. One has thirty feet tall slits, designed presumably to recall those in mediaeval forts. The effect inside is that of an austere cathedral. Instead of stained glass is a view of all London from the heights of Crystal Palace to St. Paul's and Canary Wharf. Above, right at the top, is a vaulted space with rounded slits. This is more like a Romanesque chapel. Some use has been found for this upper space. Cellnet has had telephone equipment there.

Scott wanted the college to have an open facade to the world, for lawns to sweep down to a low wall between the college and the street. Security would be achieved by walls and gates between the actual buildings. In August 1928 the architect Gordon wrote that the builders were "clamouring for some instructions as to the boundary fence" The high walls went up against the wishes of the architect. In recent times the College has wanted to replace them with something to present a more open aspect to the world but had problems getting permission because the whole site is Listed Grade 11. Scott, as originally agreed, was responsible for the interior of the hall. On a modest budget he gave it a sense of dignity and style. On the floor is a marble mosaic of the emblem of the Salvation Army. Two light brackets, in their shape, recall the Crown of Glory that is part of that emblem. The College interiors by Gordon and Viner were carried out to a high quality, despite a tight budget. In the doors are curved Gothic curves. The lift is elegant enough to have tempted the makers of an Agatha Christie film to use it for the lift of a block of flats where Hercules Poirot solved a mystery in a smart mansion block.

There is some stonework on the facade. Top storey windows have the Gothic mullions originally intended for the whole front. The tower has Gothic decorations. Scott seems to have regarded the limited amount of stonework as rather incongrous on the vast area of brick. A comment by Scott implies that it was Booth who insisted on some stonework being better than none to relieve the austerity of the blocks. However at the back of the building Scott contrived some Gothic tracery in brickwork which aesthetically is more successful than the Gothic stone applique at the front. The stonework was a source of friction because the English quarry firms objected to Scott's choice of Commanderie Traverton stone from Lorraine. They approached the Salvation Army direct and used patriotic arguments to urge the choice of English stone. The English importers of the French stone wrote a letter on an invoice form to Scott advancing his own reasons for the choice of the stone. The stone had been used by Sir Reginald Blomfield for the Menin Arch Memorial to 58,000 British soldiers. It had also been used at Woking for the American War Memorial Chapel. Only British artisans would be used for the cutting of the stone. Scott used practical arguments with his clients. The stone was ideal in appearance, durable and cheaper. French stone it was.

Nobody seems to have tried to interfere with his choice of Dutch bricks. They are two inches wide as opposed to the more usual two and a half. Scott chose that size because the effect would resemble stonework. It still does look like bricks to me. But the size of the bricks does make the building seem taller. We subconsciously measure the building by the number of bricks. He chose Dutch bricks because they were half the cost the English equivalent.

There was another attempt at interference by a Malcolm Stark, a Salvationist and architect. In 1927, by which time the building was well advanced, he submitted unsolicited detailed plans to Booth. It is not clear whether the General took any serious notice of Stark. Certainly Scott was alarmed. He was rIassured that Booth had no intention of employing Stark who, although once a successful architect, was "now a broken man."

Scott found the project was sometimes trying. Contractors would try to involve him in matters that were the concern of the architects Gordon and Viner. He would respond crisply, redirecting their letters. In a letter to the surveyor, brought in over the tower, he wrote: ''I quite sympathise with your point of view the more so as I find myself in the same position of having agreed to carry out certain duties for a stipulated fee and then having other matters thrust upon me."

At the grand opening in July 1929 Scott was temporarily denied entrance because he did not have his invitation to hand. But he was there to enjoy the triumphant occasion. George V was to have opened the college but, as he was ill, his son Prince George, later the Duke of Kent, performed the honours in front of a large and enthusiastic audience. It was an important moment and a stupendous achievement for the Salvation Army. A Prince opened the College. There were ambassadors, high commissioners, mayors, the high and mighty paying homage to an organization that some sixty years before had been little more than a few lonely figures preaching on street corners and hired tent.

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