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Monday, 30 April 2018

Modernist architecture and design in inter-war England

I work on the history of modernist architecture and design in inter-war England. I’ve long been interested in moving away from the standard narratives about this, which have tended to focus on individual practitioners, and which tend to lament the tardiness of the English modern movement and to equate it solely with the work of émigré practitioners. Instead, my work has shown how from the early 1920s onwards, there was much debate in England about how the country might be re-formed and the new types of architecture that might help facilitate this. I’ve looked at the networks of people who shared these ideas and the coming together of clients and architects which enabled transformative environments to be created not just in the domestic sphere, but also in arenas such as housing and education. I’m also really interested in the ways these ideas were promoted – through media as diverse as architecture periodicals, radio talks, film and books –and how this created what I call ‘narratives of modernity’ that embedded these ideas more widely, creating a progressive consensus that manifested itself after 1945 in the architectural forms of the Welfare State.
Another key area of interest, and one that often intersects with my work on modernism, is the ways in which women have contributed to the formation of the built environment. This has been a key preoccupation in architectural history for the past 20 or so years, and I’ve been at the forefront of an impulse that has favoured expanding our understanding of what constitutes the design process rather than pursuing a quest for ‘great women architects.’ So I’m really interested in women who’ve written about, for example, new forms of domesticity, campaigned from better housing, or been the clients of radical projects and who’ve played a formative role in their creation.

Why did you choose these subjects ?

As an undergraduate and then a Masters student, I had developed 2 main interests – modernist architecture (especially in the UK) and in re-thinking art and architectural history in the light of the feminist approaches which had really started to take hold when I was doing my BA in Art History. I can pinpoint exactly when I found a subject that enabled me to move these interests into a sustained research career. I was looking at an article on a key modernist project – Kensal House – which was completed in 1936 and noticed that the attribution of the project was rather an unusual one 

For a start it listed a number of individual architects (rather than one only, or the name of a practice, which would have been more typical) and then, at the end, was the name of a woman (the architects were all men) who was described as a ‘housing consultant.’ I was already really interested in Kensal House because, as an early example of modernist social housing, it was always featured in histories of English modernism but no one ever went into detail about it. In particular, it was the attribution line that intrigued me. Why were all these people listed? Who, I wondered, was Elizabeth Denby, and what was a housing consultant? No one had bothered to ask such simple questions before. I did, and it led me to a study of a fascinating individual in Denby who played a major role in developing modernism in England but who was not an architect, and who, despite being very well-known and much admired in her day, had been ‘disappeared’ from history. I wanted to put her back, but in a way that changed the nature of that history. 

In this respect I had a lot of help from Denby herself. She left very few personal papers so I had to re-create the environments from which she emerged and in which she practised - the networks of people with and from whom she developed her ideas about housing and design – in so doing it became apparent that to think about architecture as the work of one single individual was utterly simplistic. The sort of projects with which Denby was involved, like Kensal House, were formed by – among other things- a client’s (the Gas,Light and Coke Company) need to promote its goods and services and itself as a modern enlightened corporation; an evolving politics of housing which now emphasised slum clearance and inner-urban regeneration; a network that linked Denby to a local employer in an area in which she’d worked as a housing campaigner in the 1920s (north Kensington) and her ability to steer a project to embody her own philosophy of housing. The latter she promoted both through buildings like Kensal House but also in her influential book, Europe Rehoused, which was published in 1938.

What makes your research different?

In many ways all my writing since then has sought to simulate this  idea of architecture as an ongoing process of being made – whether I’ve been writing about Denby or inter-war modernism more generally (like in my 2007 book Re-forming Britain). I’ve been concerned to show how networks of people and ideas and circumstances intersect to make our built environment and then how those environments continue to evolve through their use, and their mediation in the press and so forth. Most recently, I’ve taken these ideas to a slightly earlier period and place – early 20th–century Edinburgh – to explore how a range of women reformers transformed the everyday lives and environments of the women and children who lived in the slums of the city’s Old Town. It’s been fascinating to document the way women doctors, kindergarten teachers and housing reformers worked together to effect change and how their contribution to reform has been sidelined by the much-better known (and really rather over-rated) Patrick Geddes. 

My next project takes me back to the inter-war period: From Networks to Receivers – Material and Spatial Cultures of Broadcasting in inter-war England will be a history of the design of BBC Broadcasting House (1932) and the wireless sets through which its programmes were heard. I am privileged to have been the recipient of one of the University’s Research Excellence Awards, which will support the writing of book manuscript.

Dr Elizabeth Darling is Reader in Architectural History and teaches on the History of Art programme at Oxford Brookes University.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Drugscapes: A Brookes Criminology Seminar

On the 22nd of May, Oxford Brookes Criminology is hosting its first research seminar, marking the end of an academic year that also saw the launch of the university’s BA/BSc degree in Criminology. Titled ‘Drugscapes: Two years after the ban’, this one-day event seeks to debate and understand how recent prohibition-geared legislation pushed by the Home Office has impacted on recreational drug markets, trends in use and regulation strategies in the United Kingdom.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into force in May 2016, following efforts by policy makers to create a more flexible legal framework under which new psychoactive substances (NPS) or ‘legal highs’ – naturally-occurring and synthetic compounds outside existing control schedules, at the time – could be efficiently policed. The Act put forward a rather vague understanding of what constitutes a psychoactive effect (and substance) as that ‘stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, [and which] affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state.' The logic of this was to effectively create a “blanket ban” that would effectively criminalise all substances to be potentially sold for their psychoactive qualities even before they were actually produced and distributed.
 A generic prohibition would allow the police to go after “head shops” and online vendors bringing in ever novel, chemically tweaked lines of unclassified products. The new legislation provided exemptions for nutritional, alcohol, tobacco or caffeine goods, as well as for substances used for medical purposes, but couldn’t avoid some degree of confusion. Nitrous oxide or “laughing gas”, for example, was ruled by a criminal court as not falling under the incidence of the PSA 2016 as it can also be used therapeutically, as an anaesthetic. This followed the arrests of two defendants who were planning to sell it at the Glastonbury festival, presumably not to the emergency medical staff on watch.
Experts observed that beyond the terminological ambiguities, the Act does not distinguish between (categories of) substances in terms of their (public health) harm potential, focusing solely on ‘psychoactivity’, a notion impossible to disentangle from everyday practices of consumption i.e. we ‘binge’ on Netflix shows or listen to music, among other things, precisely because we seek to alter our biochemical balance, emotions and awareness. Furthermore, they anticipated that new police powers to clamp down on retail outlets would possibly create a displacement effect that could see NPS being absorbed by traditional and less scrupulous street markets. 

This has been observed to be the case, for example, with synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs) or ‘Spice’ products. As ‘head shops’ went out of business and street dealers took SCRAs on, they targeted rough sleepers with cheap and potent strains that the police even suspected were laced with heroin and other more traditional, high-risk drugs. In the context of austerity cuts on housing and unemployment benefits pushing more vulnerable people into destitution, this further created a media scare around so-called ‘Spice zombies’ lying unconscious on doorways or moving about in catatonic fits and psychotic episodes, around high streets and city centres throughout the country.         
It is not clear to what extent this new law has been able to inflict a significant reduction in supply. If street outlets can be easily monitored and shut down by law enforcement, online cryptomarkets have proven to be quite resilient to control efforts. Data collected from the hidden Web showed growing numbers of vendors selling NPS such as synthetic cannabinoids or cathinones in the first months after the introduction of the PSA 2016. There have also been concerns around the use of super-strength synthetic opioids like fentanyl, fuelled by dark net sales, possibly leading to an overdose ‘epidemic’ similar to that which has been claiming  thousands of lives in the United States. 
Recent market reconfigurations have also flagged different treatment provision needs. As homeless groups migrate from alcohol, heroin or crack cocaine to synthetic cannabinoids and men who have sex with men turn to intravenous NPS use and ‘chemsex’researchers have suggested that better integrated mental health and substance abuse interventions, as well as more efficient user engagement strategies backed up by straightforward referral channels (e.g. through the sexual health services) should be the focal points of response strategiesDrug testing services embedded within night-time economy club or festival venues that inform participants of the exact composition of the street drugs they buy are proving to reduce drug-related harms and fatalities.           
‘Drugscapes’ in the United Kingdom and elsewhere are in permanent flux, shaped by market forces, new technologies, digital cultures and not least ‘war on drugs’ policies which perpetuate old ways of doing things but overlook the complexities of emerging social worlds and problems. By bringing together cutting-edge research and practitioner experiences, we hope to capture some of these dynamics and also help imagine more creative ways of dealing with the harms and challenges they pose. 
Lecturer in Criminology

Monday, 16 April 2018

Curating ‘Modern Artists tell the Easter Story’ – the student’s point of view

Brookes is host to the Methodist Modern Art Collection (MMAC), which comprises artworks which tell the Christian story by many of the twentieth-century’s leading British artists. This academic year, the opportunity arose for a small group of Art History students to work with its custodian, Dr Peter Forsaith, and, as a team, to conceive and curate a small exhibition which drew on this wonderful resource.
The Project 18 Team: Phoebe Exon, Kinmy Lo, Lauren Golightly, Sarah Morley and Tatiana Solis (with a Graham Sutherland)
I applied for what we called ‘Project 18’ because I was brought up in the Methodist faith, and already knew about the Methodist art collection before starting my history of art degree at Brookes. I was also taking the second-year module Curatorial Practice, which offers an introduction to the theory and practice of curating, so was keen to apply what I was learning in a real situation. The fact that the chosen group would be given a lot of independence in creating the exhibition was inviting but also rather daunting. I can safely say that these gut reactions (mixed in with a little stress) remained whilst carrying out the project!
The students with Dr Peter Forsaith
Things got off to a positive start. The Project 18 team consisted of three second years (Phoebe Exon, Lauren Golightly, and me) and two third years (Kinmy Lo and Tatiana Sollis). Although it wasnot a credited module, meaning that it did not count towards our degree, we all knew that the experience offered by the Art History department would be very beneficial for us, because we plan to work in the art world after graduation. We started the process by meeting together and discussing our ideas for the proposed exhibition. Next we met with Peter and discussed possible themes, locations for the show, and most importantly of all at this stage, we assessed which paintings were available to us and which weren’t currently marked out to be on loan when our show was scheduled.
Despite other module commitments and the third years completing dissertations, we worked well as team to make key decisions and to bring the project to completion. Our choice of location was framed by a number of factors. We knew the exhibition would take place around Easter 2018, so our time was relatively limited. We decided therefore to have the exhibition at Brookes. This was a way to celebrate the fact that the MMAC is housed here and to give all those who work and study at the university a chance to see some of the work in the collection. We decided that the Glasgow Room in Harcourt Hill campus, which normally acts as a meeting room, would be a good space because it is a large room, and, very helpfully, already has hanging rails installed on the walls.
Getting ready to hang a painting
At the same time as we finalised our location, we looked further into which paintings we wished to display. As the exhibition was scheduled for Easter we decided on having an Easter theme (hence the title, ‘Modern Artists tell The Easter Story‘). Although the collection is devoted to the visual expression of the Christian faith, we wanted the exhibition to appeal to everyone. We hoped that our display would enable visitors to think about what Easter meant to them whilst they contemplated the artworks surrounding them. After chopping and changing the lists of which paintings we wanted to include, we decided to select seven paintings and, through them, tell the main events in the Easter story.
Hanging a painting
We had learnt on the Curatorial Practice course, and Peter reminded us, that curating requires an open mind and adaptability and we saw this first hand during Project 18. We had originally planned to have the paintings in chronological order depicting the Easter story, however we ended up switching paintings around so that the focus was more on what worked well hung next to each other, whilst still allowing the chosen artworks to remain in a relatively chronological sequence. For example, we decided to add an extra painting Nathaniel (asleep under the fig tree)by Mark Cazalet, which completed a set of eight, in order to hang that next to Cazalet’sFool of God (Christ in the Garden)as these two paintings worked more successfully as a pair. I believe that if we had not gone into this project as open minded as we did then we could have had real issues. Thankfully, we worked well as a team and shared the same priorities when completing this project. The show opened just before Easter and ran for three weeks. We were so pleased that it was well-received and appreciated by all who visited.

The experience was incredibly valuable for us all. We learnt that open mindedness, adaptability, communication skills and respecting each other’s point of view are key to achieving goals. Alongside these more general lessons, we took away vital lessons from the world of curating and where our ambitions might fit within it. Many Art History graduates follow a career path in the art or museum world and curating is a highly popular pathway, not to mention highly competitive. Working on Project 18, combined with having helped Peter to take down a MMAC exhibition in Hull a few months before, the very practical side of curating which I experienced made me realise that I prefer the theoretical side of the art world. Therefore a path such as management or research in the art world may be more suitable for me. So I am currently investigating my post-university career with a focus on working in a learning or education department in the gallery and museums sector after gaining more experience as a gallery or museum assistant.
For me, my involvement in Project 18, alongside the Curatorial Practice module, has allowed me to realise my passions, and has helped me to sift out what works best for me from the vast opportunities which are available to history of art graduates. There seems to be a stereotype that the career paths of an art history graduate are quite narrow. This is not the case and I wholeheartedly implore people to look into the opportunities that are out there!

Sarah Morley, second-year undergraduate on the BA(Hons) History of Art degree

Photographs by Andrew Parker, second-year undergraduate on the BA (Hons) History of Art degree

For more about the show see:
& for a recent article about the Curatorial Practice module see:

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Girls and Power

What is your research about?

I'm interested in the ways in which ideas about gender circulate in popular and institutional settings such as media texts and schools, and how these ideas shape young people's views of themselves, their worlds and their imagined futures. I focus particularly on issues relating to girlhood and power - the spaces that culture creates for girls to grow in, and the ways in which girls inhabit them. I have just published a book on the 'successful girl' phenomenon. This was based on a study which traced 'successful girl' narratives across television screens and web forums and classrooms.

How did you come to choose this area?
Before working in Higher Education I had a career in the secondary education sector, as a teacher and then in teacher professional development. I taught English for some years, and my first and Master's degrees are in English; the sense of narrative still informs my work. As do many teachers, I found the educational inequalities I encountered every day had few adequate explanations beyond individual 'abilities.' I was particularly interested in the ways in which myths about gender and class operate as ways of accounting for unequal achievement. Embarking on a PhD was the beginning of trying the challenge the myths and find better ways of understanding and responding to social injustices. This is not just another task for teachers - my research explores the ways in which unhelpful narratives are circulated in policy committees and science labs, in the television industry and the textbook. One of my research interviewees commented, 'We need better stories.' I couldn't agree with her more.

What makes your research different?

I create methodologies which allow me to explore girl's lived experiences alongside policy and popular texts. This helps build a picture of the cultural world young people engage with and the tools it gives them for creating their sense of identity. I also try to use the digital tools that they adopt, as well as more traditional approaches. At the time I was doing my PhD, teen girl fan forums were very popular online, so I created one for the project, attractive over 160 participants. For my current project I am using visual social media platforms to create collages with participants. These will form a fascinating digital archive.

What are the highlights of doing your research?

The main one is that I get to spend so much time doing something which is both important and interesting. My focus means that I never feel trapped in an academic bubble. I have been all over England, to Australia and New Zealand and a host of European countries to visit schools and interview girls, and to share findings with other researchers and - importantly  - with practitioners. Also, the research community in my field is a supportive one. I've found gender scholars have an inbuilt commitment to equality, generosity, and solidarity.

What is the contemporary relevance of your research?

We are still such a long way form achieving equality, and not only in terms of gender. Looking at the gendering of leadership in the current political climate is highly timely as issues faced by women come into sharp focus. These include the rise of public misogyny, the vilification of women politicians and campaigners online, and sexist representations of political leaders in mainstream media, and the lack of voice and representation, especially for working class and minority women. Exploring girls' ideas about leadership, their experiences and imagined futures is a vital part of trying to create a society in which they might see themselves as decision makers.

Dr Michele Paule is a Senior Lecturer in Culture, Media and Education at Oxford Brookes University