Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Kidbrooke School and the Dome of Discovery

Notes in 'Festival Times' that the original beams of the Dome of Discovery were hidden away in a Greenwich School sent me scurrying off to find out – was it true? A look through the local papers for Greenwich in 1951-3 made me pretty sure it wasn't true because there was no coverage of the story at all but there was something else. – there were stories of the enormous new school started in Kidbrooke in April 1951. Although its vast hall was actually planned before the Festival of Britain and before the Festival Hall, it has been compared with them in both style and scale – and it is easy to understand how the story of the beams began.

I am not really sure if the school is really anything to do with the Festival but I am writing to tell Festival Times about it because, apart from the story of the beams, it really has something to say to us about the early 1950s. The school was the first purpose built comprehensive school, originally for girls only. It was on a scale not seen before – for 2,000 girls and with huge range of special features (i.e. 5 gymnasia!). They hold huge scrapbooks of their press coverage over the years – and it is fascinating to read the hostile stories in the press when the school opened in 1954 and the constant barrage of critical stories in the tabloid press of the day. Nevertheless it has survived and along with the educational ideas which marked it out, it is rapidly being realised that it is a treasure of early 1950s architecture. The present management is doing the best it can to see that original features are preserved and, in some cases restored.

The school scrapbooks also contain articles from the technical press, which detail the construction methods and materials in a great deal of detail. The copper domed school hall today stands out above the surrounding suburban housing – inside it is, understandably, a bit worn, but the integrity of the underlying design shines through. The dome is, however, not really like the Dome of Discovery. A series of articles was written about the roof by B.K.Chatterjee, who was one of the engineers involved – who was he, and what happened to him? Work by an Asian engineer on such a major building must have been very unusual at the time. The architects of the building were Slater, Uren and Pike and the consulting engineers were Ove Arup.

Mary Mills

This article was originally published by the Festival of Britain Society

1 comment:

MikeM67 said...

My father was a foreman on site during the building of Kidbrooke school, working for G.Walker&Slater. He was always very proud of the roof. I'm sure that he told me that it was the largest unsupported roof structure in Europe at that time.