HE& me

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - El­lie Both­well

Hi­lary Grainger is pro­fes­sor of ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory and dean of aca­demic de­vel­op­ment and qual­ity as­sur­ance at the Lon­don Col­lege of Fash­ion, Univer­sity of the Arts Lon­don. She is an au­thor­ity on the ar­chi­tect Sir Ernest George and on the ar­chi­tec­ture of Bri­tish cre­ma­to­ria. She is also pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of the Study of Death in So­ci­ety. She was ap­pointed OBE for ser­vices to higher ed­u­ca­tion in the Queen’s New Year Hon­ours for 2018.

● Where and when were you born?

Tynemouth, Tyne and Wear in 1952.

● How has this shaped you?

My par­ents were school­teach­ers who be­lieved strongly in the value of ed­u­ca­tion. They were un­fail­ingly en­cour­ag­ing and sup­port­ive. Be­ing an only child, fam­ily and friends have al­ways been im­por­tant. Grow­ing up on the north-east coast, I was in­stilled with a strong sense of place, be­long­ing and love of the sea. It still ex­erts a strong draw. Coin­ci­den­tally, some of my early higher ed­u­ca­tion teach­ing was in New­cas­tle. Much of me has been de­fined by the north east. I feel en­tirely at home there.

● Your lat­est book looks at the his­tory of cre­ma­tion in mod­ern Scot­land. What was the most in­ter­est­ing find­ing or anec­dote you dis­cov­ered dur­ing your re­search?

Un­cov­er­ing Sir Basil Spence’s ac­ri­mo­nious re­la­tion­ship with Ed­in­burgh’s city ar­chi­tect over the de­sign of Mor­ton­hall Cre­ma­to­rium. Spence threat­ened his res­ig­na­tion over the lack of fund­ing and vi­sion, ar­gu­ing that “this job is giv­ing me more trou­ble than Coven­try Cathe­dral”. The episode ex­em­pli­fied a fa­mil­iar story of com­pro­mises over cost, which led to much of the me­di­ocrity of post­war cre­ma­to­ria de­sign. Spence’s tenac­ity re­sulted in one of the finest build­ings of its type in the UK. I take ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to pro­mote the im­por­tance of good de­sign to the in­dus­try through my work with the Cre­ma­tion So­ci­ety.

● What is the big­gest mis­con­cep­tion about your field of study?

Peo­ple be­lieve that any con­sid­er­a­tion of death, more specif­i­cally the dis­posal of the dead, is some­how dis­taste­ful, and yet, para­dox­i­cally, they are fas­ci­nated by the sub­ject. Given that 76 per cent of peo­ple in the UK now choose cre­ma­tion, sur­pris­ingly cre­ma­to­ria re­main “in­vis­i­ble build­ings”. In an in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar so­ci­ety, they have be­come the fo­cus of ri­tual and the dis­posal and re­mem­brance of the dead. They form a sig­nif­i­cant part of our cul­tural her­itage, and their role in con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety needs to be bet­ter un­der­stood. We need to talk more openly about death.

● What are the best and worst things about your job?

The best is work­ing with re­mark­able col­leagues in a cre­ative en­vi­ron­ment. The worst is any­thing go­ing awry with the rail net­work. I com­mute from Birm­ing­ham to Lon­don and when things go wrong, they tend to go wrong in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion.

● What is your favourite build­ing?

High on my list would be 39 Har­ring­ton Gar­dens, Kens­ing­ton, built in 1882 for W. S. Gil­bert by Sir Ernest George. This flam­boy­ant and whimsical town house, so per­fectly suited to its owner, holds a spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance for me. It prompted my in­ter­est in George, the sub­ject of my PHD and sub­se­quent mono­graph. George also de­signed Gold­ers Green Cre­ma­to­rium in 1902 – hence my in­ter­est in cre­ma­tion.

● If you were to de­sign a univer­sity from scratch, what would it look like?

Ar­chi­tec­ture ought not to be judged by ap­pear­ance alone. Build­ings are for peo­ple, and a univer­sity is an aca­demic and so­cial project. The build­ing would need to en­com­pass func­tion­al­ism, so­cial pur­pose and, above all, col­lec­tive en­deav­our. Flex­i­bil­ity would be para­mount, and the trick might be to avoid the va­garies and ex­cesses of style to en­sure con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance.

● What kind of un­der­grad­u­ate were you?

Dili­gent but, I hope, not earnest. I stud­ied English and the his­tory of art at the Univer­sity of Leeds.

I sub­scribed to the no­tion of “work hard, play hard” and was pres­i­dent of my hall of res­i­dence, which led to a wholly mem­o­rable so­cial life.

● If you were a prospec­tive univer­sity stu­dent now fac­ing £9,000-plus fees, would you go again or go straight into work?

I was very for­tu­nate in hav­ing had my un­der­grad­u­ate fees paid by the lo­cal au­thor­ity and re­ceived a univer­sity grant for my PHD at Leeds. It would be much more chal­leng­ing now, but univer­sity is un­ques­tion­ably trans­for­ma­tive and I would not hes­i­tate to re­turn.

● What ad­vice do you give to your stu­dents?

I al­ways ad­vo­cate the im­por­tance of think­ing crit­i­cally, ob­serv­ing care­fully and man­ag­ing time ef­fec­tively. Seize ev­ery op­por­tu­nity – there is some­thing to be learned from ev­ery sit­u­a­tion, good or bad. Art and de­sign stu­dents should lo­cate their prac­tice in con­text, be it cul­tural, his­tor­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal or so­cial, to bet­ter un­der­stand their own work and the role that it plays in so­ci­ety.

● If you weren’t an aca­demic, what do you think you’d be do­ing?

I dare say I would have been an ar­chi­tect.

● What do you do for fun?

Travel. I am con­stantly en­er­gised by new places. I en­joy read­ing a well-crafted novel and spend­ing time with my daugh­ters.

● Tell us about some­one you’ve al­ways ad­mired.

An­drew Saint, one of this coun­try’s lead­ing ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­ri­ans. I have known An­drew for more than 40 years and have al­ways ad­mired his in­tel­lect, his acu­ity and the el­e­gance and in­sight­ful­ness of his writ­ing. I al­ways di­rected stu­dents to his books as mod­els of mas­terly anal­y­sis and con­tex­tu­al­i­sa­tion of build­ings. Fur­ther­more, he is the most gen­er­ous of aca­demics and hu­mane of men.

Cre­ma­to­ria re­main ‘in­vis­i­ble build­ings’. Yet in an in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar so­ci­ety, they have be­come the fo­cus of ri­tual and the dis­posal and re­mem­brance of the dead

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.