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The School of Art, or 'Margaret Street' as it is more affectionately referred to, is without question, the finest late Victorian building in Birmingham.

John Henry Chamberlain's Birmingham Municipal School of Arts and Crafts has been in continuous use since opening in 1885, passing into the hands of Birmingham City University in 1990.

As a rapidly growing industrial city, Birmingham recognised the importance of art education for the 'designers' working in its manufacturing businesses, to improve the quality of the products being manufactured and exported throughout the British Empire.

It was also designed to physically express the art education manifesto of the School led by its radical headmaster Edward R. Taylor – a manifesto that encouraged students to copy directly from nature and to execute their designs in the medium for which they were intended.

This was in direct contrast to the South Kensington system of teaching practised in every other art school in the country and Chamberlain's building was an architectural two fingers up at the establishment represented in the form of the adjacent ponderously classical Council House built six years earlier.

Funded by the liberal elite of Birmingham, it was built in two phases with the first, designed by Chamberlain, a 'tour de force' of Ruskinian Gothic. Sadly, Chamberlain died on the day he opened William Sapcote's winning tender.

The second, a straightforward extension of 11 identical bays of the building down Cornwall Street was designed by William Martin and his son Frederick and completed in 1893. The school and its building were hugely influential at the end of the 19th century with Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris among its visiting lecturers.

Chamberlain's building is a masterpiece and has one of the best preserved Victorian interiors in the city. The showpiece of the interior is the small but dramatic museum space immediately accessible from the entrance.

This tuck-pointed brickwork walled gothic hall is lined with pink granite columns and stone arches that lead the eyes up to the timber roof trusses and glazed roof. The main working spaces of the building are the studios on the top floor, which are large and constructed with big decorative iron arches, vaulted ceilings and north facing rooflights that flood the spaces with natural light.

Prominent features of the building – often mistaken as chimneys, are the tall brick and stone topped ventilation stacks. These drive the natural ventilation system that was integral to the design of the building, drawing fresh air into the interiors and pulling stale air up and out through the stack.

The report of the opening ceremony that appeared in the Birmingham Post in 1885 describes a large Gothic memorial to Chamberlain built into the end wall of the museum, and indeed this is shown on the original drawings. Chamberlain is remembered in his building on a beautifully carved stone tablet in a quiet corner of the space.

When the years of paint were removed from the brickwork of the museum, it became clear that the original memorial had been removed, and Chamberlain demoted to his current position. We can only guess at what politics were at play.

The building's Grade I listing in 1971 was not matched with suitable funds for repair and by 1990 the building was in very poor condition.

Moreover the building had never provided the range of spaces necessary to meet the changing needs of university art education over the course of the 20th century. In response to these changes a series of ad hoc alterations to create smaller rooms for offices and seminars had turned the building into a confusing warren.

In 1995 Associated Architects designed a £5.5 million refurbishment scheme, which carefully introduced floating mezzanine levels, glass lifts, spiral staircases and specialist work spaces, while retaining the original wood interiors and decorative features.

The School of Art is one of the most beautiful and extraordinary educational environments in the country, a fitting home for a stunning modern art school with light airy studios and cutting-edge technology.

Article by Matthew Goer, Director, Associated Architects
Published in the Birmingham Post, 23 December 2014

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