Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards

by Marian Quartly

E.M.Forster wrote a story about a city whose inhabitants lived permanently in small rooms which were supplied with all of life's needs - air, water, light, heat, food, books - by a benign machine. In time the machine ran down, and the supplies dried up - but gradually, so that the inhabitants were only dimly aware that the air was getting fouler, the water more brackish, the power blackouts more frequent. Rather than doing something about the inconveniences, they worked around them, adapting their lives to restrictions that in time became crippling. In the end, of course, they all died.

Forster's story runs uncomfortably parallel with the experience of teaching in the Ming Wing in the last two decades. Tutorials of eight students used to fit comfortably into staff studies - do you remember being able to get up and find a book from the shelves when the conversation took an unexpected turn? Once the numbers went up to ten, the chairs just fitted, but nobody could walk about. At twelve per class I gave up taking tutes in my room when claustrophobic students asked to sit next to the open door. At fourteen per class only professors' studies were large enough, and at sixteen the small tutorial rooms began to feel crowded. And very hard to find.

The crowded classes, dirty windows, smelly toilets and stalled escalators in the Ming Wing are not quite life threatening, but they have worked to strangle pedagogic growth and innovation. We have put up with impossible constraints because there seemed no other way.

The photographer Wolfgang Sievers captured a very different image of the Menzies Building back in the sixties. Then its bulk was exciting, its fragmented facade a study in repetition, its long lines an exercise in rational perspective. It embodied an optimistic moment of High English Modernism, when prestressed concrete promised to deliver a site for cheap and egalitarian education.

Some would argue that the constraints were always built in - into Modernism and the Ming Wing both - in the affirmation of uniformity, the celebration of the machine and its products. Perhaps, but Sievers's photos are a startling reminder that another vision existed before the neglect of the last decades. And the developments currently planned - the relocation of departments, the movement of undergraduate teaching out of the building and postgraduates back in, the provision of custom-designed teaching spaces - all of this offers a chance to look ahead. We bring you this exhibition of historical ways of looking at the Menzies Building in the hope of stimulating some fresh views of the future.