Bootham School Assembly Hall
Trevor Dannatt (1965-6)

From Serenity to Festivity

Large building viewed from across a courtyard with cathedral in background
Fig. 1: exterior view of Bootham School Assembly Hall, 1966. Photo: © Frank Donaldson, courtesy of Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections.

Bootham School Assembly Hall by Trevor Dannatt (1920-2021) is a triumph of continuity.  Bootham School was founded in 1823 by the Religious Society of Friends as a Quaker institution. The Hall acts as both a space for prayer and performance, being used for Quaker meetings, which are characteristically decentralised, and theatre productions, which necessitate a centralised focus. Dannatt’s inclusion of a screen wall of solid elm in the central seating area conceals the “negative and uninspiring blank of a curtained proscenium opening” until the screen wall is lifted, revealing the stage. 1 His use of directional artificial lighting similarly transforms the space into one more appropriate to drama.

Of utmost importance to Dannatt was that these features did not “detract from simpler, but more profound” uses, namely those of worship.2 The building won the Yorkshire Region’s RIBA Architecture Medal in 1967 for Dannat’s strong “sensitivity” to the “problem of dual functionality.”3 This ‘sensitivity’ may have been a result of his own Quaker beliefs and his studies at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London (1940-43). As Dannatt himself put it, “the scale of expression” needed to range “from serenity to festivity.”4 He frequently uses terms of expression in describing his architectural choices, indicating a strong understanding for the feeling of a building, and demonstrating the aptness of his title as a ‘humanist’ architect. Dannatt achieves a functional ‘continuity’ with no element of the Hall appearing disparate, rather one use for the space bleeds into the next as stage becomes a blank wall inviting tranquillity and an equalising, de-centralised form of prayer.5 “Architecture […] is people” as the Concrete Quarterly (January-March 1967) put it in a critique of the building. 6 This was something instilled in students of the Regent Street Polytechnic, a school well known at the time for its practical focus, in contrast, for instance, to the theoreticians at the Architectural Association. The character of a building’s use, or in this instance uses, must be apparent in choices of texture, surface and lighting. In this sense, the Polytechnic complemented and informed Dannatt’s capacity for ‘practical’ consideration.

Corridor with floor-to-ceiling windows on one side
Fig. 2: view of Bootham School Assembly Hall, 1966. Photo: © Frank Donaldson, courtesy of Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections.

If architecture was people at the Polytechnic, it was also art. Dannatt designed the Hall as “analogous to a piece of free-standing sculpture in a courtyard.”7 That the building was separate from the surrounding Georgian town houses that accommodate the rest of the school allowed for an exploitation of the centrality of Bootham School and its spectacular view of the York Minster, a nod to heritage and the long-standing tradition of the school. But the building was also aesthetically “distinctive,” speaking not only of the singularity of its functions amongst the school complex but perhaps also of a break with the past.8 It has its own voice, and Dannatt desired this voice to be of a “strong, formal quality.”9 The school being considered the more artistic of the Yorkshire public schools, it is possible that Dannatt was sought out for his particular capacity for “surprising elegance.”10

This building perhaps reflects a desire on Bootham School’s part to move with the times, introducing a modernist building into their site just as the welfare state was expanding and institutions across the country began to champion brutalist architecture. But even in their employment of Dannatt, a leading modernist architect, one who was deeply and explicitly inspired by Le Corbusier, there was continuity with the past. This was secured in the form of funding by the alumni network. “The balance of £70.000 is being sought from old boys, their parents, and other friends of the school.”11 The Hall was estimated to cost £65,000 by a 1963 Guardian article, indicating that it was almost entirely funded by these institutional clients.12 The support of the ‘Old Boys Association’ was vital to Bootham. The school bursar was certainly in favour, stating that “the new hall is probably the best and most exciting piece of modern architecture as yet planned in the centre of York.”13

In 1949, a series of extensions were made to the expanding school which included “a new assembly hall, a modern gymnasium, extensions to the dining-room, additional classrooms and studies for the senior boys, the conversion of a house into a sanatorium in place of the one destroyed during the war, and recreation rooms.”14 Here, Colin Rowntree (1891-1965) is referred to as the architect.15 That Dannatt was brought in only a decade later seemingly in place of a Rowntree indicates trust in his capabilities and an active desire to move into the future. It is possible that he was sought out by the Rowntrees themselves and other notable families of the Old Boy’s Association both because of his own Quaker beliefs and his architectural reputation. It is a certain sign of York’s collective patronage. Bootham then, is a celebration of both traditional religious belief and up-and-coming institutional modernisation. Indeed, Dannatt went on to build a Quaker Meeting House in his place of birth, Blackheath, South London (1971-2) with a similar sense of simplicity and expressive materiality. 16 Bootham is a lesson in how to bring something into the present whilst respecting and acknowledging the past.

Dannatt’s material choices provide another lesson in how to be both. Bootham’s structure is of reinforced concrete with deeply textural exposed board marking which on two sides rises up over a glazed ground floor. It is topped by a sculptural copper roof, with clerestory windows. The year in which Bootham Hall won the RIBA Architecture award, the second year of its running, saw “five university buildings, a hospital, a school [Bootham], a church, a college, and an office block” win the award.17 Bootham’s fellow winners were a series of public rather than private facilities. Indeed, in the pages of Concrete Quarterly, in their appraisal of the award, the Hall is nestled between a Manchurian motorway and the Cardross Scottish Seminary by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia. The Quarterly praises concrete as “the cheapest thing,” to be used in “standardised” and “industrial” housing.18 Was the Hall then an outlier in the 1967 winners of the RIBA Award? Dannatt’s democratic Quaker principles suggest otherwise. His image of the building as free-standing sculpture not only emphasises that the structure is a work of art in itself but also its self sufficiency. It exists as a space independent of the rest of the school; this means that whilst continuing its current ethos and principles it was also able to invite alternative dynamics to those that existed in classrooms for instance, where teacher is performer and student, audience. The building’s “alternative” potential exists despite the Hall’s deep embroilment in the alumni, despite its funding suggesting a potential lack of architectural freedom for Dannatt.

Assembly hall filled with chairs and corridor with floor-to-ceiling window
Fig. 3: interior view of Bootham School Assembly Hall, 1966. Photo: © Frank Donaldson, courtesy of Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections.

This said, the Hall was and is no show piece, being largely concealed from public view by the private nature of the school itself, which is virtually inaccessible to the public (it can be glimpsed from Photographic Lane). The Hall then, is a reflection of the school’s internal ethos, of the principles it encourages within its walls, and these principles filter out into the wider community in the weekly Quaker meetings and concerts which the school offers.

Through his material and formal choices, Dannatt considered both function and artistry, past and present, old patrons and new ideas. The Hall celebrates both the institutions of York and the egalitarian Quaker principles of the school. Every individual has “that of God” within them.19 As Bootham’s current development director has stated, the school seeks to “sho[w] you can get along with people more productively when you take them along with you”, which is precisely what Dannatt does.20 He takes the tradition along, the exciting and the new along, the artistry and functionality along, and ultimately us along. This is perhaps why Bootham Assembly Hall was the building the centenarian architect “was most proud of” in his decades-long career. 21