AA PERSONALITIES NO.2: HOPE BAGENALProfile

by Edward Bottoms, AA Archivist

04 November 2015

Architectural Association, London

 

Bringing to light a past personality who influenced the shape of the School today, archivist Edward Bottoms writes about the pioneering acoustician and librarian of the AA.

 

For a generation of inter-war AA students, one of the most instantly recognisable sounds would have been the distinctive hollow clunk of Hope Bagenal’s calliper along the wooden floor of the AA Library. A pioneering acoustician of international standing and the AA’s first full-time Librarian, Bagenal is an intriguing figure. In the only known photograph of him taken within the premises he has his back half-turned to the camera, his face in shadow.

 

Hope-Bagenal-Harlequinade-,-July-1926

Hope Bagenal, Harlequinade, July 1927, AA Archives

Descriptions of him vary – from recollections of him as ‘perhaps the greatest genius ever connected with the AA’ to memories of him resembling ‘the reincarnation of some biblical or medieval saint’. For Harlequinade, the AA student journal of the 1920s, he was an easy target – his campaigns to maintain quiet and orderliness in the library and to obtain the return of stolen or ‘lost’ books, giving rise to a personification as the Carpenter from Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.

Born in Ireland in 1888, Bagenal initially studied engineering before taking up an articled pupilage and joining the AA in 1909. By 1914 he had already begun to explore the field of acoustics, corresponding with Wallace Sabine, the Harvard physics professor who had been McKim, Mead and White’s consultant for the Symphony Hall, Boston. However, two years later, on the outbreak of the First World War, Bagenal’s acoustic research was put on hold. He volunteered as a stretcher bearer for the Royal Army Medical Corp and after two years of service in France was severely wounded in the leg at the Somme.

 

During this period he appears to have written a significant amount of poetry and prose, some of his writings being gathered together in 1918 as Fields and Battlefields, published under his Regimental number of ‘31540’. Many of the pieces deal with poignant and often comic encounters behind the lines and describe life in picturesque and, as yet untouched, French villages. Nevertheless, his most intense prose is reserved for the sounds and sights of battle:

 

“As we stood the guns were silent. There was a silence and the mute witness of the dead. The earth was hideous, eyeless, burnt blind. In our forsaken trenches the rats reigned supreme.”

 

During Bagenal’s convalescence at the Eastern General Hospital, Cambridge, his interest in acoustics was encouraged still further, striking up an acquaintance with the physicist, Alex Wood, with whom he was to later collaborate on the seminal Planning for Good Acoustics (1931). On his full recovery, Bagenal was appointed as AA Librarian and editor of the AA Journal, also lecturing on acoustics and history. He was closely involved in the life of the AA, composing music for a number of the AA drama group productions, but his personal eccentricities were apparently the butt of many jokes. Two students recall how Bagenal would visit remote country churches and, regardless of others, fire off a blank cartridge in order to measure the reverberations.

 

He was a prominent member of the Noise Abatement League, his articles for their journal Quiet including one entitled ‘Silencing a Noisy World’. Such sensitivities were not lost on AA students and, according to Jane Drew, a group of students rounded up all the barrel organ players on Oxford Street and paid them to play outside the AA whilst Bagenal was lecturing – reportedly driving him apoplectic with rage.

Aside from the student leg-pulling, Bagenal was highly respected as a lecturer within the AA and collaborated with AA Principal Robert Atkinson on what was to become one of the standard inter-war textbooks, Theory and Elements of Architecture (1926). Alongside his AA work, Bagenal’s private acoustic consultancy flourished and he became one of the UK’s acknowledged experts, advising on numerous concert halls, theatres and public buildings at home and abroad. His most significant projects include the New Delhi Legislative Chamber, the Royal Festival Hall and the Free Trade Hall, Manchester.

 

If the acoustics of today’s busy AA Library would still perhaps be somewhat challenging to Bagenal’s sensitive ear, his legacy endures in the form of the heavy mahogany tables, designed and carefully detailed by him in the late 1930s.

 

Bagenal-Panto-Curtain

AA Pantomime curtain 1921 (detail), AA Archives. AA staff are depicted as the Gods on Mount Olympus, Bagenal standing in centre

 

For more information:

AA Archives

AArchitecture 26