Sometimes it isn’t easy doing history and heritage for a living. Sometimes we have to tell people that they are wrong for liking a particular building for various technical reasons, which we will tell them at great length. Mostly they just back away slowly and find someone else to talk to at the dinner party. But it is a duty we will not shirk. Welcome to the PICA Building.
Designed by George Temple Poole and opening in 1897, the Government School is clearly in a classical style, with a sort-of Italianate tower between two wings. Built as a primary school, the reason for its classical details is initially a bit of a mystery. Especially when the internal design was based on the most modern educational principles of the day, with a central double-height hall and classrooms leading off this. Boys on the ground floor, and girls on top.
Further, it is basically a steel frame with concrete floors, with pipes and other services concealed between double brick walls. This is a very modern building, both in intention and construction, so why does it have a historic façade?
The answer probably lies in the school’s controversial location: the middle of a city. By the 1890s it was thought that kids needed fresh air and large ovals to become healthy citizens. The James Street school had tiny playgrounds and no oval at all. In addition, it was located near corrupting influences, such as pubs, prostitutes, and rampant capitalism in the form of retail and industry. This was not a place to develop the young mind to its full potential.
Another issue facing the architect was that government schools were themselves controversial. While the government had been involved in education for some time, it was only towards the end of the 19th century it started taking a leading role. Some parents worried that compulsory education would turn out over-educated children unsuited to be good housewives or labourers. Poole had to find an architectural solution which would pacify the concerns over both location and intention.
He chose to envelop a thoroughly modern school building with a traditional design. This would emphasise the importance of the building, its distinctiveness in a commercial environment, and show this was a great place to send your kids. So far, so good, but it all goes downhill from here.
As early as 1909, one architectural critic noted that the school was “notable for its large dimensions rather than for graceful design”. The style of building Poole intended requires that the central tower has two identical wings. A glance at the PICA Building shows that the two wings have nothing in common. The bricks are a different colour, the windows are different proportions, and there is a decorative frieze on the west wing (right as you look at the building) completely absent on the east. No competent architect would have designed the building this way, and Poole was far better than merely competent, so the only conclusion is that a lesser hand designed the west wing later. But not too much later, since the earliest photographs we can trace all show both wings as they are today,
Then there is the central tower. This is meant to be Venetian, but fails dismally. It is not hard to find good Italianate towers around the world, which all show elements of good design. Here, for example, is a fire station in Brandon, Manitoba, by W.A. Elliott in 1911.
The vertical element is stressed through the brickwork at the corners, and the wrought iron balconies add to the beauty of the whole. Or consider a local example, Bunbury High School by William Hardwick in 1923. Perhaps a little more Spanish than Italian, the vertical is stressed by the openings in the tower, and it was described as adding a ‘monastic’ air to the school.
Now compare the tower on the PICA Building. There is no sense of the vertical, the brickwork fails to convey an upwards movement, and the whole thing looks squat and, to be honest, fairly ugly. Even an attempt at a vertical element on the front is swamped by the brickwork and fails to do its job.
Was there a budget cut or was this Poole’s original intent? We will never know because the original plans have been lost, and we only have ‘as built’ blueprints from the 1920s.
So, having criticised the building, does this mean it should be knocked down? Not at all. There are many other reasons for keeping PICA. Asides from the environmental costs of bowling over an old building and putting up a new one, it functions as a popular art gallery.
But most of all, we at Dodgy Perth would chain ourselves to railings to stop anyone taking away the PICA Bar, which is where you will often find us after a hard fifteen minutes of research at the State Records Office or State Library. Sometimes we don’t even last fifteen minutes before hitting the bar. So it has to stay. Seriously.
The discussion of the PICA building leads on to the wanton and disgraceful demolishing of the lovely Girdlestone High School building, to build the Brutalist and dull new Art Gallery
Oh that’s a shame.. Got any pictures of the old high school? Was it co-ed?
There is a lovely picture online. Go to the State Library of Western Australia – Catalog – Pictures: and search for ‘Girdlestone’, or for James Street Schools. I worked in it in 1964-1965 when it was part of Perth Art School (Tafe). I was told it was previously A girls’ school.
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