Does the architectural design of a school affect the quality of learning that goes on there? We architects believe that it does, of course, because that belief justifies our existence and our fees. But that belief was also strongly held by the Blair government when, in 2004, it initiated the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, an ambitious £55 billion plan to rebuild every secondary school in the country.
Obviously, every school building requires sufficient daylight to read by, sufficient fresh air to breathe, and sufficient space for pupils to work in. But beyond these basics, the BSF programme argued that inspiring and imaginative architecture, conceived by good architects in close collaboration with governors, staff and children, could raise standards of educational achievement.
Birmingham had one of the most ambitious BSF schedules. Even after Education Secretary Michael Gove misguidedly scrapped the BSF programme as one of his first acts in 2010, and school-building budgets were cut, a number of Birmingham BSF contracts survived. They have produced some remarkably outstanding pieces of architecture, and not expensively either. But whether we can draw a firm connection between the quality of the architecture and the quality of the school culture is, by definition, difficult. Architecture is not a measurable science.
It is interesting (and disappointing) that, in all the media publicity given in the last few months to the “Trojan Horse” controversy at Park View School in Alum Rock, I have seen not one mention of its striking architecture. Park View was a BSF project, designed by architects Haworth Tomkins, and completed in 2012. It is not a new building, but a radical transformation of a group of undistinguished old buildings. The architects unified them with attractive larch cladding, and replanned their interior spaces; introducing more daylight, and reshaping the circulation around a redesigned central courtyard. The architecture must have some effect on the culture of the school, but how? It would be useful to know.
This year’s RIBA National Awards, recently announced, include only four schools. One is another Birmingham BSF school, the new Waverley School in Bordesley Green, one of the last BSF schools to escape Gove’s cuts and achieve completion. Significantly, it is the first all-through school in the city, meaning it is designed for teaching children from 4 to 18, with an ultimate capacity of 1,800.
The architects are Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM); a firm founded in 1989 and ranked by the Architects’ Journal as the most successful practice of its generation. The school occupies an extensive site, overlooking allotments, with its entrance opposite Heartlands Hospital. Both the site planning and the architecture are disciplined, if not severe.
Four parallel rectangular blocks, perpendicular to Yardley Green Road, step down the sloping site. They are flat-roofed, and uniformly built with a very dark facing brick. Rectangular windows of various sizes have deep brick reveals, giving an impression of great solidity and heaviness. From the top of the slope, the four blocks house the primary department, the secondary department, the sports hall, and the sixth form centre. They sit in a very child-friendly planted landscape designed by the landscape architects FIRA.
AHMM claim that their architecture is inspired by the local Victorian vernacular. This is difficult to believe, and reminds us we should always be sceptical of what even very good architects say about their own buildings. I suggest a more credible model for Waverley would be early 20th century industrial buildings: regular and serious places for work.
The large total area of floorspace is broken down into “learning clusters”; groups of rooms and facilities, mostly arranged around an open-plan flexible space, and devoted to either a group of students (generic) or an educational discipline (specialist – English, maths, art and so on). This helps to avoid long institutional corridors.
The blocks are fairly narrow, so daylight penetrates well into the interior spaces, and also enters through big rooflights. Some clusters include an external teaching terrace: essentially a classroom without an external wall, where open-air learning can go on. These introduce more daylight into the interior. Many internal surfaces are glazed, and doors between rooms are omitted where they are not needed, leading to a great deal of internal transparency.
However, the architectural design does not attempt to give the clusters individual identities. Internally, the architecture is as uniform and disciplined as it is on the outside. Wall surfaces are white, joinery is black. Occasional flashes of orange – in lockers, in dining tables, in window blinds – are the only exception.
Individual identity is given to places by the large-scale work of the graphic artist Morag Myerscough, which is distributed through the school. She collaborated with students on some of the graphics while the school was being built, and executed much of her designs herself. The results are bold, colourful, and both stimulating and educational.
So what is Waverly School like as an environment to learn in? Walking around with the enthusiastic head, Kamal Hanif, I was very impressed with the quality of spaces and fabric which AHMM have managed to achieve within a very rigorous budget. This is certainly not extravagant architecture, but clever, thoughtful and economic. Its spaciousness and flexibility must surely enable a good quality of learning to take place.
That probably contributes to the school’s Ofsted status as outstanding. But beyond that, could the character of the architecture contribute to the character of the children who occupy it? One can only speculate.
I have used the word “disciplined” a few times in describing the architecture. I would like to think that a disciplined architecture could osmotically contribute to an internal discipline in a growing child.
Anecdotal evidence from the children themselves is perhaps the only way of knowing if this is so.
* Joe Holyoak is a city-based architect and urban designer