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Design fix for school decay

Pupils have teamed up with a top designer to pep up their premises, reports Adi Bloom

Designer Thomas Heatherwick does not believe that school premises should be too attractive. "A school does not need to be beautiful in every way," he said. "If a school is too immaculate, it can be paralysing. It's motivating when things need work."

Mr Heatherwick, whose recently unveiled work, B of the Bang in Manchester, is the tallest sculpture in Britain, has just completed plans to redesign the entrance for Camden school for girls in north London.

He waived his usual fee to work free of charge for the north London comprehensive, consulting 13-year-old pupils as he drew up his designs. The commission was part of a project organised by the Sorrell Foundation charity.

More than 50 architects and designers, including Paul Smith, the fashion designer, Will Alsop, the architect, and Mr Heatherwick, teamed up with pupils around Britain to improve their school environment.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, the quality of ingredients used was low," Mr Heatherwick said. "Many schools were built on a shoestring, and there isn't money to maintain them. A staid, fixed school environment, that has not changed in 20 years except slowly to decay, does not encourage progress."

Pupils dismissed as patronising his initial proposal to cover the school entrance with their artwork. But Mr Heatherwick believes that it is from such failures that design students learn best.

"It's important for them to see that there isn't a genius who comes in and says, here's my masterstroke. There is a genuine, shared design process.

"You come up with some terrible ideas, but our job is to spot them, chuck them away, and realise why they were wrong."

Similarly, when a seven-foot metal spike fell from B of the Bang, outside the new Manchester stadium, he hoped that pupils were taking note. "Every project has teething issues. If you are being ambitious, you have to timetable for the unknown. People need to know that it is not a failure if things don't go according to plan."

Mr Heatherwick's team of designers and architects completed the design for the new school entrance earlier this year. Pupils must now work out how to raise the pound;400,000 necessary to realise the plans.

"Pupils should be involved in construction of a new art or sports block," he said. "If they have passion for what they do, I hope that will inspire them."

Tessa Montague, 15, was among the pupils who worked with Mr Heatherwick.

"Usually, it's the teacher who tells you what to do," she said. "So it's quite a difference being in charge of a prestigious designer. But we are more honest than adults. We're not polite, and we tell him if we don't like something.

"But you can never learn everything from doing it all right. The process of trial and improvement helps you work out what you need."


The designers' work with schools will be on display at the VA museum in London, from February 21 to March 18. An accompanying book, Joinedupdesignforschools, is published by Merrell, price pound;29.95.

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