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Light, airs and graces

Architects are putting dingy colleges in the shade. Steve Hook reports

Shafts of light, panoramic views, and bold structures honed from glass and steel provide the environment in which lecturers can expect to work in future.

The crumbling utilitarian 1960s and 1970s blocks associated with Tom Sharpe's hapless hero Henry Wilt are being left behind as architects are let loose on colleges.

The Further Education Design Excellence Awards have shown that colleges are prepared to embrace the creativity of architects for a revolutionary approach to improving the way they appear to the outside world.

Those modest and discreet college entrance areas - which typically bring the visitor skulking into the building somewhere near the principal's office - are being replaced with big, proud spaces worthy of a modern airport.

The awards are organised by the Learning and Skills Council and the Royal Institute of British Architects. The projects they represent - in what used to be known as bricks and mortar - is the vision of Mark Haysom, LSC chief executive, of an environment where staff and students feel motivated.

Since his appointment as head of the quango, he has been outspoken about his shock at the state of some of the buildings in which teaching takes place.

At the time, he told FE Focus: "I believe passionately that, when you walk through the door of a place of learning, you should feel proud, uplifted and motivated. On visiting those colleges, far from feeling uplifted, it was difficult to stop my heart from sinking." The LSC has approved pound;1 billion in grants over the past four years to support 524 building projects in English colleges. With other funding sources included, these are worth more than Pounds 3bn.

The winning project, the work of John Walker Simpson Architects, is the North Manchester sixth form college and North City public library, commissioned by Manchester College of arts and technology. It features a glass-fronted entrance to the street, with visitors finding themselves in a large public area which is designed to feel connected to the urban surroundings. It is an approach which is increasingly being used around the country.

FE has long prided itself on being connected to the world which surrounds it - being bigger in its local communities than schools and universities could ever claim to be. The competition has shown architects are finding ways of expressing the open-campus ideology of FE and its sense of connection with the community in physical form.

Mr Walker said: "What we wanted to do was to ensure that people felt engaged and reconnected back to the city. In that regard, we created a large picture window facing south, looking back towards the city skyline."

This, the first awards scheme, was open to any building which had been created within the past two years. Judges looked for environmental efficiency and innovative use of materials and space. A shortlist of six was drawn up from 20 entries. The runner-up prize went to architecture firm Pick Everard, which was behind the new Stephenson College building in Coalville, Leicestershire, that makes a feature of interconnecting public spaces between the teaching areas and of a large glass-frontage, leaning outwards.

Mike Pole, of Pick Everard, said: "We've designed a stimulating and innovative learning environment, and an efficient building specifically designed for its purpose, in a landscape setting that reflects the forward thinking and dynamic nature of the institution.

"The college is to be commended for its bold and coherent vision. We are delighted to bring it to life." A third project, singled out for special merit, was the art and design building of South Trafford College, created by John McAslan and Partners.

Judges were impressed by the way in which the design makes the most of natural daylight.

Chris Banks, chairman of the LSC, said: "Anyone who teaches will tell you that their students will be more responsive, attentive and enthusiastic in a bright, airy and stimulating classroom. This award recognises some of the best new buildings that are providing this kind of environment."

More projects shortlisted were at Newcastle Performance Academy, South East Essex College and New College Durham.

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