Amazing space

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
An inner-city London school's bold decision to host a huge, fragile installation provided creative stimulus for the whole school. Gill Brown reports on making a dream come alive

It looks like a huge plastic marquee gently billowing in the wind, covering the space of two tennis courts and rising two-floors high. "Dreamspace" is an inflatable installation made of thin translucent polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sheets glued together. Inside lies a maze of oval-shaped cells and arches. Sounds drift around as visitors take off their shoes and walk about freely. Sunlight penetrates the multi-coloured plastic creating intense light: blue, yellow, green, red, purple and grey.

Local artist Maurice Agis designed and built this cathedral-like construction at Haggerston School for Girls in Hackney, East London, at the end of last term. It remained in the grounds for four weeks and was visited by almost all the 900 pupils and staff, along with local primary and special schools.

This inner-city school describes itself as "a creative learning community"; last year Creative Partnerships funded an in-service day for staff to brainstorm on working together more imaginatively across the whole curriculum. Out of this grew the idea of an event, something big and challenging. Rachel Ray-Chouduri, head of expressive arts, had been so inspired by one of Maurice's previous Dreamspace installations that she proposed the school commission their own. "It was a piece of magnificent artwork in itself, but I could see how we could use it as a resource for the whole school," she says.

Staff watched a video of Dreamspace. Each department then came up with ideas on how they could benefit from it. The theme "the effect of colour" was adopted, with teachers committed to designing projects. By Christmas, the possibility that Dreamspace could become a catalyst for activities was proposed to Creative Partnerships (CP) by Rachel and Angela Hussey, CP co-ordinator and head of art. The argument for a move away from traditional arts funding was strong. "We are entering an interesting period of change in education," says Steve Moffit, director of CP London East. "This was a chance to bring together the values and principles of creative learning right across the school."

In February Maurice started designing his first installation for a school.

"Creating a structure where students could discover for themselves what to do seemed a unique approach to education," he says. "The space would be in contrast to the school building and I hoped that would be liberating."

However, it was not without problems. Health and safety was a priority as well as protecting the installation once it was in place. "We knew it was a risk," says Angela. "Some people suggested it would get slashed to pieces, but that's often the response to anything special for Hackney. We believed the school would come together behind it."

pound;10,000 had been committed to include all the work. In June a lorry and crane delivered the PVC sections, which Maurice then painstakingly glued together. He was at the school each day, advising and listening as students grew more confident about their relationship with Dreamspace.

Language classes explored colour and shape; Year 10 produced a PVC fashion show inside Dreamspace, and a whole science class spent several lessons analysing the effect of colour on the brain. RE teacher Michael Baldwin was amazed the first time he stepped inside: "It was like a set from Star Trek - unworldly," he says. "I asked students to consider the impact of colour and light on spirituality". Poetry and artwork flourished.

One autistic boy from nearby Horizon School simply went straight to the red space and lay down. Later he drew a picture of himself surrounded by red.

He had a big smile on his face.

This term an exhibition and video have reflected work from every area in school. Many parents have seen both and as one wryly commented: "I wish they did this in my day". As Maddy Till, a Year 9 student at the time, says: "It's quite like a family, because everyone came together to do different projects and will be disappointed when it goes".

There is a real commitment from staff to progress cross-curricular work throught art and creativity and Angela has been discussing their ideas with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and other educationalists.

There are now plans for a similar installation for everyone in Hackney to use. Meanwhile, a new Dreamspace will be installed in Dulwich Park next summer.

* Dreamspace

Haggerston School for Girls

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