Down with the barbed wire and barricades

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Next Wednesday sees the launch of the Glasgow, UK City of Architecture and Design 1999. Gillian Macdonald reports on a design project to improve a primary school in Glasgow 's east end

Ah've a feelin' it's sports day. It wis supposed to be Friday, but it wis tha' wet . . . A' fancy - changed days, isn't it?" The old woman with the leg that kept her up all night was sitting on her council flat balcony, talking to her friend in the street below.

Across the road to the left is St Jude's Primary, its steel fence draped with brightly painted banners of children holding hands the length of the school yard. Straight ahead, across the communal green, is a block of derelict flats, with barricaded ground and first floors. To the right, are a couple of sealed Portakabins, once the public library. This is Barlanark, in the east end of Glasgow.

Approach the school, built in the 1950s, and the first things that catch your eye are the mesh grilles over every window, the lethal-looking barbed wire around the roof, the grey boiler and the bins in the strip of car park that serves as the entrance. To the visitor, it's an unwelcoming sight. To the 191 children who come here from the age of four or five, it's "frightening", "like Barlinnie".

These aspects are what the pupils would most like to change. Their views have been recorded by one of the many arts projects being run in the two-year lead-up to Glasgow '99, the Year of Architecture, by education officer Stuart MacDonald.

And for once, the children's views are being heeded. The project - to build a safe environment - has been given Pounds 18,000 by Glasgow '99 and just been awarded Pounds 32,500 by the Scottish Arts Council in the first round of national lottery "New Directions" money for schools.

The idea for the project sprang from an article in Glasgow's Evening Times last year, which revealed that the city was seeking projects for the Year of Architecture. One of the mothers, Sandra Carr, who chairs St Jude's board, approached headteacher Agnes Burns, and they wrote to their local councillor to see if the school could be considered.

Since then they have received a lot of political support and benefits in kind from Glasgow '99, with free workshops on traditional street games run by parks and recreation officer Brian Sutherland, and loaned play equipment such as "peeries and tops" (whips and tops), "girds and cleeks" (Victorian hoops) and "diablos" (large bobbins that balance on ropes). "We're creating a safe area," he says. "Our motto is 'Play safe, play fair, no one hurt'."

During the past year, four architects - two of them landscape architects - have been working with the school for a nominal fee. In May they ran an in-service workshop for all the staff; they were concerned about the state of the building and wanted windows that would open and shut, and better toilets. But the grants were not enough to carry out the work, so they were allocated to arts initiatives.

Every class has been involved in the project. P1 has produced a montage with pictures of items like football nets that could be introduced in to the environment. P2 came up with the idea of an outdoor classroom. Together they created a "wish tree", decorating the one tree in the car park with birds made of plastic bottles, with labels attached to them. "I wish there was a paddling pool in the playground," reads one. "I wish there was a big swing in the classroom," reads another. Even "I wish for harder sums".

P3 and P4 wrapped the school fence with banners of paintings of themselves holding hands in front of St Jude's. P5 and P6 did a map project on their route to school, photographing their homes or any landmarks important to them and sticking them on to a large architectural plan of the area.

And P7 built three cardboard models of the school building - past, present and future - which will be buried in a time capsule. They depicted the present-day building as a rectangular shape with a cage encircling it, and the futuristic model as a cage-less dome with a football pitch and tree inside, for when it rains, as well as a bike shed.

The architects on the project have been trying to raise donations from the business world, but, in a district like Barlanark, this is a difficult task. Companies such as Safeway and Marks and Spencer were not interested - they don't have any stores in the area. And local companies, in an area of 50 per cent unemployment, are few and far between. But they did receive Pounds 150-worth of modelling materials from Sainsbury, around 60 throwaway cameras from Boots, and banners from a marquee manufacturer.

The good news is that not only is the project changing people's attitudes - making them open up the school to the community instead of closing it in - but it is actually going somewhere. The ultimate goal is to pull down the barbed wire and barricades, and give the children access to the football pitch, the grass and the hill on the other side of the school.

The first stage, says architect Asha Narbutt, will be to build an outdoor classroom, which the children have designed, based on an ostrich egg, bones, feathers and other organic shapes, with a rubber safety surface and concrete shapes for sitting down. "That is practicable and buildable," she says. "We would like to have something built by 1999."

The next stage, says landscape arch-itect Felicity Steers, would be the entrance. "We would like to take the cars away, so the children are not coming through the car park past the boiler. And the foyer inside the school could be much brighter."

She says: "Adults look at the building and classrooms as the school. Children see the outside as more important. They like to make it their own territory. "

What's in it for the architects? For Felicity Steers, it has been a "refreshing experience. People are so dismissive of children. But their enthusiasm is great, they're so good at what they're doing. You don't have to push them - they take charge."

For her colleague Richard East, who helped design the area around the Big Onion sculpture in nearby Easterhouse, it is a "better handle on how people relate to sites. My clients are not necessarily the district council or local enterprise councils, but the people who use the sites. Next time I might involve more people - say a school."

A conference on "Our Futures by Design" will be held at the Glasgow School of Art, July 10-15, with an exhibition of other Glasgow '99 education projects at the Tramway, Glasgow, on Sunday July 13. For further information, tel: 0141 248 6994

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