Interview - 'We knew schools had been neglected for years'

13th November 2009 at 00:00
Architect Andy Gollifer has worked on a number of pioneering school sites. He wants his designs to make use of new technologies and be part of the community

What made you choose a career in architecture?

When you are at school, you just don't learn about architecture: you learn about art, history and physics and how materials work, but not how they work together, which is what architecture is.

Buildings are all around us, so why don't we study them? My local town was Liverpool, which is packed with great buildings. It was an instinctive choice.

Where was your first job?

I worked in Oxford in my year out while I was studying at Bristol University, then went to the Royal College of Art for the second stage of my study, run then by Sue Rogers and John Miller. It was a really interesting place to be. It gave me a broad base of other arts and disciplines, and I met my wife, Jessica Quinton, who is a knitwear designer, there.

How did you get involved in designing schools?

We wanted to do work in schools because we knew they had been neglected for years. My partner, Mark, had a lot of experience in this area.

From a design point of view, it is one of the most interesting building types - almost like a village with the hall, dining room and classroom clusters. The dynamics between people and places makes it one of the most interesting places to work and, of course, they form people's lives.

When we got into it, schools were beginning to get access to the things we were interested in: technology, the arts and recording media. We also saw the desire to open up the school to the community, making the architectural problem more sophisticated.

What are you working on now?

We designed Platform 1 at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language College in Islington, north London, a community facility to link the school to the outside world through media studios and public access space.

We also worked on the South Camden Community School redesign, which took five years and was our first major remodelling project. It was featured in the Department for Children, Schools and Families' book Transforming Schools: An inspirational guide to remodelling secondary schools for the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project. It was a model for school transformation.

We also worked on the rebuild of Islington Green School's performing arts facility, where we transformed a very drab 1960s building into a state-of-the-art faculty. We let the light in to a very dark place. Islington Green was an iconic building when it was built in the 1960s, but it had been in long-term decline.

What are your influences?

I was always influenced by Le Corbusier's work, where he guided you through a building; his designs were orchestrated beautifully and more subtle than just signs and corridors.

This has really underpinned a lot of our work. We want buildings to be very clear, their intention welcoming with a route and purpose.

What have you learnt in your work that you would want others to know?

We were commissioned by Camden Council and Islington Council around 2000-01 to do a curriculum analysis and development-planning exercise across about 15 of their schools. That was very formative. We went in to every space. We did pretty much a full, measured survey.

We performed an analysis of the shortfalls, producing simple development plans and a clear picture of what they needed and how it could be provided. That process of getting to grips with such a large amount of school detail gave us a great insight into how to be cost effective in schooling. In short, doing the groundwork and understanding the needs of schools and how they tick produces solutions. You don't just develop ideas from fresh air.

Can you tell us something about your work outside of schools?

In my first practice, Powell Tuck Connor and Orefelt (PTCO), I worked on Metropolis Studios in Chiswick, one of London's major recording studios.

I was part of the team assisting the project architect. PTCO did quite quirky stuff such as Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's World's End shop on the King's Road in Chelsea.

I also worked for Hawkins\Brown architects, where I assisted on one of their big client wins as one of the architects involved in building central London's Crossrail stations.

What is the worst excuse you have come across?

My son, Joe, who is 10, usually blames "brain freeze" for his misdemeanours. That is probably quite accurate, thinking about it. It is hereditary, apparently.

What would you do if you were schools secretary for a day?

I would do two things. As a parent, I would invest in staff and teachers and make schools smaller. As an architect, I would give more trust and support to good design and the architects involved in the Government's BSF projects.


2008-09: Guest lecturer at Liverpool University, the Glasgow School of Art and London South Bank University

1994: Formed Gollifer Associates, now Gollifer Langston Architects

1990-1994: Architect with Hawkins\Brown architects

1987-1989: Architect with Powell Tuck Connor and Orefelt

1983-1986: MA, Royal College of Art

1983-1986: BA (Hons) Architecture, Bristol University.

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