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Hampden Gurney CE primary, London borough of Westminster
With space at a premium but demand for school places growing, the 'vertical school' is a solution for the inner city
Tucked in behind the Edgware road, squeezed around the back of the Marriott hotel, Hampden Gurney CE primary rises like a glass mirage, a brightly lit spaceship touched down in the grimy hinterland north of Marble Arch. Built at a cost of pound;6 million, its "six levels of teaching, sport, worship and play" earned architects BDP a nomination for last year's Stirling prize, architecture's most prestigious award.
From the galleried reception area, visitors can look down into the hall or out beyond a glass-walled play area for infants, and watch the red Routemaster buses passing slowly across west London.
The school's 240 pupils moved into their new home in January 2002, but Hampden Gurney has a venerable history. It was founded in the 1700s, in the aftermath of a cholera epidemic, and classes were originally held in a church basement. A subsequent school building was flattened by German bombs during the Second World War and a third incarnation was put up in the resulting crater, four metres below ground level.
By the end of the 20th century, the post-war buildings were impractical and tired. Faced with the conundrum of how to afford a new building, the trustees came to a deal with property developer Jarvis whereby they leased a proportion of the site - prime commercial land in the heart of the Arab quarter of London's West End - in exchange for a new school building. The result redefines playgrounds, with all-weather, covered decks on each floor where children can feel the wind blowing over the 1.9 metre-high glass walls but are sheltered from the rain. Each of the decks is shared by two classes, with the nursery and infant classes having their own.
"It's working very well," says headteacher Evelyn Chua. "It takes two minutes to get children in and out of the classroom and we have fewer incident reports. It's very safe."
Because the decks lead almost directly off the classrooms, teachers can get their pupils outside for a few stretches and jumps at any point in the day.
Play equipment need not be put away. And the soft surface underfoot precludes bruises and grazes.
The building does have a small outdoor playground on the lower ground level, where children can do outdoor PE and team games.
Evelyn Chua is in her sixth year as head at the school, and has fielded much of the opposition provoked by the scheme, which was 12 years in the planning. Opponents believed the children, many of whom live in flats, needed proper outdoor access to ground-level playgrounds. But since the school opened, reactions have been positive. "We saw the option for a different kind of school, providing some play space and equipped with all the 21st-century learning facilities. No one has said, 'You've been foolish'," she says.
The "vertical school" provides more space on a smaller footprint than "ground-level" schools and allows children literally to move up through the building as they grow. But innovative design and futuristic facilities come at a cost. Electricity bills - including the cost of lighting the playdecks - have greatly increased. A plethora of lavatories are maintained by an outside contractor at a cost of pound;700 a month. And drainage and safety have needed extra attention since the building came into use. "I'd advise anyone to be very careful of what they're getting into," says Evelyn Chua.
"Make sure the architects are building you a school you can afford."
Westborough primary school, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex Ingenious, low-tech building made of cardboard. Winner of two awards from the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Ones to watch
Whiteley primary school, Fareham, Hampshire Woodland school also garlanded by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Monkseaton community high, North Tyneside Part of the joinedupdesignforschools project. Is consulting pupils about a new building.