Raising the roof

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Mention architecture and most of us will probably think of Prince Charles and his "monstrous carbuncles" or of huge buildings designed by people with names like Foster and Rogers. Architecture, to the general public, is something grand and lofty, an art form which has little or nothing to do with their everyday lives.

These are some of the misconceptions that the first National Architecture Week is seeking to correct. Organised by the Arts Council of England and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), it began yesterday and promises more than 120 events nationwide involving more than 700 architects. The idea is to draw people into the processes of architecture and demonstrate that it is a profession concerned as much with their homes and schools as with controversial public monuments.

The mystique that has shrouded architecture dates from the 19th century when architects first created RIBA in a deliberate attempt to separate themselves from builders. But the Victorian model, Chris Palmer at RIBA admits, is badly out of date: "Rather than being holders of knowledge, architects now should be providers of knowledge. We want to break down the barriers between the public and the profession. People need to understand the importance of architecture as a way of understanding their environment: it is their history, their future and their present. "

Many of us lap up the architecture when we visit a foreign city yet barely give a second glance to the buildings in our home towns. We also tend to assume that architecture means simply the outside of a building. To an architect, a good building is not just handsome but in tune with its environment, a structure where people can live or work successfully.

Architecture Week gives us a chance to see architects at work in their offices or talking about their practice in bookshops. And for #163;10 (to be donated to Shelter), members of the public can even invite an architect into their own home to discuss ways of improving it. There will be conferences and exhibitions, and special events for children including a treasure trail in Brighton to hunt for the city's architectural gems and a hands-on day at Plymouth's Building Experiences Trust.

Mark Fisher, arts minister, will address a conference in Oxford, emphasising the importance the Government lays on design and fitness for purpose in new buildings. Schools are very much to be included in this. Gone are the days when the look of the building was as nothing beside the quality of what was taught in it. "Because the Prime Minister puts education at the top of our agenda, it is vital we have school buildings which symbolise the importance of education, which express our pride in it and which are a pleasure to work in for children and teachers," says Fisher.

In the 1950s and 1960s, system-building by the Second Consortium of Local Authorities (SCOLA) resulted in numerous identical, kit-built schools set in sterile environments. System-building has long been discredited but the architectural flaws of SCOLA schools - high maintenance costs, leaking flat roofs and a tendency to overheat in summer and freeze in winter - are still with us.

In the 1980s Hampshire County Council became a leading exponent of a new, individualistic approach to school building under its county architect, Sir Colin Standfield Smith. As each new school in the county was built, great attention was paid to the nature of the site, the needs of the users and the surrounding community, and to making each building efficient to run and a pleasure to be inside.

"To be in a beautiful environment, I believe, has a very positive effect on children," says Sir Colin who will give a public lecture at Edinburgh University on Thursday to coincide with Learning Curves, an exhibition on school design.

Hampshire remains a model to which local authorities and central government should aspire, stresses Fisher. The Private Finance Initiative (PFI), a partnership between private and public sectors, may provide a means of funding new building, and recent PFI guidelines emphasise that investing in good design delivers not only educational value but also value for money in terms of reduced lifetime costs and lower energy bills.

One such building is the Jersey College for Girls Preparatory School, a fee-paying school partly supported by the States of Jersey. A fine example of modern school design at its most imaginative and efficient, it won a 1997 RIBA Award for Architecture and will be open to the public tomorrow and Sunday. Funded by the States of Jersey and designed by Architecture plb, a Hampshire-based firm specialising in schools, the building is on a sloping site, taking full advantage of views to the south.A curved granite wall - picking up the pink granite of the area - protects the school from easterly winds and creates a sheltered courtyard.

For five- to seven-year-olds, each year group comprises a cluster of three classrooms, sharing a resource area and open-air terrace. Reception-age children have their own playground, and each year group enters the school by their own door, adding to the younger children's feeling of security and making it easier for parents to collect them.

The openness of the building, says headteacher Delia Hardiman, "provides a very calm working atmosphere". She is particularly delighted with the large and flexible library area. The only teething problem has been that teachers unaccustomed to working in smaller classrooms with shared resource areas hanker after the larger, self-contained classrooms of more traditional school buildings. But the design works well for the children, says Andrew Mallet, assistant director (resources) for the States of Jersey, because it allows an ebb and flow between classrooms. "What we wanted was a compromise between the single room and a completely open plan design," he says.

For the majority of existing schools, however, good modern design must seem an unthinkable luxury. Perhaps a useful extension or a converted lab is the best they can hope for, while many are fighting a losing battle against leaks, cracks and worse. Fisher acknowledges that the huge backlog of school repairs runs to billions of pounds, and the Government's #163;1.3 billion of "New Deal" money can make no more than a start.

In the meantime, what are children learning about architecture? A building programme going on at their school can be an excellent opportunity for pupils to gain some insights, but all too often the work itself represents such great disruption that schools cannot take advantage of its educational possibilities. Added to this, many teachers are daunted by the "mystique" of architecture and lack the confidence to introduce it in class.

Yet children are natural architects from a young age. One of the first things they want to do is build towers from bricks - and then knock them down. Model-making and designing continue to fascinate many throughout their schooling, and history, maths, physics, art and design are all curriculum subjects where architecture has an obvious application.

Chris Palmer at RIBA wants to see children visit new building developments whenever possible and talk to architects, designers and contractors. He believes there is scope for "architects in residence" at schools, especially when building work is going on. Teachers, too, need more knowledge of the subject, and the Arts Council is currently developing architecture models for teacher training.

Architecture in Education (ArchEd) has for the last seven years been introducing architecture to schools, working with teachers to dovetail the subject into the curriculum. In its latest project, children in Milton Keynes are developing ideas for improving the town's central Midsummer Boulevard. The results can be seen in a current exhibition in Milton Keynes Central Library.

Twelve- and 13-year-olds are working on plans for an "aqua park" and a horse and carriage system to replace cars in the boulevard; special school pupils want a piazza for buskers and street performers; and seven-year-olds are designing a series of Roman-style mosaics. "It's fabulous working with children because they have an incredibly clear view of what is needed," says Ian Horton at ArchEd. "It's a natural process to them, and they enjoy it because it's something they are creating. "

For more information about Architecture Week tel 0171-490 5969 or fax 0171-490 5757. ArchEd can be contacted on 01273 603343

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