The school making a concrete investment in young people

9th October 2015 at 00:00
Secondary waits to hear if it has won this year’s Stirling Prize

The official line is that Burntwood School affords a great sense of arrival, with an “immediate impression of quality, openness, confidence and solidity”.

What that means in lay terms is that there are some glass walls, bits of retro concrete and lots of windows.

It also means that the South London girls’ secondary has been named one of the best-designed buildings of the year by the judges of Britain’s most prestigious architecture prize. The school is among six buildings shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize.

It is competing against two university buildings, a 13-home development in East London, a glass-fronted cancer-care centre in Lanarkshire and luxury housing towers on London’s South Bank. The winner will be announced on Thursday.

Helen Dorfman, the school’s principal, worked with architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris to develop the shortlisted building: a geometric concrete design.

The aim was to minimise the distinction between indoors and outdoors. The restaurant (that is “restaurant”, rather than “dining room”) is specifically designed so that pupils can easily take their food outside. Indoors, ceilings are high and corridors spacious, and there are large windows throughout.

“Wherever you are inside the building, you can see outside,” Ms Dorfman says. “You’re always locating yourself. You always know where you are in the building, in relation to outside.”

Each classroom and staff workroom has a glass wall, looking on to the corridor. The architects took this approach in response to Ms Dorfman’s call for transparency and light.

“People weren’t sure about that initially,” she says of the glass walls. “They wondered if what was going on in the corridor would intrude into the classroom. But, actually, it gives a sense of community. It means that passive supervision of what’s going on in the classroom is much easier.”

Burntwood, in the inner London borough of Wandsworth, serves a deprived catchment area. “Quite a lot of our young people don’t necessarily have access to a garden,” Ms Dorfman says. “Being able to use generous outside spaces that are safe is a really important thing.”

The school boasts a swimming pool and sports facilities, as well as music rehearsal and performance spaces.

Ms Dorfman has been involved in the plans since 2003, when she was appointed with the brief to secure investment to update the school’s 50-year-old premises. “We wanted the buildings to be modern and current,” she says. “But we wanted them to reference the past.”

Pupils were also consulted about the plans. “The two things they were most interested in were the toilets and the library,” Ms Dorfman says. “They’re both important.”

Builders ‘worked around us’

Noisy building work, such as piling and demolition, took place over the summer. But the works were not confined to the holidays: construction happened alongside lessons and Ms Dorfman had daily meetings with the contractors.

Paul Monaghan, the lead architect, says this was the most challenging part of the project. “We had to design the construction process,” he says. “Basically, the construction took five years. You don’t want your daughter’s education to be disrupted for five years because of building work.”

Of course, as with any such major project, there were moments of stress. “There were some tensions along the way,” Ms Dorfman says. “Because of budget constraints, that’s bound to happen. But, on the whole, it was very much a team effort. We all worked alongside one another. Over particular times like exams, when we needed quiet, they worked around us.”

The project was one of the last funded by the now-defunct Building Schools for the Future programme. “How do we have a bold building, in a world where the government is trying to cancel any exuberance in building?” Mr Monaghan says. “It’s actually quite a simple building, with some elements of customisation, elements of beauty, but all affordable. Why shouldn’t we be building this for every student in this country?”

This is echoed by Ms Dorfman. “It’s a cliché, but young people are our future and we need to invest in them,” she says.

“This is a concrete” – she pauses to acknowledge the pun – “demonstration that we value them.”

Other Stirling Prize schools

Hampden Gurney Church of England Primary School Shortlisted in 2002, this West London school has open-air play decks in place of a playground, as well as residential apartments.

Business Academy Bexley Designed by Lord Foster, this all-through school in West London was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2004.

Westminster Academy Shortlisted in 2008, this central London school was designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, the architects behind Burntwood School. It features green and yellow horizontal bands of terracotta tiles.

Clapham Manor Primary Behind a yellow, blue and white facade in South London, the new wing of this Victorian board school houses classrooms, performance spaces and staff facilities. Shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2010.

Evelyn Grace Academy This £37.5 million secondary in South London beat the Olympic velodrome to win the 2011 Stirling Prize for architect Zaha Hadid.

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