This article was originally published in Domus 970/ June 2013
Characterful, jazzy and carefully judged in relation to both the existing school and its green belt setting, Hayhurst and Co.’s new extension to The Hayes Primary School in a leafy Croydon suburb stands as a clear, on-budget and timely riposte to our new era of utility-chic, lowest common denominator education policy.
“Uniformity of block height”. “Orthogonal forms”. “Fair faced concrete soffits”. “No curves”. “Minimal indents”. While these might sound like extracts from some long-lost functionalist manifesto, they are actually quotes from the uk Government’s new school design guidance, a response to the perceived decadence of New Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (bsf) programme, which was enthusiastically halted by Education Secretary Michael Gove last year.
This new guidance arose from recommendations authored by a specialist in shed-based retail, and have been accompanied by much austerity-chic rhetoric that equates design with wasted money and argues vacuously that good school buildings don’t contribute to academic achievement.
Conveniently, building contractors like Willmott Dixon have started to roll out new, ruthlessly value-engineered turnkey schools which appear to offer a perfect one-size-fits-all solution to local councils under pressure to provide new school places fast and cheap. Tomorrow’s schools will certainly be fast and cheap in the short term. They will also all be built by the same company and will have the spatial quality of an out-of-town retail shed.
Their relationship to site will be limited to a thin planningfriendly sheath of local-esque materials. Their boundaries will be whatever scraps of land are left over by the standardised footprint.
And their relationship to a particular school community will consist of little more than allowing children to choose an animal picture to adorn their classroom door. “You can plan your school sitting in front of the tv on a Thursday night,” a spokesman for these new schools suggests. Apparently Nick Hayhurst and his team were not watching telly while they designed The Hayes Primary; their intervention at the school has arisen out of a close analysis of the existing condition and has led to a remarkable revival.
The original 1950s school was a homely, mildly Scandinavian collection of brick boxes, set back from the winding Hayes Lane and protecting a steeply sloping playing field to the rear of the site. Later rear extensions to accommodate growing student numbers damaged the building’s clarity and ability to expand, as did an earlier feasibility study which proposed a new classroom block on top of the playground. Instead, Hayhurst proposed that
the school should expand forward, thereby making the most of its underused front lawn and effectively replacing its highly reticent front elevation with the impression of a brand-new school.
The new classrooms face the main road and wrap around the original school, turning its C-shape into a satisfying “O” with a central courtyard. The new classrooms are themselves wrapped by a beautifully contradictory formal gesture: a two-storey perforated stainless steel screen set at a height where it justn blocks views of the original building, and highly polished so that it reflects the sky and surrounding trees.
Through this device the building manages to appear both self-confident and reticent at the same time, a smoke-and-mirrors act that led to some interesting planning conversations and a series of 1:1 mock-ups installed on site to prove that the partial disappearing act would actually work.
Given the surrounding area, which combines winding pastoral lanes with brick modernist villas and a wartime airfield, the solution is weirdly contextual, and it can also be seen as a witty engagement with the contemporary planning system—a gregarious piece of contemporary architecture that’s barely there; Mark Wallinger’s Time and Relative Dimensions in Space repurposed to appeal to a planning subcommittee.
Internally, the new building also works cleverly with found conditions.
The original school featured a central circulation corridor which, much wider than any space standards would specify, had evolved over time to accommodate library shelves, storage and informal teaching spaces. Hayhurst’s extension
takes this arrangement and applies it to the new circulation spaces. Just like the original, these feel like rooms rather than corridors, and storage has been rationalised into a thick storage spine wall made out of reassuringly chunky cross-laminated timber (CLT).
Behind this are the classrooms, clustered in pairs and accessed via oversized doors which allow lessons to expand into the corridor if required. With their vivid green carpets and the feature wall of sandy-coloured clt, the classroom interiors are a little Super Mario World, though this is softened by the
white-painted rendered walls and by the outward-facing glazed elevations, which offer each classroom its own door onto an open space around the perimeter of the building.
This direct relationship with the outside world feels like something from a bygone era, and offers teachers a refreshing amount of autonomy in managing their classes. One teacher noted that the emerald-green blinds fitted to her classroom windows allow her to watch parents gathering at the end of the day while preventing them from peering in and disturbing things.
The new school achieves a number of particularly clever moments in relation to the original building. One is the simple series of folding panels that open up the existing school hall to its corridor; these dramatically increase the hall’s sense of space in recognition of the fact that the school couldn’t afford a bigger hall as part of the project. Another is the small triangular access ramp and viewing deck added to the 1970s swimming pool
block. A tiny new space between two mediocre extensions, it turns a necessary piece of access design into an unexpected moment of joy.
The school has put up notices remindingm students that the landscaped room is not a playground, which the architects should take as a compliment. The new Hayes is a cost-effective building that learns from idealistic school programmes of the past.
The CLT and deep window reveals give the impression of a solid and durable structure that can take some wear and tear, just like a London Board school of the 1870s. And its prefabricated components work cleverly and opportunistically with the shape and limitations of the site, just like the best of the clasp and scola schools of the 1950s, and exactly unlike the turnkey corporate solutions currently favoured by the uk Government.
Where Govine rhetoric sees design as the cause of needless curviness and extravagance, at The Hayes Primary design has maximised the potential of a difficult site, economically revitalised existing spaces, and given the school a fresh new street frontage, all through a project amounting to four new
classrooms. A humble but extremely ambitious project, the new Hayes reaffirms that design can offer a little bit more to society than shapely curves and a hefty price tag, at a time when this message urgently needs to be heard in the uk’s public sector. David Knight (@knight_david), designer and author