It’s not very often you want to rush up and stroke a school, but it’s hard to resist fondling the sharply chamfered concrete facade of Burntwood school in south London, winner of this year’s Riba Stirling prize for the UK’s best building.
A 1950s timewarp in the best possible sense, the £41m comprehensive girls’ school recalls the values of another, more generous era. With light-flooded classrooms set in a park-like campus, it harks back to the days when schools were full of fresh air and optimism, their buildings invested with care, quality and the power to uplift.
The project beat off competition from a Richard Rogers-designed complex of luxury Thames-side flats and Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, as well as a Peabody social housing project, a Maggie’s cancer care centre and a university building in Greenwich. In a year when picking a winner was a tougher choice than usual, the decision sends out a powerful message about the importance of investing in the design of schools, an issue the Conservative government has pushed aside.
Comprising six new teaching blocks on an existing 1950s campus, Burntwood is the work of the veteran school architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), who have designed eight secondary schools in the past decade, and were Stirling prize-shortlisted for their Westminster Academy in 2008.
It is their finest school yet, but it now stands as a symbol of a bygone age. It was one of the last projects produced by New Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, a £45bn initiative that was axed by the coalition government in 2011, when Michael Gove, then education secretary, accused architects of “creaming off cash”.
He had the wrong target in his sights: the profligacy was in the wasteful procurement process, and Burntwood school is a testament to the power of thoughtful design, the result of a decade of collaboration between AHMM and the contractor Lend Lease. It is one of the most mature projects that BSF produced, in no small part down to having a strong client.
“It’s the first time we had ever heard a headteacher reference Mies van der Rohe,” says architect Paul Monaghan. “The school could really see the value in their existing buildings, which were partly designed by Leslie Martin and his team at the Greater London Council in the late 1950s, so it was our job to develop something that referenced the past while also looking forward.”
The two finest buildings have been retained – an elegant assembly hall and a swimming pool that both have a whiff of Mies – while AHMM have deftly inserted their new classroom blocks either side of a central promenade, covered with a canopy cleverly built from off-the-peg bus stop frames. The construction process, says Monaghan, was like a fiendish game of Sudoku, a process that entailed fitting the new blocks into spaces in between existing buildings so the school could remain functioning throughout the five-year construction period with minimal disturbance. The school has 2,000 pupils and 200 staff.
The classroom blocks themselves are clad with deeply chamfered precast concrete panels, which could have come straight from the drawing board of Marcel Breuer, the Bauhaus designer who built a school with a similarly chamfered facade in Boston in the 1970s. They have a sense of depth and weight rare in modern construction, a welcome change from the usual school dressing of flimsy clip-on panels. It makes a difference: walk through the art classrooms and you’ll see that the changing light playing across the buildings’ hefty sculpted surfaces has already inspired several students’ work.
The classrooms enjoy high ceilings and big windows, while the corridors are punctuated with double- and triple-height breakout spaces, where older students can get on with their work in peace. The whole place has the sense of a university campus, and the grown-up feeling has clearly rubbed off on the pupils.
Morag Myerscough, a graphic artist and long-time AHMM collaborator, has also deployed her multicoloured magic on vibrant tiled entranceways and harlequin murals which thread their way through the building, a bright foil to the architects’ muted palette.
“Burntwood school shows us how superb school design can be at the heart of raising our children’s educational enjoyment and achievement,” said RIBA’s president, Jane Duncan, presenting the award on Thursday night. “With the UK facing a huge shortage of school places, it is vital we learn lessons from Burntwood.”