words Kieran Long
Kingsdale School is a lonely example of how England’s crumbling state schools could be rethought, redesigned and rehabilitated with imagination rather than mediocrity.
The faded modernism of the original building still has peeling paintwork, but at its heart is an enormous new covered space, more forum than atrium. It is the physical manifestation of the new-found effectiveness and pride of a south London school that just a few years ago epitomised the sorry condition of Britain’s state school environments. Just up the road is Dulwich College, one of the country’s top private schools. Suddenly its manicured lawns and over-wheening Victoriana look a little less smug.
Kingsdale School was opened in 1957 at the height of a boom in public sector building. Its architect, Leslie Martin, had designed the Royal Festival Hall just five years earlier, and was the director of the Greater London Council’s architecture department. At that time the GLC’s was the largest architecture office in the world, and it radiated optimism about the potential social effects of the prevailing modernist orthodoxy. However, 40 years later Kingsdale School had become emblematic of the failure of these ideals. By the 1990s it had deteriorated architecturally and academically, and was in “special measures” – a euphemistically titled process designed to save failing schools. Kingsdale decided to shift its curriculum towards more vocational GNVQ qualifications, and to market itself as a centre of lifelong learning – all this to get away from its reputation as a failing comprehensive, and to try to get out of Dulwich College’s shadow.
Architect de Rijke Marsh Morgan came to the project as part of the Department for Education and Skills’ Schoolworks initiative, which aims to build exemplar schools with designers procured through architectural competitions. As an initiative, Schoolworks feels like closing the door after the horse has bolted, with a host of poorly designed, Private Finance Initiative-funded schools already complete, often plumbing new depths of banality. However, the aspirations remain excellent, and Kingsdale’s transformation, achieved through a combination of the school’s tenacity and the architect’s clever manipulation of the budget, stands as a monument to what can be achieved under an enlightened procurement regime. Following the scheme’s success, Kingsdale has secured £9 million worth of extra funding to complete the next phases of the development, including a new sports hall, all by dRMM.
The original building was a disaster. In plan it consisted of a perimeter block of classrooms, with a transverse block housing a dining hall and creating two underused external courtyards. The classrooms were linked by very narrow corridors without windows, which did not function very well as circulation, and provided a haven for bullying and the other types of antisocial behaviour with which the school became increasingly associated. Added to this were the usual problems of modernist public buildings from the period – poor build quality and insulation, exacerbated by inadequate maintenance, had meant that truancy was inevitable, given squalid conditions in toilets and a number of unusable classrooms.
Many options were investigated to convert the original building, including demolition, but in the end it was decided that the school could make dramatic physical changes without spending a disproportionate amount of the budget making good the old building fabric. So now, while the paint still peels on the blue panels of 1960s cladding, the new elements sparkle. The roof bellies out above the plywood-clad auditorium, and a timber lift tower rises like an immaculate campanile against the background of the original building – all symbolic of a new, post-modernist optimism that pervades the school.
Alex de Rijke is generous about Leslie Martin’s compromised vision, and although demolition was considered, it was not just for budget reasons that it was decided to retain most of the existing school. “This project was not about erasure – what kind of message would that have sent?” he says. “The building as we saw it was a kind of unfinished modernist project. It already latently had this heroic space and open plans.” The main two strategies involved removing the transverse block and covering this new, huge space (de Rijke describes it as the biggest internal space of any school in the UK) with a roof, as well as removing the dingy existing corridors and decanting the circulation onto galleried walkways in the new atrium. The atrium is vast, with a tough green resin floor and concrete planters suggesting a resilient and flexible space, mercifully free of the programmatic obsessions of modernist buildings. The ETFE roof above is the largest of its kind in the world – a variable skin of the same material as the Eden Centre that sits within a steel frame on the existing structure. The roof is ingenious, using a double skin that reacts to the brightness of the sun, shielding the courtyard from the harshest of its rays by manipulating the printed patterns, making the ETFE as opaque as necessary.
The courtyard created by the roof is strictly speaking an external space, open to the elements in the sense that the roof sits proud of the existing building. The space is not heated, except by the sun through the semi-transparent roof panels, and through heat gain from the poorly-insulated facades facing it.
One of the best things about de Rijke Marsh Morgan is its sophisticated but unpatronising style. The building feels beautifully poised between a very contemporary aesthetic and a material identity that is not alienating. It also shows an immense amount of respect for the students. The plywood panels cladding the auditorium, for example, are not protected and do not stop at easy-to-reach places. They continue down to the ground, confident that they will not be vandalised. The project refuses to file away all the potentially difficult corners for the sake of saving finishes – there is no plastic coving to stop the paintwork chipping. The classrooms themselves are enlarged and simply painted, often in bright colours, but it is the spaces that punctuate the former corridor racetrack that remind you of the architect’s touch with limited resources. There is something very spatial, even urban, about the experience of walking around the corridors leading to classrooms and offices. While the section hasn’t changed much, the tweaks to the plan mean that corridors terminate in relaxed, open spaces, well surveilled by surrounding offices.
The roof is clearly the main intervention, and it is exuberantly and beautifully done. De Rijke describes himself as being the partner most interested in structure and building, and his partner Philip Marsh as the one who does form (Marsh is responsible for the auditorium’s final distorted geodesic configuration). De Rijke’s excitement is palpable when he describes the strategy of the roof. It is deliberately a discrete structure, not intended to be particularly contextual. The points where the structure lands on the old building do not line up with the bays of the Martin building (although the structure of the walkways does), and its form is dictated only by an acknowledgement of the auditorium pod, at which point the roof rises to create its distinctive sectional profile. This mound is not really legible from inside the atrium, but the changes in the truss structure create a parabolic trompe l’oeil effect. Despite the high technology of the roof, its effect is reminiscent of artistic works contemporary with the original building – the structure is like Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure (put on the side of John Lewis on Oxford Street in 1962) on steroids, and de Rijke admits referring to Bridget Riley to characterise the patterns printed on the ETFE.
The one question about this space is an acoustic one. On my visit, the school’s steel band was playing arrangements of bad boy rapper 50 Cent’s records at maximum volume, which made it very difficult to hear much else. What the noise levels will be like during a rowdy breaktime is anyone’s guess. But I’d wager that the rooms looking out on the space will not be the most serene.
There is something about the distended geodesic geometry of the triangle-clad auditorium and its blond timber cladding that also feels like a piece of Sixties design, but with something gone wrong with the rational language of modernist decoration. The auditorium’s interior is an absolute delight. The geometry of the room is established first by the grid of triangles, but then subverted brilliantly by Atelier van Lieshout’s intervention. When de Rijke first asked Joep van Lieshout to be involved in the project, with a brief to make “useful furniture”, he asked immediately to do the air conditioning, and came up with a huge, mild-steel air extract, off centre and cantilevered far out into the space. This rusting piece of junk metal is fabulous, like an exploded car exhaust, rusting and hanging precariously above the pristine surfaces below. It completes and subverts the spatial effect, which otherwise is what de Rijke describes as “an essay in plywood.” The space behind and underneath the raked seating of the auditorium will become the library, and is perhaps the least satisfying space in the project. Although it is ingenious and economic, and cleverly uses the lower level of the original transverse building that stood here, it feels a little like the poor cousin of Koolhaas’ Kunsthal café in Rotterdam, with none of the openness. The views from the slightly higher level of the atrium floor are great, though.
There is little doubt that this is the most important school building completed in Britain in a very long time. However, the comparison with the original building is marked. When Leslie Martin built Kingsdale, it was part of a huge explosion in architect-designed school building. DRMM’s project has some of the same social optimism that characterised Fifties architecture, and is a wonderful two fingers up at the aloof Dulwich College. One feels, though, that dRMM’s school will remain a beautiful, glorious exception to the general rule of school buildings. In the context of their career, it is a hugely important project, and will be the UK’s most talked about internal public space since the Great Court of the British Museum. And it’s better than that.