dRMM’s Clapham Manor Primary extension, London
De Rijke Marsh Morgan’s striking addition to the 19th century Clapham Manor Primary school exemplifies the practice’s love of a technological solution
One of the most striking aspects of de Rijke Marsh Morgan’s south London studio is the abundance of state-of-the-art equipment lying around. Having passed Alex de Rijke’s BMW touring bike on the way in — he also keeps a Ducati track bike at home — one is confronted by the spectacular Le Pavoni espresso dispenser that has recently replaced an even more wondrous, but decidedly temperamental, 1967 model which had been sprayed to the same RAL colour as the orange kitchen floor. De Rijke himself is often to be found working within the immersive embrace of a £200 pair of Sennheiser noise-excluding headphones, his Canon G10 camera perched beside his desk. When we were collaborating on the British Pavilion of last year’s Venice Biennale, I came to appreciate the full extent of dRMM’s technophilia when the practice presented a fully costed proposal to hire a helicopter from which we might photograph all the buildings in the show.
This love affair with the transformative power of technology strongly colours the practice’s designs. From the ETFE roof that enabled the complete internal reorganisation of Kingsdale School to the extraordinary motorised sliding shell that allows its house in Suffolk to adjust to the weather, dRMM has repeatedly sought out the devastating technical solution — the magic bullet, if you like — that might allow it to answer needs ordinarily met in more piecemeal and labour-intensive fashion. While a preoccupation with technical innovation clearly has deep roots in the history of British modernism the contrast between the practice’s work and that of Rogers, Foster and their glassy-eyed progeny is pronounced. As the hi-tech school has grown ever more Heath Robinsonian in its pursuit of structural expression, the best of dRMM’s buildings demonstrate an economy of means that positions the practice much more directly in the lineage of such technological evangelists as Buckminster Fuller and Reyner Banham.
That said, to paint dRMM as quasi-scientific objectivists would be rather wide of the mark. While its engagement with technology may first and foremost be with its performative qualities, the look of the stuff clearly holds a magnetic appeal too. The central visual metaphor that has guided its work has always been the image of a building as a super-scaled piece of equipment. Their projects appear to be not so much built as installed, and where that process involves the violent disruption of the urban sediment, the practice’s relish in the action is never hard to detect.
Its latest scheme is an extension to Clapham Manor Primary, a 19th century board school in south London. The original building is a long brick volume that towers over the surrounding residential fabric, revealing its lofty interiors through a lavish provision of glazing. It is a beautiful structure but if its design had a failing it lay in the perfunctory nature of its entrance sequence. The front door was placed on neither of the two long elevations but on the short, and minimally fenestrated north facade where it gives directly on to the central corridor against which the classrooms are double-loaded. It is to this facade that dRMM’s block has been appended, allowing the entrance to the whole school to be enlarged and given a much increased architectural presence.
The architect initially looked at the possibility of developing a stand-alone building on a site at the far end of the school playground but the opportunity to enhance the main entrance and a desire to keep all activities under one roof ultimately persuaded the school to abandon that idea. Building hard against the school also enabled the removal of an unfortunate sixties extension that incorporated a caretakers flat. However, for all these attractions, the site was by no means a straightforward one, being closely hemmed in by the Clapham Odd Fellows’ Hall, which stands to the immediate north.
The visual metaphor that guides dRMM’s work is the image of a building as a super-scaled piece of equipment
The new building takes the form of two interconnecting volumes. The larger has been set parallel to the blank flanking wall of the Odd Fellows’ Hall — from which it is separated by a narrow alley — while the smaller is set perpendicular to the school, forming a glazed link between the new building and the old. Opposing entrances have been located in both faces of the link, one addressing the pedestrian route that extends along the east of the site and the other, the playground that lies to the west.
The extension nestles just below the valley gutter of the board school but accommodates four storeys where the older building has only three. In consequence, only the top and bottom floors of the two structures correspond. This has necessitated the development of a complex stair arrangement to allow ready access between the buildings at each level. Of the extension’s two stairs, the principal one occupies a concrete core set at the heart of the larger volume. It shuttles back and forth, serving each of the four storeys before opening onto the roof. The second stair reconciles the level difference. It sits within the glazed link, extending only from the extension’s first floor to its second, picking up the first floor of the board school at landing level. These two systems are bound together by wide galleries that extend along the extension’s south elevation on each floor. One’s first impression is that this is a lot of circulation for what is hardly a large building. However, its introduction will now allow the removal of external fire escapes that presently clutter the board school’s north elevation so its internal organisation can be made considerably more efficient.
Given that the extension’s section is so markedly different from that of either of its neighbours, the task of cultivating a contextual relationship to the facades was a significant, perhaps unachievable, one. Certainly, dRMM’s response has been to turn its back on that challenge, conceiving the four facades of the extension’s principal volume as quite autonomous from the scale and indeed materiality of the adjacent elevations. They are effectively presented as one continuous surface, denying any hierarchical distinction between them and almost entirely disguising the configuration of the spaces that they contain.
If we are looking for this project’s magic bullet, it is in the inexorable application of this treatment that we find it. The one level that does admit a clear view of the interior is the fully glazed ground floor. The three floors above have been clad in an aluminium-framed glazing system which breaks each storey into six tightly spaced horizontal bands. The panels that occupy this matrix are of variable length, enabling openings to be established as needed, free from the constraints of a grid. Four basic types have been employed: a fixed panel of clear glazing; a fixed panel of clear glazing to which a ceramic frit has been applied; a fixed insulated panel faced in back-painted glass; and finally the one opening type, which is again faced in back-painted glass.
This variety has been extended by the application of a boisterous polychromy. The painted panels support a spectrum that graduates from terracottas and umbers on the north elevation to piercing greens and blues on the south. These are colours drawn from the immediate environment — the board school’s brick, the trees and grass of the playground, the sky — with the effect that the building’s affiliations appear to shift as one travels around it. That sense of instability is further enforced by the fact that the colours grow successively lighter up the height of each facade. The treatment bears comparison with the principal elevation of dRMM’s 2007 Wansey Street housing in Southwark, which was also conceived as a continuous array of colour. In that case, the spectrum passed from red to yellow, mediating between the tones of the brick buildings which stood to either side.
The project’s magic bullet is in the inexorable application of the facade treatment
The strategy used at Clapham Manor feels a richer proposition than that one-click Photoshop operation and given the building’s function as a gateway to the school, its stridency is more readily justified. And yet, in a building so rich in invention, the use of colour does strike a rather familiar note. Sauerbruch Hutton’s work, notably its Federal Environment Agency in Dessau, suggests itself rather too forcefully as a model. Ultimately, the sense that the approach constitutes a surprisingly voguish solution for such an innovative practice to have adopted is rather hard to shake off.
The dramatic, almost Piranesian quality of the extension’s circulation spaces stands in contrast to the compact planning of its principal accommodation. On each floor this takes the form of an L-shaped range of rooms that wraps around the central core — teaching space on the upper two levels, staff and reception facilities on the floors below. The relationship of the facade treatment to these spaces proves a great success. The presence of windows at different levels fragments the scene outside into a series of snapshots, the windows close to the floor offering a particularly thrilling set of vertiginous views. The fritted glass panels offer a hint of the external colour scheme, while the coloured pinboard that has been fitted to the inside of the opaque panels also restates its broad development.
The classrooms enjoy either a double or triple aspect but the limited size of the openings should ensure that the world outside is not overly distracting to pupils. I must admit that the sight of posters blu-tacked over large expanses of glazing has been an all too common one in many of the schools that I have reviewed for these pages. While dRMM’s building remained unoccupied during my visit I think it is safe to predict that the teachers will feel no such compulsion here.
This is a fine project but one that invites questions about where its architect goes from here. The building offers plenty of evidence that for all the practice’s techno-fetishism, it is also keenly interested in such traditional architectural values as proportion, legible planning and the spatial qualities of an interior. Undoubtedly, however, much of the building’s power results from the shock of its juxtaposition with the surrounding world. In characteristic dRMM fashion, its expression is very much that of a piece of extraordinary apparatus — a top-of-the-range Bose amplifier, perhaps, plugged into the board school’s beat-up barrel organ. While the practice plays that game very well, one is keen to know what it might make of a larger urban project where the requirement is to make the fabric of the city and not simply the remarkable exception to it. On the basis of the quality of this scheme, I look forward to finding out.
Original print headline - Teaching in technicolour
Architect dRMM, Client London Borough of Lambeth, Structural engineer Michael Hadi Associates, Environmental engineer Fulcrum Consulting, QS and CDM Coordinator Appleyard & Trew, Acoustics Fleming & Barron, Contractor The Construction Partnership
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