East’s Sussex Road Primary School in Tonbridge, Kent
Architectural practice East’s commitment to working with a location’s found conditions proved particularly apt when the brief for an extension to Sussex Road Primary School in Tonbridge unexpectedly grew in size
East is an architectural firm and some other things besides. In fact, over the 14 years it has been operating, the construction of buildings has occupied a relatively small part of its workload. Its preferred mode of practice is one that straddles architecture, landscape design, urbanism and academia — a position that, in this country at least, it shares with few others. As its name acknowledges, much of its work has focused on London’s eastern reaches. Through masterplans and public realm proposals for such rapidly transforming communities as Charlton, Woolwich, Barking and Rainham, the practice has set out an approach that might fruitfully steer the development of the Thames Gateway as a whole.
Central to that position is a commitment to building on the found conditions of each place. East’s website features a cautionary image of John Prescott, surveying this land of opportunity by helicopter and its own work can be read as a sustained critique of the assumptions engendered by such a world-view. Invariably the practice eschews the application of abstract schema in favour of strategies that respond to the micro-geography and social complexity that it encounters on the ground. By honouring such local observations, its work takes on the quality of a patchwork — a vibrant, democratic field in which spaces and objects of often dramatically varying size and programme are bound together.
How might such an approach translate to the scale of a building? In the past few years we have begun to find out as the practice has expanded its interests to encompass the field of education. Having undertaken a couple of modest nursery school projects in north London, it has recently realised its most substantial building to date in the form of a £1.4 million extension to Sussex Road Primary School in Tonbridge, Kent.
The practice owes its involvement with the school to a scheme set up by the Sorrell Foundation with the aim of engaging pupils in the design process. East’s initial brief was a modest one — to reconfigure the school’s cramped entrance. The original 1904 building is a handsome, high-windowed brick structure which lies at the end of an otherwise residential cul de sac. Its entrance is set at the furthest end of the principal facade but was obscured from the street by a bungalow-sized administration wing added in the sixties. East developed a proposal to replace this dowdy accretion with a more emphatic feature — a two-storey gatehouse-like building. The project’s key move was to shunt the headmaster’s office from the ground floor to the first. This offered a number of dividends: the headmaster would now enjoy an elevated prospect of the playground; at ground level, a new front door could be introduced which directly addressed the street and would give onto a more generously proportioned lobby; and finally, a small roof terrace could offer a location for occasional outdoor teaching. The whole structure would be constructed in engineered timber, subtly decorated with images — bees, oak-leaves, and acorns — drawn from its immediate setting. These would be applied to the larch cladding by branding, a task that would be entrusted to the pupils.
The school was hugely enthusiastic about the proposal and with the Sorrell Foundation’s help secured funds from the DCSF to build it. However, in the course of the design process, it came to recognise that it could set its ambitions higher. It managed to source funds from Kent County Council that would allow it to replace a group of dilapidated portacabins with a much larger extension. The local authority demanded a competition be held for this work, for which East and a number of local practices were shortlisted. Given that the new work would actually abut the still unbuilt tower, the competitors might well have wished to redesign it in response to the expanded brief. However, the school stipulated that this was a fixed quantity that they would have to integrate into their proposals, essentially unaltered. Thankfully, out of this convoluted process East managed to secure not only a competition win but a scheme that betrays little clue as to its piecemeal development.
In contrast to the figurative quality of its timber neighbour, the form of the classroom block is profoundly unsettled. Its three principal facades each strike their own course in plan — regardless of the orthogonal geometry established by the host building — and rise to a roofline that flexes restlessly from one to the next. The block adjoins the school’s north elevation and extends to within a couple of metres of the site boundary, a bosky stream, beyond which the playing fields of a neighbouring secondary school can be seen. The three elevations are thus very largely experienced in isolation from one another — an autonomy that East has dramatised by radically varying their treatment.
The one facing the stream is in black stained timber boarding and buckles in plan to accommodate an intimately scaled play area. A recessed balcony and large white-painted Velfac windows conjure a domestic and rather Scandinavian character — we could perhaps be looking at the garden frontage of a Ralph Erskine villa from the sixties. By contrast, the elevations facing the playground and the one addressing the street that closes the back of the site are both faced in clay tiles, its colour relating to the brick of the original building. And yet, aside from their common material, these facades are markedly dissimilar. The playground elevation presents a clear distinction between the wall surface and the zinc roof that lies behind. On the other, these conditions are more embroiled. Here, the clay tiles are carried part-way up on to a large expanse of steeply pitching roof, the upper surface of which reverts to zinc. The transition between the two materials is made on a wayward diagonal. This gesture moderates the roof’s scale but also further complicates our sense of the building’s volume. While the interdependent relationship of wall and roof lends the building a powerful sense of sculptural unity, the freedom with which the cladding materials have been deployed subverts that reading.
The analogy that perhaps come closest to describing the overall appearance is that of a patchwork tent — an image that carries a strong association with the qualities of East’s urban projects. If that description makes the handling sound capriciously decorative, the effect is otherwise. Each material may be a cladding but it is also a lining to an external space and, of the two, it is this function that is privileged. The band of playspace that extends around the building’s perimeter is thus vividly articulated as three connected but distinct territories.
While the floor of the original building is elevated half a metre above the playground — requiring the introduction of a stairlift in the entrance block — each of the new ground-floor classrooms is set level with its associated external space. A brief ramp therefore leads down from the principal lobby to the hall from which these rooms are accessed. While the hall cuts through the full length of the plan, a pair of glazed doors at its endpoint ensures that the space is well illuminated and that visitors enjoy an immediate sense of orientation. The contrast with the oppressive and maze-like circulation of the 10-year-old extension at the opposing end of the school is pronounced. East has tied all the doors, skirtings, dados, benches and handrails in its communal areas into a continuous, meandering line finished in the same buttercup yellow as the school uniform. While the classrooms are free of colour, the provision of generous views out and the presence of children’s drawings on every available wall surface ensures that they are far from stark.
The dimension of the classrooms are dictated by regulation, but the plan geometries are distinct. Three of the five rooms are also distinguished by highly particular sections. The largest of the ground floor rooms enjoys a soaring double-height space at one end. Internal windows allow us to look down on it from the upstairs hall and — were it not for the fact that a teacher has seen fit to block the view with a poster — from another of the classrooms. The upstairs rooms also extend to the roof. Faced in acoustic panels and peppered with large, square skylights and fan-assisted ventilation cowls, this surface establishes a seemingly casual relationship to the internal partitions. The floor to ceiling height varies between 4 and 2m, dropping lower still within the built-in cupboards that line the perimeter. The classrooms address each other through glazed doors which open onto the shared balcony. The visual communication — along with that provided by the internal windows — maintains a valuable sense of the entirety of the roof from each of the rooms that have been formed within it.
As with its work at an urban scale, East’s architecture marries an impulse to connectivity with a striking taste for the heterogeneous. While this building’s consistently taut detailing and lucid planning establish a sense of tectonic and spatial integrity, it nonetheless supports the kind of density of local incident that one might encounter in an arts and crafts house. From the Lewerentian arrangement of multiple gutters on the street elevation to the asymmetrical and winder-dependent configuration of its principal staircase, the building repeatedly presents moments that feel particular — perhaps, odd — and yet on closer analysis reveal themselves as the product of astute architectural judgements. This is above all a pliant architecture, in which each component part has been adjusted to accommodate the needs of others. East has managed that process of negotiation with consumate skill, producing a building that is extraordinarily attentive to the needs and imaginations of its young occupants.
Architect East Clients Sussex Road Community Primary School, Kent County Council, DCSF, Sorrell Foundation, Structural engineer BSF Consulting Engineers, Mechanical & electrical GK Salter & Associates, Quantity surveyor Clifford Rickards Associates, Contractor Westridge Construction