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Tuesday22 July 2014

Evelyn Grace Academy, Brixton, by Zaha Hadid Architects

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The aggressive swagger of Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy reflects the hard-edged dynamism found within the school itself

’Some people think we are too strict here,” says principal Peter Walker, as we stroll through the sweeping corridors of his new Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, south London, orderly students shuffling past in silent reverence. “But you must understand that self discipline is one of our three core values.” As he talks me through the other core values of excellence and endeavour, as well as “depth before breadth” and “the 100% concept”, Walker has the assured tone and accomplished rhetoric of a high-flying business executive.

But this should come as no surprise. The Evelyn Grace Academy, by Zaha Hadid Architects, is the eighth such school established by Ark (Absolute Return for Kids), a children’s charity founded in 2004 by Arpad “Arki” Busson, the colourful multi-millionaire hedge-fund manager and beau of Uma Thurman.

Busson has helped to pump millions from his friends in the financial services industries towards improving education in our cities’ most deprived areas. With a strong track record of increasing GCSE pass rates across the board, Ark must be congratulated. But as a symbol of the progressive privatisation of education, and the encroachment of the City on
public life, such academies have come up against substantial local opposition.

Looming into view with the aggressive swagger of a hedge-fund power yacht, the bulk of the Evelyn Grace Academy betrays its roots all too clearly. With vast expanses of tinted windows framed by thick borders of grey cladding, it recalls some souped-up out-of-town vernacular, flexing its muscles like a business park shed on steroids. On a street of terraced houses, it is an invigoratingly alien object.

Stretched at an angle across the 1.4ha site, the school takes the form of a dynamic z-shaped bar in plan, cranked at either end to square up to the street. Three storeys of classroom accommodation sit on top of a set-back podium, freeing up the surrounding area for a series of all-weather sports pitches and playground spaces. A bright red 100m race track cuts across the plan at a tangent to the building, punching a hole through the podium and linking the site’s two main entrances. This red strip, framed by the billowing glassy flanks, recalls the dramatic, wayward perspectives of Hadid’s early paintings, and provides a spectacularly theatrical entrance sequence. Arriving at school here must be a thrilling experience, even on the most miserable of Monday mornings.

The building is clearly from the same stable as the Maxxi – but definitely the chunky English cousin of the Stirling Prize-winning Italian beauty. Its interlocking layers slide across each other to form overhangs and terraces (although some of these are now off limits due to overlooking issues). The kinks, curves and offsets create a strangely shape-shifting form when approached from different angles. From the east it is a blank, brutish shed. But, viewed from the south-west, there are echoes of the 1930s seaside and the curving verandas of the De
La Warr pavilion, but with the stripped elegance of the original now interpreted in clunking parametric cladding panels.

“This building is definitely within the paradigm of parametricism,” says Hadid’s computer-whizz accomplice, Patrik Schumacher, looking somewhat cagey at my mention of the
p-word. “But there was no need for sophisticated scripts on this project.” There was simply not the budget. And, while the finishes are generally beyond admirable for a £36 million design and build contract, the overall effect is that of elaborate set dressing, appliquéd to a relatively conventional frame.

The floating assemblage of glazed classrooms is supported at either end on rugged concrete-faced podium blocks, one housing the arts and technology facilities, the other a sports and fitness centre, which will be open to after-hours community use, with its own dedicated entrance. Their sinuous walls extend out and into the landscape, wrapping around the site boundary to create a fortified skin that variously thickens or dissolves in response to the different edge conditions – from pavement, to waste disposal depot, to grade II listed housing. The outdoor games areas front on to the street, where the wall lowers, before swooping upwards to frame views into the playground, and soaring higher as it turns the
corner to screen the waste depot to the south.

“We wanted to avoid making a fortress-like perimeter building,” says Hadid. “So we conceived the school as a series of urban blocks aggregated together across the middle of the site.” This aggregation of smaller units helps to break up the massing, and articulates the “small schools within a school” concept, one of the key tenets of the Ark philosophy. For Evelyn and Grace are in fact two completely separate schools, each with their own head and teaching staff, and each comprising a middle and upper school of no more than 270 pupils. Their separation is a crucial part of the programme.

“We’re not supposed to mix with the other school,” says an earnest-faced pupil from Grace. She describes how each of the four small schools has its own entrance and even its own separate terrace where they must go during break time. “There’s definitely rivalry between us. And their terrace is bigger than ours.”

The architects talk proudly of how each school has its own secure circulation core, so the children “don’t have to meet the other students”, while the separation is clearly articulated on the facade. The jagged, interlocking forms of the upper schools are offset and outlined by further bands of grey cladding, while Evelyn and Grace are held in tension at either end of the building, each occupying a corner of the z-shaped form. They meet in the central hub of the canteen, where the sweeping horizontal fenestration of the schools gives way to a vertical order on the elevation. A retractable screen down the centre of the hall marks the dividing line between these two worlds – a charged frontier, rarely crossed.

Some parents have apparently complained about this rigid separation, but it is all part of principal Walker’s long-term game plan. “We have to establish the ’small school’ model first,” he says, “so the teachers get to know all their students and form personal relationships.” It is also clear that the presence of an unknown rival on the other side of the wall, only glimpsed across the terrace at break time, helps to promote the academy’s culture of endeavour, fuelling ambition through carefully choreographed competition.

Within the building, 60sq m classrooms are arranged off broad double-loaded corridors that swell, constrict and swoosh around corners with a dynamism unfortunately forbidden from the students themselves, who must process between lessons in solemn single-file silence. The classrooms are finished in the muted tones of exposed concrete and white render, a far cry from the trend for gaudy coloured panels of the kind that plaster the walls of dRMM’s Clapham Manor school.

“I find the colours very relaxing,” says one pupil, unprompted. “It makes it feel calm and it’s easy to concentrate.” But the exposed concrete also has its downsides: “If you lean against the walls you get covered in white chalk,” he says, dusting down his immaculate blazer. In keeping with the school’s strict behavioural code, this could well be a designed-in deterrent against leaning.

For all the building’s apparent glazing, I was surprised to find that the classrooms are actually quite dingy, with windows des-igned to occupy the bottom two thirds of a panelised facade, meaning all lights were on in the middle of the day. Facing on to the waste disposal site, the music, arts and technology block is treated to a host of completely windowless bunker-like classrooms, while the library is positioned in a gloomy ground-floor undercroft next to the kitchen. All the windows are centrally operated, mechanically controlled and “really noisy,” according to the pupils. A school of fresh air and light, this is not.

There are other strange perversions, only possible in the regulated frenzy of secondary education. The academy prides itself on its specialist sporting status, and yet pupils tell me they are forbidden from using the sports pitches at break time, instead confined to their individual terraces, where ball games are forbidden. Even the playground is off limits. “We are still in the early days of looking at how to use these spaces,” explains Walker. “But we have to think of the safety implications of the hard concrete benches.”

For now, the playground lies empty, a barren expanse of tarmac crossed by a dynamic matrix of white Fibonacci-inspired lines, along which pupils are allowed to march at the beginning and end of their 8.30-5pm working day.

Hadid begins to get nostalgic as she talks about her own education in Baghdad, where she was taught by French nuns in a Catholic school, despite having Muslim parents. “We had a very tough headmistress,” she says, as if in wistful reverie. “She wanted to turn her girls into leaders.”

No doubt this formative encounter with authoritarian female role models goes some way to explaining Hadid’s own style of office management. But it also begins to reveal her affinity with principal Walker’s severe programme. The aggressive, strident, form of the building is no accident, and in an area that boasts the highest rate of violent crime, this strange warship of discipline might not be so out of place. But, however it fares, standing as a power-dressed monument to the philanthropy of the City, this shiny bauble of the boom is unlikely to be repeated.

Original print headline - Strict parameters

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Wow.. A secondary school in Lambeth that has designed in another level of seperation for children.. In a city where a teenager can be subject to muggings and attacks on the basis of coming from a "wrong postcode" - is this really going to work socially in the longer term??

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