Henrietta Barnett School, Hampstead Garden Suburb by Hopkins Architects
Hopkins’ greatest skill is in creating contextual rather than iconic architecture, and its new school buildings next to Lutyens’ Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute put this to the test
Hampstead Garden Suburb was conceived and built almost to perfection to simulate a countryside idyll, yet within a 20-minute cycle ride of central London. Adjoining Golders Green, Hampstead and Highgate in the north of the city, it was the ambitious project of social reformer Henrietta Barnett, realised by architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin who, fresh from designing Letchworth Garden City, were at the height of their powers. Its goal was to include a range of houses for people of different incomes, with the wealthier residents subsidising the rents of the poorer ones.
Mostly formed between 1906 and 1911, with a second phase in the 1920s, it is a 320ha settlement of houses, gardens, woods and heathland with two large churches, a junior, primary and secondary school and the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute. This building, originally an adult learning centre, is now part of the Henrietta Barnett School — named after the suburb’s creator and listed as the top non-private girls’ school in the UK. Hopkins Architects has now added new buildings to the institute, providing the school with a further 1,100sq m of teaching rooms — probably the first buildings added in the garden suburb since 1950.
The suburb arguably had its aesthetic heyday at some moment in the 1960s, when the nature had fully matured, cars were smaller in size and number, and street furniture less intrusive. A trust, set up at that time to protect the aesthetic of the place, has been very successful in fending off potentially damaging new buildings, plastic windows, fences, satellite dishes, and rooflights, as well as controlling and advising on the use of materials and details. It has also been instrumental in the realisation of Hopkins’ project.
The essence of the suburb is composed of houses between one and a half to two storeys high, surrounded by gardens with mature woodland retained. But for the absence of cows and tractors, the extension of Hampstead Heath, which glides into the southern edge almost to the centre of the suburb, legitimises this atmosphere of countryside.
A great confluence was achieved between the responsively crafted framework of lowish density housing set out by Parker & Unwin, whose arts & crafts skills were guided by a moralistic urge to economy of means, allied to the growing fascination with more formal neo-Georgian architecture, as led by Edwin Lutyens, which influenced many suburb houses designed by architects in Parker & Unwin’s office.
Looked at as a plan, the settlement appears more formally laid out than it feels in the flesh. This is because of the undulations of the land that rises gradually to its centre, as well as occasional kinks in what might otherwise have been straight roads. These were not merely the result of land slopes but conscious adjustments (inspired by the writings of Camillo Sitte) that mimic the experience of English country lanes, whose shape would have been determined by land features and ownership rights.
These are probably the first buildings added in the suburb since 1950
In an article in the Contemporary Review of 1905, setting out her egalitarian vision for the suburb, Barnett wrote that “persons of all classes of society and standards of income should be accommodated and that the handicapped be welcomed; … [and] that the houses be so planned that none should spoil each other’s outlook or rob its neighbour of beauty.” The predominance of smaller arts & crafts houses, with no opportunity to expand them, has generally kept this ideal intact — although, with the current appetite for tunnelled basements, that is now in question.
Lutyens was originally drafted in to design three public buildings on the suburb’s Central Square: the institute and two churches. To these he added a substantial terrace of houses to North Square, all to form a kind of “cathedral close” piece. All of these buildings are made from the same brick type (Colliers silver grey narrow gauge facing brick with cherry red dressings), a move that adds formal potency to the whole. Lutyens’ skill with composition and device is clear in the subtle invention of dwellings that look grand but are in fact double houses, and in the two churches’ pitched roofs, whose eaves begin level with the houses before sweeping dramatically up to sprout dome and spire respectively. He fought to keep the three public buildings tall, dominating the skyline, and placed around a large rectangular square.
Each church has its entrance facade to the rear of the square, so the square itself is rather left hanging, not so much a gathering point for the churches but more of a back. This puts pressure on the entrance of the institute, which retreats deep within a sheer and awkward scaled space that is more backyard than courtyard. There is plenty of space on either side for it to have been lower and wider but Lutyens was intent on getting the height of his building — so much so that the entrance courtyard became a casualty, an intimidating space for adults, let alone schoolchildren. Later alterations have only exacerbated this. It is the highest point in the area by some margin and the views over London are expansive. If the institute’s administrative rooms at the end of this yard directly behind its front door could be moved to release it as foyer space, the view through and out would go some way to ameliorate this.
The square itself has a municipally forlorn ambience. Its landscaping was never quite resolved and has been languishing for decades as the council has nursed what are feebly small formal flower beds. The green space is split in two by an axial path that leads to the institute. A more expansive approach is sorely needed. Surely Henrietta Barnett’s memorial would be better moved so it doesn’t block the path?
Into this comes Hopkins Architects, the go-to practice of the old British institutions, with the emphasis on crafts rather than arts. For Hopkins, the Henrietta Barnett School buildings amount to a very small job within a practice that is very busy.
Lutyens had originally sketched out two lateral additions to the institute, which would have given the square more enclosure, but this is not the strategy Hopkins has gone for. However, its project reinforces the symmetry by going for a wing on either side. Each wing is composed of two rectangular two-storey brick buildings placed as L-shapes against the side of the institute building, creating little three-sided courtyards open to Central Square.
It’s a default architecture to a degree, using markedly neo-classical motifs
Curiously, these wings don’t touch the old building but leave an arbitrary gap, which may well be a neo-classical first. The project completes the transition of the former public institute of adult education, a stand-alone edifice of masonic stature, into a winged semi-public secondary school with a colonial air about it. The overall strategy is clearly legible from the exterior, and the buildings have a clarity and humility to them.
Perhaps the strongest is the street facade, whose loadbearing walls and tapering brick piers present a form of medieval English construction reminiscent of, say, a town hall. The wall/pier and arcade formality is a reworking of buildings for Haberdashers’ Hall in Smithfield and Glyndebourne opera rotunda, as is the red brick choice (here a hand-mixed narrow one). In developing the project of churches and houses, Lutyens bound them materially together with grey facing brick. One might say there is something curious about using the same colour brick wherever you build. It’s not that there is no red brick around, there is, but not whole colour buildings. It’s a default architecture to a degree, using markedly neo-classical motifs, very well built and moving towards the style of Dixon Jones, but with more profound commitment to construction. In fact Hopkins’ neo-classical “medium game” is getting fruitier as can be seen by the shaping of the loggias’ tapering metal supports.
The rooms of the buildings are accessed via generous wide-roofed external loggias that look out onto the public realm rather than inwards. The architect’s key idea is to start the L-shaped loggia on the inside of the new building when facing the mother building, but return it outside to take in the distant views as well as to look out over the grounds of the plot. One result of this is to offer more variety to the rooms themselves, but also to alter the nature of the courts, no longer purely for movement but now with a sense of stasis. And these are generous but not oversized rooms, with a row of carefully proportioned landscape format windows in deep set wood lined reveals. On the upper level the rooms take in the roof volume and are top lit.
The roofs pitch up to a lead flashed flat area that conceals a strip of flat glass, bringing a fine degree of light into rooms otherwise in the shadow of thickset wall reveals and arcades. At this point one senses the project is starting to run out of ideas. It somehow doesn’t feel authentically Hopkins to want to hide the skylights behind the roof parapet.Given the exuberant skyline of the practice’s project at Portcullis House, for example, this roof feels positively pollarded, when it would have been a fertile context for a little more expression. Equally its architecture can’t afford to look as though the leadwork detail was left to the roofers.
These are load-bearing brick buildings with the points of load that take the roof’s laminated wood trusses expressed as piers on the facades where possible. Hopkins has always sought to exploit structural bays as a tectonic for articulation — whether a column or a window, an expressed stainless steel tie, or metalwork or fitting picked out in its RAL grey.
This brickwork, pier and arcade is a standard device that Hopkins has been building ever since it was asked by conservationists to retain and reinstate the brick arches at Lord’s Cricket Ground. That project seemed to open up a world of opportunity for the practice and distance it from its hi-tech contemporaries Foster, Rogers and Grimshaw, since it showed it was interested in the weathering of a building.
But where the others have moved into figurative shape-making, Hopkins’ best work is when limited by tight site constraints. Its work feels more at ease when making the buildings that complete existing urban contexts rather than objectify them, which is no bad thing.
Architect Hopkins Architects, Client The Henrietta Barnett School, Structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates, Services engineer Max Fordham, Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald, Landscape architect Capita Lovejoy, Main contractor Geoffrey Osborne
Jonathan Woolf is director of Jonathan Woolf Architects