Maccreanor Lavington's De Klare Bron primary, Belgium
The flexibility of the Flemish system enabled Maccreanor Lavington to branch out into a new sector with its generous yet understated nursery and primary school in Heverlee village
The 1993 redraft of Belgium’s constitution granted the Flemish community a significant level of political autonomy — a status not dissimilar to Scotland’s position within the United Kingdom. Among the new posts that were established in response to this change was that of a Flemish government architect, the Vlaams Bouwmeester.
The fine Antwerp architect Bob van Reeth was the first to be appointed to the position in 1998. Among the principal successes of his term of office was the establishment of an innovative competition process to which the majority of public commissions in Flanders are now subject. It operates on the basis of a twice yearly call for submissions of interest for forthcoming projects. Architects enter one portfolio and identify schemes for which they wish to be considered, significantly reducing the burden of work that is usually faced by practices pursuing work through a competitive route.
The system has proved not only efficient but also impressively supportive of untried talent. Young Flemish practices such as Jan de Vylder, noA and Office Kersten Geers David van Severen have flourished, generating what is one of the most progressive national architecture scenes in Europe. British practices have also been granted major opportunities.
Of the eight Flemish competitions on which Sergison Bates found itself working in 2004-5, it won a public library, a senior citizens’ home and a university building. Witherford Watson Mann is now building a housing scheme in Gistel while Tony Fretton has recently secured the commission for a town hall in Deinze.
That said, to paint Flanders as an architectural nirvana would be rather wide of the mark. Fee percentages are significantly lower than they are in the UK and so too are build costs. Factor in the variable strength of the pound against the euro and the need to share what fee there is with a local associate architect and it becomes clear that no British practice pursues work in Flanders with the aim of getting rich. No, for UK architects, the real appeal of the Flemish competition system is its potential to deliver commissions of a type that lack of experience would preclude them from winning over here. That certainly was a key motivation behind Maccreanor Lavington’s decision to enter the competition for a new nursery and primary school building in Heverlee, a village bordering the city of Leuven. Since the practice established itself on the back of winning a Europan competition for a Dutch housing scheme in the early nineties, its workload has very largely comprised residential commissions. Over time that involvement has led to a good deal of masterplanning work, but for many years the only non-residential buildings in the practice’s portfolio have been the small doctors’ surgery that it built in Northern Ireland in 1994 and a mixed use development in London’s Hoxton Square, completed three years later.
Victory in the Heverlee competition has at last changed that. The school, De Klare Bron, lies on a well-to-do residential street on high ground overlooking the 16th century Arenberg Park. Upholding a liberal pedagogical culture, not dissimilar to that of the Montessori method, it operated for many years from an early 20th century villa and a string of timber cabins erected within the house’s tree-rich grounds. The task set by the competition was to replace the cabins, which had fallen well beyond repair, with a new building that would serve all teaching needs. The school didn’t underestimate the potential impact such a change might have on its educational culture. While beset by technical failings, the previous accommodation had actually supported its “living is learning” philosophy very well. It was therefore particularly keen to imbue the new building with something of the free spatial definition that had characterised the earlier environment.
Maccreanor Lavington has answered that ambition by distributing the programme — with the exception of the staff room — over a single storey. Its building stands alongside the old house and, while much the larger of the two, adopts a decidedly deferential relationship to its neighbour. Like the villa it is faced in brick although of a rather humbler kind — a grey, peppery stock that presents a good colour balance with the building’s zinc roof and also offers the added advantage that it keeps the visual impact of any efflorescence to a minimum. While its profile is actually rather complex, the image it presents to anyone coming through the school gate is of a low-lying double-pitched shed, glazed down the length of its long leading elevation and offering a spare brick gable to the forecourt that it frames with the villa.
There is more than a slight sense of the stable block about all this, but the modesty is well judged, bringing a vivid sense of decorum to bear on the relationship between the two buildings. The villa, which houses the headmistress’s office and all administration facilities, remains the school’s primary interface with the world and, accordingly, has been given the dominant role within the new ensemble. For the visitor faced with the choice between the porticoed front door of the villa that lies on axis with the main approach and the primary school’s daily entrance wedged into the side elevation of the new block, there is no confusion as to which is the more “public”.
One of the requirements of the competition brief was that a new dining room should connect directly to a kitchen that had recently been fitted to the villa’s ground floor. Maccreanor Lavington therefore conceived the dining room as a neck, extending from the body of the new building to engage the head of the villa. Apart from this one outgrowth, the plan is a compact rectangle, punctured by a single small courtyard near its centre. This tight configuration stands in marked contrast to the rambling plan forms — think strawberry cluster or squashed cat — that have characterised many recent British schools. I must admit, the appeal of such strategies escapes me. The external spaces that they frame, while intimate in scale, are frequently residual in character.
Maccreanor Lavington’s blunt massing proves altogether more effective. Each facade is of a unique configuration and defines its own external territory. The long glazed frontage that we notice on entering the site belongs to the primary school classrooms, each of which opens onto a small garden which the children will tend. The gabled entrance facade supports a reading of the forecourt as a more urban environment — a quality confirmed by the space’s hard landscaping and the presence of a raised terrace on the flanking wall of the villa which can be co-opted as a stage for special events. The other gabled facade belongs to the nursery school. The younger children have their own designated entrance here while alongside, each of their classrooms opens onto a zinc-enfolded canopy that allows them to play without undue exposure to the sun.
The remaining, north-facing elevation performs a different function again. It stands hard against the perimeter of the site at the top of a steep, tree-covered incline which drops down towards the road circumscribing Arenberg Park. In the middle of the new building’s plan, the double-pitched configuration that generates the gabled north and south facades is abandoned in favour of a monopitch that rises unbroken from south to north. This provides additional height over the gymnasium, allows the first-floor staffroom to be shoehorned in but also crucially gives the north elevation a dynamic profile which enables it to communicate effectively with the ground below.
The other considerable doubt raised by the recent fad for sprawling school plans is that such strategies generate an enormous expanse of costly external wall — a profligacy for which the interior inevitably ends up paying. Again, De Klare Bron demonstrates the wisdom of keeping the perimeter tight. Working within a standard budget, the architect has nonetheless invested the interior with a striking spatial generosity. A good part of that success is down to the scheme’s sectional elaboration. As we have seen, the roof plane is unusually restless but so too is the floor.
The nursery school classrooms have been allowed to follow the gentle fall of the ground level from south to north, while at the opposite end of the building the need to set the dining room at the same height as the kitchen has been resolved with the introduction of a long ramped approach which doubles as a space for hanging coats. The resultant interaction between floor and roof is one of the building’s defining pleasures, giving every part a particularity and in places a positively lavish height.
While the area of each classroom was prescribed, the architect has also succeeded in liberating the plan from the kind of deterministic configuration the school was so keen to avoid. The circulation areas are all of a gloriously liberal dimension. The largest of them is a 4m-wide hall, dubbed the playway, which slices right the way through the plan, connecting the building’s twin entrances. One side of it is lined with a vast grid of cubbyholes, seductively made from a bamboo-laminated board, where the children store their books and toys in individually designed boxes. This deep wall is intermittently interrupted by angled recesses extending up towards skylights, and by the doors to the classrooms that lie behind.
The other side of the playway opens onto the internal courtyard and the gymnasium — relationships that can be made very direct by opening the full-width retractable doors that separate them. Having recently taken possession of the building, the teachers and children are still discovering uses for this richly suggestive sequence of spaces. On the occasion that David Grandorge took the photographs presented here, the kids were excitably preparing them in readiness for a sleepover.
While this is a building that vividly embodies the educational ethos of De Klare Bron, it presents lessons of considerable relevance to the wider discussion about the design of schools. It also offers compelling evidence that Maccreanor Lavington is a much more versatile outfit than the particular challenges of the housing sector have so far allowed it to demonstrate. I have no doubt that more school commissions will follow and, if there is any justice, some of them might even be in the UK.
Original print headline - Starting school
Architect Maccreanor Lavington in collaboration with Bureau Bouwtechniek, Client: Gemeenschapsonderwijs, Structural engineer Bureau voor Architectuur en Stabiliteit (BAS), Contractor IBO
To read more Building Studies click here