Nearly 50 years after it was built and with a recent renovation by Avanti Architects, Haggerston School in London, architect Ernö Goldfinger's only education project, is still very much fit for purpose, says James Borley

Ernö Goldfinger's contribution to Britain's architectural landscape is often overlooked, or sadly misunderstood. Indeed he suffered great controversy throughout most of his working life, only really achieving critical acclaim posthumously.

Educational schemes certainly didn't feature heavily in Goldfinger's work; in fact East London's Haggerston School was his only educational project. Built in 1964-5, the school is one of the best examples of Goldfinger's approach to space and his innovative use of materials.


Photo: Tom de Gay / Avanti Architects

Let's not forget, this building is nearly 50 years old. It was conceived, and built, at a time when Britain's education system was starkly different to teh way it is now. Notions such as 'all-through' schools, 'break-out' areas and 'schools within schools' are more recent inventions, the products of a collaborative approach to school design that simply didn't exist when Goldfinger was working.

Thanks to a very sympathetic refurbishment by Avanti Architects, Haggerston School has now been pulled boldly into the 21st Century. But aside from cosmetic improvements (the installation of double-glazing and other technological advances), Goldfinger's original vision for a school doesn't differ enormously from what we see today in other educational projects.


Inside the newly refurbished Haggerston School. Photo: Tom de Gay / Avanti Architects

The John Madejski Academy (Wilkinson Eyre Architects, 2007), for example, was the first of the DFES' (Department for Education and Skills) secondary school exemplar designs - a Government-funded programme that invested £2.2 billion into 180 school projects nationwide - and is a shining example of sensitive architecture tackling a complex, mixed-use building.


John Madjeski Academy by Wilkinson Eyre Architects. Photo: James Brittain

A basic comparison reveals very little difference in the approach to designing both Haggerston School and the John Madjeski Academy; they are both secondary schools, after all. Both have a series of separate buildings (although Wilkinson Eyre call theirs 'Clusters'); use light, space and layout to great effect, and harness materials such as concrete to form the backbone of their structures. The key difference, however, lies in two important elements - 'play' and landscape.


John Madjeski Academy by Wilkinson Eyre Architects. Photo: James Brittain

Goldfinger's scheme neglects to use the entirety of the site to its full potential, whereas Wilkinson Eyre (and Landscape architects, Grant Associates) recognise the importance of the connection between buildings. At John Madjeski, there are outdoor teaching areas, carefully considered planting zones, a multi-use games area and a trail linking the main school building with the sports centre; Haggerston school boasts none of these nuances.


It is, however, a testament to Goldfinger's legacy that Avanti Architects stuck so closely to the original concept, only adding, amending and bringing a touch of colour into the spaces. Haggerston School is by no means perfect, and there are other Goldfinger projects - such as the headquarters for the Daily Worker newspaper - that are arguably better realised. However, there remains a simple connecting truth that spans the 42-year difference between the two schools: children don't change, subjects will remain the same, and schools will always be full of 11-18 year olds trying their best to learn something.

Landscape aside, Haggerston remains both a testament to Ernö Goldfinger's genius and a well-executed, sympathetic educational building we continue to use today.