BuckleyGrayYeoman design Performing Arts Centre for Channing School, London

Working with a limited-sized plot in a conservation area, BuckleyGrayYeoman were able to create extensive drama facilities for Channing School

Words by: Sophie Tolhurst

London's Highgate, a picturesque area of north London, is certainly an attractive setting for independent girls’ school, Channing. But with the area’s heritage comes difficulties too: Highgate’s conservation-area status and the limited size of plot meant that any new development must adhere to strict codes.

With that in mind, BuckleyGrayYeoman had quite a job on its hands to deliver the masterplan for Channing School. Comprising two phases – the first a sports hall and a sixth-form centre; the second, a performing arts centre – the project aimed to provide 2,300 sq m of high-quality educational facilities.

A shell of red brick sits with glass and aluminium in a secondary facade of white stone. Credit: Dirk Lindner

The design, first proposed for a limited competition in 2012, celebrates the heritage of the late Victorian school. Referencing the shape of the school’s listed Founders’ Hall, the practice proposed to use three ‘extrusions’ of its pitched-roof silhouette for a new modern building. One of the main challenges was the local height restriction, but the topology of the sloping site on Highgate Hill helped the architects in their task.

At its front the building is modest in height, following the level of existing historical buildings; whereas at the back, as the terrain slopes downwards, a more substantial two-storey building is revealed, showing the impressive height the practice was able to achieve for the sports hall – the height, and double-pitched ceiling design, insuring the building met Sport England standards.

Louvred panels clad in aluminium are used for solar shading in the building. Credit: James Jones

Externally this lower level appears as a white stone plinth, on which the more prominent top layer of handmade red brick and lime mortar sits – materials chosen with respect to the school’s architectural surroundings. Complementing these materials, the building envelope uses aluminium and glass. A large window opens the back of the building to natural light and an impressive view over the surrounding area. Glass is also used for reception areas at the front of both this building and the new performing arts centre.

For solar shading, louvred timber panels were used, first positioned on the inside of the building for the sixth-form centre, but for the second phase of the project, these were placed on the outside of the performing arts centre, this time clad in aluminium. Other details include chamfered window reveals, and expressed brick gable ends.

The performing art centre’s auditorium has stall seating that can be stacked away at one end to create new performance areas. Credit: James Jones

Throughout the interior, the design uses exposed concrete walls and pale timber acoustic panelling, interspersed with internal windows that link the various spaces. The first phase has a more finished look, meant to appear suggestive of the higher educational and professional environments to which the girls’ might progress after their time at Channing, but the performing arts centre is conceived of as more a ‘working’ building – think of the black-box theatre archetype.

The technical aspects of the project are a real achievement, providing professional-quality working space for the students. In the performing arts centre, all equipment was designed for use by school-age children, allowing students to learn not just the performing arts but the full range of technical processes behind theatre production. A tension wire grid high above the stage gives safe – albeit vertiginous – access to lighting rigs, and the stage benefits from a lift. In addition to two tiers of bespoke gallery seats the 250-seat theatre has retractable bespoke stall seating, allowing for different performance spaces in addition to the main proscenium stage. Timber panelling, seating upholstery and the underlining of walkways ensure the necessary acoustic control.

The performing art centre’s auditorium has stall seating that can be stacked away at one end to create new performance areas. Credit: James Jones

Phase two also continued the landscaping of the first phase, and a particular challenge was using planting and seats to hide the machinery needed for the functioning of the new building. Further landscaping created outdoor social spaces with benches and viewpoints towards the new building, and out to the local area. This, as well as the build itself, had to be carefully scheduled, with major work being carried out and structures erected during school holidays. As such, the project was eventually completed in June 2018. Throughout however, not much was changed from the original plans, remaining in line with the practice’s initial competition proposal.

Above the entrance to the performing arts centre, the Channing logo – a serif C – has been created in slatted wood. This logo can be illuminated to become visible from the road. Without disrupting the heritage appearance of the Highgate conservation area, this might help draw local attention to the new facilities – which were intended to also be rented out to local communities and performing arts students across the country. This initiative was a part of the brief, and for project architect Emmalene Pollock a good chance to make the most of the excellent facilities the project has achieved. The school recently invited London-based Spanish Cervantes Theatre to the new performing arts centre, and it hopes to expand the initiative in the near future.

Channing School


Phase 1: August 2013-September 2015;
Phase 2: April 2016- June 2018

Barley McNaughton

Project manager
WT Partnership M&E Cundall

Structural engineer
Heyne Tillett Steel QS Stace LLP

Planning consultant Rolfe Judd

Curo Construction

Project manager
WT Partnership

M&E Hensall
Mechanical Services

Structural engineer
Heyne Tillett Steel

Services engineer

QS Stace LLP

Planning consultant
Rolfe Judd

Theatre consultant

Planning landscape architects
Churchman Landscape Architects

Tension Wire Grid
Cablenet by Slingco

External windows
Raico Therm +56 H windows

Brise Soleil
Renson, for timber glulam American white oak brise soleil; Icarus blade extruded aluminium profiles

Compelo Ltd Registered Office: John Carpenter House, John Carpenter Street, EC4Y 0AN, England. No: 06339167.Copyright 2020 Compelo. All rights reserved.