Fast track to the future

Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy is a bold statement of ambition at the heart of south London’s most crime-afflicted residential neighbourhood. Veronica Simpson finds form, function and aspirations working in harmony

For a community that may have lost faith in the ability of schools to transform their kids’ futures, a school that looks nothing like any other school – and which transforms the landscape – packs undoubted symbolic punch.

All streamlined curves and sharp angles, Evelyn Grace Academy sits boldly at the centre of its narrow site, very much like some sculptural sports trophy, with a five-lane, pillar-box red running track streaking from the main entrance past reception and beyond to the far fence. One wonders how many pupils or visitors can resist breaking into a jog as they approach...

Surrounded by a mixture of Brixton’s sink estates, boxy post-war terraces, faded Victorian townhouses, and a rubbish depot, the impact is visceral. It speaks of ambition and determination – and looks every penny of its £36m budget. Those kind of angles and curves don’t come cheap. As Rowan Moore, writing of it in The Observer said, it’s ‘a one-off from an age that has already passed’.

But far from being some empty statement of educational or architectural ambition, its form follows a complex functional blueprint laid down by the head teacher and the school’s sponsors ARK (founded by hedge-fund billionaire Arpad ‘Arki’ Busson, with its sole aim of raising educational prospects for inner city children). With extremely high standards expected of pupils both academically and behaviourally, the school is designed as four interlocking small schools – two middle schools for 11to 14-year-olds and two upper schools for 14 to 19-year olds, with their own separate entrances, classrooms and recreational spaces. When full, each small school will have no more than 270 pupils, and they are expected to stay at school from 8.30am to 5pm.

School principal Peter Walker explains: ‘We are developing this approach to ensure that personal relationships between students and staff develop quickly and that a culture of excellent behaviour can be maintained.’

Each individual school has its own head teacher, working under the direction of Walker and responsible for ensuring that ‘individual students make consistent progress across all subjects’ as well as developing strong relationships parents.

To achieve this design objective while breaking down the massing, the building has been designed like an intersecting jigsaw. The schools are organised horizontally to minimize vertical circulation, with the middle schools spread over levels 1 and 2, the upper schools on level 3. The ‘Z’ ends announce, to those both inside and outside the building, the demarcation between one small school and another. Sports, science and music facilities are shared and arranged on the ground floor to also maximise their potential out-of-hours use by the wider community.

Classrooms maximise daylight, are bright and well-ventilated. Views into and out of school spaces are plentiful, reinforcing a feel of clarity and transparency. The school has a sports specialism, and by arranging all the pitches, courts, gyms and studios around the building, visible from every window – and from the neighbouring streets – its sporting focus is drummed home very clearly.

Contractor Mace declares that the school ‘is up there with the three or four highest-quality finishes we’ve ever done. With a building at predominantly 70 degrees, it’s very important to get the finishing and detailing right.’

Interior spaces are neutral – grey paint, sealed concrete, a corridor of sparkly deep-green metallic paint in the middle school – and very grown up. Feature colour rarely appears, apart from the ‘Evelyn’ schools’ (middle and upper) yellow lockers or the ‘Grace’ schools’ green. It feels like a very grown-up building – aided by the quality of the public area furniture. Project architect Matthew Hardcastle admits that ‘we spent far more time on this than we should have’.

Classroom chairs are basic, serviceable and plastic to allow a higher spend on public-area furniture. But why the angles? Hardcastle says: ‘Zaha’s architecture is very challenging – it challenges you to think differently. Visually, externally, it is a different relationship. Yes, angled corners add a bit more to the cost, but it’s a question of value for money.

‘There’s the added drama to internal and external spaces. When you experience these angled spaces from the inside, they are very rich.’ And there was the problem of creating a building that made sense in such a mixed urban environment. ‘With inclined edges, the building has a very different relationship with the street,’ says Hardcastle.

So what difference will this building make to its pupils? Walker says: ‘There are some subliminal things a building like this says about how you value people.’ Lucy Heller, managing director of ARK Schools agrees: ‘I’ve changed my mind over the past six years of being involved in schools. We’ve always said good buildings are great, but you can run a school in almost any building. Having seen the impact on children who have been in unsatisfactory or grotty accommodation... you see what it says about how we value education to them and to the community.

‘Also, we are doing something radically different with our small schools; you couldn’t physically do this without a building to support that.’

Walker adds: ‘This Building embodies our expectations. It’s a dramatic statement in this landscape.’ However, he says: ‘You can have the most amazing building in the world, but if the education we were providing was not special then our students wouldn’t get what they deserve.’

One only hopes his ambitions are met – and that in 10 years time the school stands as a proud symbol of what is possible, both for inner city education and educational architecture.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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