(B.27) Hilary Cottam, Designer of the Year Award - 2005

Design Museum: June 2005

Story and counter-story; either way the new-look Kingsdale School is an inspiration - scene of many a Campaign public meeting.



Our own Designer of the Year 2005 - June 10, 2005, Jude

Last night Hilary Cottam - our very own RED Director - was announced Designer of the Year! RED are so proud and thrilled.

Design Council

Design Council director Hilary Cottam has won the 2005 Design Museum Designer of the Year award.

Hilary's work is dedicated to using design thinking to renew public services - and the processes that develop and deliver them - by connecting the users of services to policy makers through project work


BBC "collective" issue no. 256, article on nominees for the 2005 Designer of the Year Award:

Hilary Cottam

Hilary Cottam appears to be a strange choice for Designer Of The Year. Cottam is not a designer. She's been Director of the Design Council for four years, championing the use of design as a social tool. "The visual techniques of a design process stimulate a more creative and participative approach to problem solving," she notes.

Cottam's work, which is always collaborative, largely focuses on using design to reform the structure of schools, prisons and public institutions. The results are fascinating, and arguably far more important than the shape of a chair. "In order to motivate pupils and support ways of learning which reflect the modern world, we need to rethink the design of the school day, the curriculum and the way schools are managed." Cottam argues that the only way to achieve this is to radically redesign learning spaces. Other projects have included the design of a new prison space to reduce the numbers of prisoners that reoffend. This is design with a big D.

Design Museum:

Four Designers Nominated for Designer of the Year

Four designers are shortlisted for the Design Museum's Designer of the Year award.

 The four nominees for the £25,000 prize &endash; to be given to the British designer who made the biggest contribution to design last year &endash; are: design strategist Hilary Cottam, product designer Jasper Morrison, the designers of Penguin Books' Great Ideas series, and textile designers Timorous Beasties.

The nominees were selected on the basis of work they produced during 2004. Hilary Cottam was selected for her championship of better design in schools, hospitals and prisons and Jasper Morrison for his elegant and innovative range of kettles, toasters and coffee machines for Rowenta. Also nominated were the Penguin Books design team responsible for the beautifully designed Great Ideas series of paperbacks priced at £3.99 each and Timorous Beasties, the Glasgow-based designers for their provocative textiles.

An exhibition of the work of the four nominees will be presented at the Design Museum from 5 March to 19 June 2005.

The shortlist was chosen by a jury composed of: Daniel Brown, multimedia designer and the winner of last year's Designer of the Year prize; design consultant Ilse Crawford; the novelist Hari Kunzru; and Hugo Manassei, director of the Creative Pioneer Programme at NESTA. It was chaired by Alice Rawsthorn, director of the Design Museum. The winner of the £25,000 prize will be chosen in early June and announced at a prize-giving held at the Design Museum that evening. Having selected the shortlist, the jury will choose the winner together with public, who can vote at the exhibition and on the Design Museum website. The outcome of the public vote will count towards the final choice of the Designer of the Year.

"From a beautifully designed toaster and £3.99 paperback, to ingenious textiles and a campaigner for better designed schools and hospitals, this year's Designer of the Year shortlist illustrates how intelligent and inspiring design can enhance all our lives," said Alice Rawsthorn, director of the Design Museum. The Designer of the Year award is sponsored by MFI with The Times as media sponsor.


From radically rethinking the design of our schools, the prison system and health service, to her work as director of the Design Council's experimental RED team, Hilary Cottam is championing a more inspiring and efficient approach to design in the public sector. Born in London in 1965, Cottam studied at Oxford, Sussex and the Open University and worked for the World Bank in Africa and Latin America. As founding director of both School Works and the Do Tank, she has pioneered new approaches to the design of schools and prisons respectively. At the Design Council, Cottam is working to redefine the role of design in our daily lives, starting with health and citizenship.

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The Observer. Sunday June 12, 2005
Design award row engulfs 'super school'

The Designer of the Year has won partly for her work regenerating a school. One problem: the headmaster claims she didn't design it, reports Deyan Sudjic

With its rippling translucent atrium and striking auditorium of triangular panels, the Kingsdale building is a startling edifice. Once a rundown school in south-east London, it now rises like a hi-tech phoenix from the landscape.

Part of a £10 million government pilot project, the school has been elevated from one of the poorest performers to feature among the 20 most improved schools in the nation.

And last week the woman hailed as the designer of Kingsdale regeneration was made Designer of the Year by the Design Museum, winning £25,000 in prize money.

But instead of Hilary Cottam and her Design Council 'red team' think-tank enjoying their achievement this weekend, she has unwittingly found herself at the centre of an angry controversy. She has been challenged to hand back her prize money and urged to acknowledge the team, who were primarily responsible for the design at Kingsdale.

The row has embarrassed the Design Museum and put the reputation of its annual award at stake. The museum is still reeling from the resignation of its chairman, James Dyson. He left after claiming the museum had developed 'trivialising' policies under the leadership of director Alice Rawsthorn.

But that difference of opinion has now been superseded by the row over transforming Kingsdale into an educational showpiece. It is the centrepiece of the Design Museum's display of Cottam's work - but the trouble is that she did not design it. Neither does she say that she did; and it is that which makes giving her the Designer of the Year title so controversial.

'It's a victory of spin over substance,' said Steve Morrison, headteacher at the school. 'When I saw what the press was saying about her role in the design of the school, the idea of legal action passed through my mind. The level of injustice is so great.'

The architect, Alex de Rijke, who has worked on the project since 1999 and is still spending two days each week at the school finishing the project, is also furious about the award. He believes his work and the contribution of the large team responsible for Kingsdale's transformation have not been adequately acknowledged.

De Rijke has disputed the extent of Cottam's contribution. 'She worked on fundraising, lobbying and consultation for the project. But she has not been to the school, which is only halfway through reconstruction, for three years.'

He is calling on Cottam to share her prize with the team that actually designed the project. 'Better still, she should give the money back to school,' he said. He is also furious with the Design Museum. 'They have used our drawings, photographs and montages in their own exhibition display. Within the context of the Designer of the Year award, the obvious public understanding is that the designer is Hilary Cottam. This ignores our stipulations for use of the images. Even asking at the museum "Who designed that?" gets the inevitable answer from the floor staff, "Hilary Cottam". How are the public expected to know better?'

De Rijke has made several complaints to the museum, but says that 'despite assurances from Rawsthorn, not enough had been done to correct this misrepresentation'.

Rawsthorn, who chaired the jury which made the decision, strongly defends her choice. 'Hilary Cottam is not a designer in the traditional sense, but she is a wonderfully worthy winner of Designer of the Year for the imaginative and innovative way she uses design as a strategic tool to modernise schools, prisons and other critically important areas of our lives.' She insisted that de Rijke had been fully credited as architect at all stages.

Cottam told The Observer that the award was not just for her work on the school. 'I am mortified. All the projects are about teamwork. This is at the heart of our approach. At every stage I've acknowledged the work of the senior management team, de Rijke, Marsh Morgan and our other partners, as I have acknowledged other designers and experts on the work I am currently engaged on at the Design Council. I'm delighted to have received the award and I hope we can start an important debate on what design has to offer the future of public services for all of us.'

The museum's website has used images of the school with designs for an unbuilt prison. This is described as a Cottam project, without identifying the architects responsible for the drawings, Buschow Henley.

The award has also angered Cottam's former employers, the Architecture Foundation, which initiated the schools project in first place. Director Rowan Moore wrote to Rawsthorn when the shortlist was announced, demanding a clarification of the role of his organisation in initiating the process and making the connection between the school and the architects.

'Hilary Cottam worked on the school as an employee of the Architecture Foundation. She did not initiate the project and she was not the prime mover in its success,' says Moore. 'I find the award very disappointing because it does not give credit where credit is due.'

The decision by the museum to give her the award ahead of two less controversial contenders - industrial designer Jasper Morrison and radical Glaswegian textile designers Timorous Beasties - comes as another embarrassment to Design Museum trustees, who did not want further controversy just when the fallout from Dyson's resignation was dying down.

'If Hilary Cottam is a designer, then I am going to nominate a major publisher like Victoria Barnsley of HarperCollins for next year's Booker prize,' says one despairing trustee, Sebastian Conran.


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Architecture Foundation

Alex de Rijke on Kingsdale School

In the current debate about the design of new schools, Kingsdale School makes a powerful case for creative architecture. It is the transformation of a 1960s building, in which De Rijke Marsh Morgan have created a new social and urban space in its centre, with light filtered through its subtle and beautiful roof made from ETFE pillows. It is the result of a pioneering initiative started by the Architecture Foundation, in which De Rijke Marsh Morgan worked with pupils, staff and governors to achieve a design responsive to their needs.

Retained writing on architecture:


Hugh Pearman - http://www.hughpearman.com/articles5/kingsdale.html

Gabion is the site of Hugh Pearman, London-based architecture and design critic. Hugh has been attached to The Sunday Times, London, since 1986, writes for a wide range of other design and consumer titles, is the author of several books, and frequently teaches and lectures. What you find here is a selection - by no means exhaustive - of his writings in various media, including the full, uncut versions of articles previously published in The Sunday Times.

Alex de Rijke goes radical in a South London school.

Text and pictures © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, 18th July 2004, as "In a garden like Eden


U.K. Government policy on secondary schools changes with such bewildering rapidity, it's difficult to keep up. Where are we now? The one-size-fits-all "comprehensive" has apparently had its marching orders. We are back to selection, to schools that ape the grammar schools of the past without calling themselves that. The words "comprehensive" and "school" are deleted. Now we talk of "city academies". So where does this leave Kingsdale School in Dulwich?

Kingsdale is a fast-recovering comprehensive. Don't run away with the idea that because it is in leafy, prosperous Dulwich in South London it must be posh and therefore unrepresentative. No: Kingsdale is a grand piece of 1950s social engineering, a large secondary-modernist block flown in to land, oh irony, right next to the fee-paying prep school for Dulwich College. Kingsdale's pupils are not from the immediate vicinity of big houses with large lawns and SUVs parked in the driveways. They mostly come in from poorer areas further away. This creates a bit of social tension in Dulwich. The locals are not keen on this cuckoo in their nest, these rough kids pouring in and out. But now Kingsdale has been taken in hand.

Presentationally, it has already done just about everything that the Government now says state schools ought to do. It has a uniform. It has been divided into houses. It fast-tracks its most able pupils following an entrance exam at age 11. It has a Saturday school. It is a "centre for excellence" in performing arts. So all the currently modish educational buttons have been pushed. Its exam results have leapt up from its previously abysmal performance. For a co-ed London comp with a high proportion of "special educational needs" children, its results are starting to look respectable. Ofsted is happy. And this was before the £8.6m big architectural makeover, just completed.

Designed by young architects who are starting to get noticed, De Rijke Marsh Morgan (drmm) and funded directly by the government as a demonstration project, this is lateral-thinking stuff. They have taken what was a meanly-designed and decaying former London County Council school with miles of spirit-sapping and sometimes dangerous narrow corridors, and they have turned it into something more resembling the Eden Project in Cornwall. No tinkering about at the margins for Alex de Rijke and his team - they have thought and built big.


The school is a rectangular block with a hollow centre. A school hall used to divide this central space, a hall that was, as de Rijke admits, the most architecturally interesting bit of the original building. It was about the only part that showed the deft touch of its well-regarded architect of the time, Sir Leslie Martin. But the hall could not accommodate all the pupils and it was in the way, so de Rijke demolished it. Then - this sounds so easy - he covered over the resultant single huge courtyard with an inflatable translucent roof. It is made of the same material as the Eden Project's bubbles, but is rather more sophisticated, its layers embossed with an interference pattern that creates dappled shade inside. It has a deliberately op-art effect as you walk around. In very bright sunlight, the roof can automatically darken by deflating slightly to merge two of its three layers.

De Rijke's second move was to abolish the corridors, replacing them with broad first-floor walkways down the two long sides of the courtyard. These in turn are linked by an angled bridge across the centre. Not only does this mean that all the pupils can be seen and accounted for as they move around, but it means that they and the teachers can orientate themselves. Even de Rijke used to get lost in the building. Better still, they are not just walkways. Like the courtyard below, they are lined with seating for pupils and staff to gather and chat. Before, there was nowhere to meet except in classrooms.


The third move was to build an auditorium, suitable for everything from performances to lectures, in the form of a large timber-clad egg that sits towards one end of the newly covered garden courtyard. This enigmatic object rises above the eaves level of the old building - so de Rijke simply raises his new roof at that point to flow over it. Inside the auditorium, he worked with Dutch artists Atelier van Lieshout to make a feature of the air-handling ducts. The result is a deliberately rough-and-ready, crudely welded Y-shaped appendage that doubles as a lighting gantry, and contrasts with the smoothly curving shapes of the plywood bench seating.


The new covered courtyard, with its tough green floor, is allegedly the largest ever created in a British school. It means that there is now a place where everyone can gather when they need to, where exhibitions can be mounted, concerts and plays performed. At one end, the pupils eat their lunches in a café reminiscent of those in the British Museum's Great Court.


I sat there for a bit and watched the life of the school. Gaggles of pupils promenaded along the walkways between lessons, made for the lunch area, or sat in groups. The occasional big-brotherish PA announcement issued instructions - time to do this or that, and don't forget the other. Secondary schools are nearly always slightly alarming places for outsiders, because all educational establishments are private kingdoms, their workings known only to the initiates, while groups of loud, jostling teenage kids are scary at the best of times. But this school is now pretty much self-explanatory, while all that space means that you can stand away from the rush. It feels more like a new university building than an old comp. It's not perfect - there are one or two rubbish-traps created by the new interventions, for instance, and all that sophisticated new architecture inside makes the shabby outside look even shabbier - but it functions smoothly and it feels great.

This is important. They are going to monitor results from now on, but I'd be amazed if a school environment that has been so radically improved didn't have some positive effects on people's sense of well being and behaviour. I'd expect the figures to improve and misdemeanours to decrease. Time will tell. In the meantime, the important lesson is that it's not just endless educational initiatives that can turn a school round. You really can take a sow's ear of a school building and make a silk purse out of it.


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Architecture Week

Recovering Kingsdale by Don Barker

The refurbishment of a dilapidated 50-year-old secondary school in a London suburb has set a number of significant benchmarks for school design in the United Kingdom. The project has lifted concepts of roof design to new heights with what may be the first "variable membrane" roof in the world.

The £12-million transformation of Kingsdale School has already proved an overwhelming success. This is a prime example of how a school can be adapted for the 21st century by reclaiming unused space and turning it into an adventure for the senses, for both children and adults.

The project was undertaken by School Works, an Architecture Foundation initiative, which, unlike other school building initiatives, emphasized the participation of staff, students, and community in the planning. Their three main objectives were upgraded computer training facilities, social inclusion for special-needs students, and local community access.

The architects for the project, de Rijke Marsh Morgan (dRMM), worked in partnership with the user groups to understand the direct and indirect effects of the school building on learning and culture.

Firm principal Alex de Rijke says: "It was the pupils who gave us some of the most useful insights into what needed to be different. We didn't ask the children to design it for us, but from what they gave us we were able to build an informed design."

Reconceiving an Old Building

The initial task was to upgrade the 1950s school and give the 1200 pupils a social center. The previous layout had a small assembly hall and an under-used central courtyard. The redesign provides a state-of-the-art computer training suite on the second floor of the main building.

More dramatically, the design reclaims formerly "dead" courtyard space and exploits the potential of the existing building. It stretches a new roof over the now-interior courtyard, offering new dining facilities, assembly/ performance space, improved circulation, and space for social activities.

De Rijke reports that there was little resistance to the radical design. Only the government's education department challenged the size of the space (34,000 square feet, or 3200 square meters) out of concern for the cost of heating such a large volume.

However, de Rijke explains, temperature under the new roof is passively controlled. "It is a temperate space, similar to a train station, so it can accommodate multiple activities and is an economical to maintain and heat." Because the space is so large, other structures can be built within it, so this is not a "final solution."

The New Roof

The architects considered many options for the roof materials and finally chose an ultra-violet-stable fluoropolymer, ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), welded into cushions. This material requires the least support structure and maximizes daylight in winter.

The cushions are restrained around their perimeter by a frame of extruded aluminum, which is in turn fastened to a supporting primary structure. The roof structure is supported by the existing building, around the perimeter of the courtyard. This gives an open space below, unencumbered by supporting columns.

The cushions are inflated with low-pressure air to provide insulation and to resist wind loads, a system similar to the one used at the Eden Project.

Unlike the Eden roof, however, Kingsdale's roof has a "variable skin." The ETFE cushion's multilayered construction creates climatic envelopes that change insulation and solar transmission levels depending on climatic conditions. These changes affect the visual appearance of the envelope and the amount of solar heat gain penetrating the building.

At 260 by 130 feet (80 by 40 meters), this roof is thought to be the largest of its kind in the world. The system was adapted by dRMM with a screen-printed pattern on two of the three layers of the membrane, providing the daylight control mechanism. When the roof cushions are fully inflated, the printed layers let in 50 percent of available daylight. When the layers are deflated, the daylight penetration can be reduced to five percent.

The Dome Below

Despite the spectacular roof, it is the domed, 314-seat auditorium and library that grabs one's attention in the courtyard. Standing just off center, the pod is a geodesic wood structure. Birch members are connected via lightweight aluminum nodes and covered in plywood. Suspended from its roof is an Atelier van Lieshout's "cannon" that provides electric lighting, air and sound.

The rest of the interior courtyard has been carpeted, encased in glass walls, and is used as a library. High-level walkways on the first floor are wide terraces for some classrooms to open directly onto. This first floor circulation offers a spectacular view of the new infrastructure.

Sharon Wright, managing director of School Works, reports the project is already providing positive results. "There are clustered flexible spaces for interactive group working that resemble and prepare students for the high-tech workplace. There will be access for the local community to a new auditorium and library. And the school is thriving. This year, Kingsdale was also named as one of England's top 20 most improved secondary schools."

Harder to measure but equally powerful, she notes, are the effects that a professional working space has on staff morale and that a beautiful school has on student motivation for learning.

Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek and writes for several periodicals in the United Kingdom.


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Building school success

Kingsdale School has been held up as an exemplar of good practice in school design &endash; but will this experimental approach stand the test of time?

Kingsdale School in south London is a success story. Its dynamic head, Steve Morrison, has reversed a decline in exam results and restored the school's spirit and reputation.

A part of that success is the outcome of a novel experiment in school building, architecture and consultation. Kingsdale teamed up with School Works, set up by Hilary Cottam of the Design Council, got input from the New Labour Think Tank, Demos, and the Architecture Foundation, commissioned the architects de Rijke Marsh and Morgan, and then asked the pupils what they wanted. The outcome is a transformed school building which has won compliments all round. At least, that is the official version.

The big input was the £12 million from the Government's regeneration budget. The money was there to show that New Labour cared about education, and it paid for the refurbishment. By the 1990s, Kingsdale was dilapidated, and it was also demoralised &endash; two things which, though they might influence one another, are not the same.

The school was built by Sir Leslie Martin's London County Council team &endash; creators of the Royal Festival Hall, and opened in 1958. Champions of today's refurbishment, like Jonathan Glancey, dismiss Martin's modernist building for its narrow corridors and bad design. Architect Alex de Rijke goes as far to say that "the school was a mistake born out of a socialist dream". But actually it was a fantastic building and when I went there in 1973 we were in awe of its science-fiction grandeur: the great oblong box of concrete and glass surrounded an open quad, with its cutaway entrance running under the first-floor classrooms, the broad, glass-enclosed concrete stairwells. Its great hall (now demolished), with sunken floor, was a triumph of post-war architecture. Of course, we knew it was alienating, too. But that was part of its appeal. It was a set from Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451", or Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange" (though you could only see that in a book of stills at that time). We called the tannoy system Big Brother. Today the head has a permanent tape loop of the school's achievements running in the foyer, smacking of much the same megalomania.

Visiting the school earlier this year, architect Philip Marsh told me that one of the difficulties of working with the old school was that, like most buildings put up just after the war, there were material shortages, and Martin's team had been innovative in scrimping. Floors were thin scree, and the walls were an innovative honeycomb of plaster, covered in a plaster skin. The honeycomb effect was familiar to me from a hole we had kicked into the wall of our form room, just by the door jam, big enough to squeeze through if the teacher was late for registration.

Kingsdale in the 70s was scruffy and raucous. In 1970 it was attacked by a mob up from Tulse Hill School, after skirmishes in town. On the last day of the spring term, children not taking exams could leave, their surliness multiplying the usual flour-throwing. Once, they barricaded themselves into the headmaster's office and played reggae music over the school tannoy system. Many of the children's complaints to the recent dRMM consultation exercise feel familiar &endash; stinky toilets, dark locker areas and overcrowded corridors. But none of these would have added up to a failing school.

By the 1990s, though, Kingsdale was under the DfE's "special measures" for its poor attendance, and for getting just a seventh of its pupils through five GCSEs in 1999. In 1994 one boy was sent to a young offenders institute after stabbing another in the school. The backdrop to Kingsdale's decline is less to do with the building than it is to do with the depopulation of London schools. As people have moved out to the suburbs, pupil rolls have been falling. In 1990, Tulse Hill was closed, followed by William Penn ("Billy Biro" to us, before it was renamed Dulwich High School), whose pupils were sent to Kingsdale. Problematically, the falling school numbers and the introduction of parental choice have left a few children without places, often refusing the choice of last resort: Kingsdale. Head Steve Morrison admitted, "Children have often ended up here, not by design but because there were few other options for them."

Accounts of Kingsdale at that time verge on the hysterical. But then it is to be expected that reformers should dramatise their own advances by exaggerating existing problems. Alex de Rijke says that Kingsdale was a "mistake" adding that "it is a black school in a white community and a poor school in a rich community". Around 15 per cent of the school was black in the 1970s and, when I went back, it was about 50 per cent black. We were aware of the wealthy Dulwich College next door, viewing it with a mix of class resentment and awe, but happily snuck out to the square for chips, however alien the community. Deputy head Cathy Bryan is still on duty stopping absconders with a stentorian command that has me shaking. Today, 30 per cent of Dulwich College's intake is from ethnic minorities. At the turn of the last century, PG Wodehouse spent "six years of unbroken bliss" there. Bob Monkhouse and Peter Lilley were old boys, too. In the 70s we could see the Officer Training Corps over the wall, training for the coup d'état. There is still little interaction between the two schools, but today it is Dulwich College that is over-subscribed, while Kingsdale's numbers have fallen to 1000.

De Rijke, Marsh and Morgan have made a virtue of art in architecture, and their new auditorium in Kingsdale includes artworks by Dutch design company Atelier Van Lieshout. The auditorium is at the centre of dRMM's changes: it is a wooden, geodesic pod that mushrooms out of one wall of the quad into the available space. A walkway connecting the first-floor corridors has been put in, along with a (rather awkward) second corridor along the inner walls. The whole is crowned by a transparent skin of ethyl tetra fluoro ethylene (ETFE), which can be adjusted to block sunlight using the same principle as Polaroid glasses.

The pupils' input has been taken on &endash; separate eating areas for girls (outnumbered four to one at one point), better bogs and lockers &endash; but it has not been the showcase of the project. The truth is that, like any consultation, it is as good as the input, and children just do not have as much to add as we think they do. The think-tank input was a bit arbitrary, too. The pointy-heads at Demos were very critical of the running around at the school bell &endash; though Kingsdale has never had a bell, only tannoyed pips to mark the end of school lessons. In the end, the proliferation of agencies involved only indicated a lack of decisiveness, and an attempt to gird the loins to action. What has caught the critics' eyes has not been the outcome of the consultations. It has been dRMM's CAD-led innovations.

But these are also indicative of the project's weaknesses. The whole feels like it is a contemporary, curvilinear and computerised doodling on top of the LCC's set-square-drawn, isometrically conceived box &endash; a precise image of post-modernism. Despite the implied contempt for the old building, the new one is not new enough. Sir Lesley would surely have had the courage to knock it down and start again. The effect is striking, but just a bit busy. The pod, too, looked better before the skin was on, with its skeleton revealed.

Site architect Philip Marsh, along with the builders, Galliford Try, are proud of having done the work alongside the pupils, without closing the school. Deputy head Cathy Bryan is pleased to have maintained continuity. But boys I talked to did find the building work distracting. You get the feeling that the school is very defensive &endash; certainly the management team are paranoid about reporters &endash; and dreaded closing down to re-open in new premises, for fear that this would confirm the sense of collapse amongst the pupils.

Instead, Morrison and Rogers have made the story of the school's re-building into a narrative of re-birth, enjoining the students to follow the process. Like the windmill in "Animal Farm", it is the building of it, not the completion, that keeps the spirits up. Back in 1999, Morrison said, "If this project works, we will be able to demonstrate a measurable link between improving buildings and improving the performance of pupils." On the face of things, the project has worked. But that in itself is something of an illusion. Certainly the re-building stands as symbol of the wider society's interest in the school. But the truth is that buildings do not teach children. Teachers do. The building programme the Government began in 1998 substitutes architecture for advances in education. Better buildings, by all means. But when future generations look back on dRMM's re-working of Kingsdale, it will strike them as at least as stuck in its own time as Lesley Martin's original.


Written by James Heartfield, who is is a director of Audacity.org and a former pupil of Kingsdale School.


Prospect Magazine

The EFTE roof spans a large area and selectively controls daylight penetration.

Photo: Alex de Rijke


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words: Kieran Long

Kingsdale School is a lonely example of how England's crumbling state schools could be rethought, redesigned and rehabilitated with imagination rather than mediocrity.

The faded modernism of the original building still has peeling paintwork, but at its heart is an enormous new covered space, more forum than atrium. It is the physical manifestation of the new-found effectiveness and pride of a south London school that just a few years ago epitomised the sorry condition of Britain's state school environments. Just up the road is Dulwich College, one of the country's top private schools. Suddenly its manicured lawns and over-wheening Victoriana look a little less smug.

Kingsdale School was opened in 1957 at the height of a boom in public sector building. Its architect, Leslie Martin, had designed the Royal Festival Hall just five years earlier, and was the director of the Greater London Council's architecture department. At that time the GLC's was the largest architecture office in the world, and it radiated optimism about the potential social effects of the prevailing modernist orthodoxy. However, 40 years later Kingsdale School had become emblematic of the failure of these ideals. By the 1990s it had deteriorated architecturally and academically, and was in "special measures" &endash; a euphemistically titled process designed to save failing schools. Kingsdale decided to shift its curriculum towards more vocational GNVQ qualifications, and to market itself as a centre of lifelong learning &endash; all this to get away from its reputation as a failing comprehensive, and to try to get out of Dulwich College's shadow.

Architect de Rijke Marsh Morgan came to the project as part of the Department for Education and Skills' Schoolworks initiative, which aims to build exemplar schools with designers procured through architectural competitions. As an initiative, Schoolworks feels like closing the door after the horse has bolted, with a host of poorly designed, Private Finance Initiative-funded schools already complete, often plumbing new depths of banality. However, the aspirations remain excellent, and Kingsdale's transformation, achieved through a combination of the school's tenacity and the architect's clever manipulation of the budget, stands as a monument to what can be achieved under an enlightened procurement regime. Following the scheme's success, Kingsdale has secured £9 million worth of extra funding to complete the next phases of the development, including a new sports hall, all by dRMM.

The original building was a disaster. In plan it consisted of a perimeter block of classrooms, with a transverse block housing a dining hall and creating two underused external courtyards. The classrooms were linked by very narrow corridors without windows, which did not function very well as circulation, and provided a haven for bullying and the other types of antisocial behaviour with which the school became increasingly associated. Added to this were the usual problems of modernist public buildings from the period &endash; poor build quality and insulation, exacerbated by inadequate maintenance, had meant that truancy was inevitable, given squalid conditions in toilets and a number of unusable classrooms.

Many options were investigated to convert the original building, including demolition, but in the end it was decided that the school could make dramatic physical changes without spending a disproportionate amount of the budget making good the old building fabric. So now, while the paint still peels on the blue panels of 1960s cladding, the new elements sparkle. The roof bellies out above the plywood-clad auditorium, and a timber lift tower rises like an immaculate campanile against the background of the original building &endash; all symbolic of a new, post-modernist optimism that pervades the school.

Alex de Rijke is generous about Leslie Martin's compromised vision, and although demolition was considered, it was not just for budget reasons that it was decided to retain most of the existing school. "This project was not about erasure &endash; what kind of message would that have sent?" he says. "The building as we saw it was a kind of unfinished modernist project. It already latently had this heroic space and open plans." The main two strategies involved removing the transverse block and covering this new, huge space (de Rijke describes it as the biggest internal space of any school in the UK) with a roof, as well as removing the dingy existing corridors and decanting the circulation onto galleried walkways in the new atrium. The atrium is vast, with a tough green resin floor and concrete planters suggesting a resilient and flexible space, mercifully free of the programmatic obsessions of modernist buildings. The ETFE roof above is the largest of its kind in the world &endash; a variable skin of the same material as the Eden Centre that sits within a steel frame on the existing structure. The roof is ingenious, using a double skin that reacts to the brightness of the sun, shielding the courtyard from the harshest of its rays by manipulating the printed patterns, making the ETFE as opaque as necessary.

The courtyard created by the roof is strictly speaking an external space, open to the elements in the sense that the roof sits proud of the existing building. The space is not heated, except by the sun through the semi-transparent roof panels, and through heat gain from the poorly-insulated facades facing it.

One of the best things about de Rijke Marsh Morgan is its sophisticated but unpatronising style. The building feels beautifully poised between a very contemporary aesthetic and a material identity that is not alienating. It also shows an immense amount of respect for the students. The plywood panels cladding the auditorium, for example, are not protected and do not stop at easy-to-reach places. They continue down to the ground, confident that they will not be vandalised. The project refuses to file away all the potentially difficult corners for the sake of saving finishes &endash; there is no plastic coving to stop the paintwork chipping. The classrooms themselves are enlarged and simply painted, often in bright colours, but it is the spaces that punctuate the former corridor racetrack that remind you of the architect's touch with limited resources. There is something very spatial, even urban, about the experience of walking around the corridors leading to classrooms and offices. While the section hasn't changed much, the tweaks to the plan mean that corridors terminate in relaxed, open spaces, well surveilled by surrounding offices.

The roof is clearly the main intervention, and it is exuberantly and beautifully done. De Rijke describes himself as being the partner most interested in structure and building, and his partner Philip Marsh as the one who does form (Marsh is responsible for the auditorium's final distorted geodesic configuration). De Rijke's excitement is palpable when he describes the strategy of the roof. It is deliberately a discrete structure, not intended to be particularly contextual. The points where the structure lands on the old building do not line up with the bays of the Martin building (although the structure of the walkways does), and its form is dictated only by an acknowledgement of the auditorium pod, at which point the roof rises to create its distinctive sectional profile. This mound is not really legible from inside the atrium, but the changes in the truss structure create a parabolic trompe l'oeil effect. Despite the high technology of the roof, its effect is reminiscent of artistic works contemporary with the original building &endash; the structure is like Barbara Hepworth's Winged Figure (put on the side of John Lewis on Oxford Street in 1962) on steroids, and de Rijke admits referring to Bridget Riley to characterise the patterns printed on the ETFE.

The one question about this space is an acoustic one. On my visit, the school's steel band was playing arrangements of bad boy rapper 50 Cent's records at maximum volume, which made it very difficult to hear much else. What the noise levels will be like during a rowdy breaktime is anyone's guess. But I'd wager that the rooms looking out on the space will not be the most serene.

There is something about the distended geodesic geometry of the triangle-clad auditorium and its blond timber cladding that also feels like a piece of Sixties design, but with something gone wrong with the rational language of modernist decoration. The auditorium's interior is an absolute delight. The geometry of the room is established first by the grid of triangles, but then subverted brilliantly by Atelier van Lieshout's intervention. When de Rijke first asked Joep van Lieshout to be involved in the project, with a brief to make "useful furniture", he asked immediately to do the air conditioning, and came up with a huge, mild-steel air extract, off centre and cantilevered far out into the space. This rusting piece of junk metal is fabulous, like an exploded car exhaust, rusting and hanging precariously above the pristine surfaces below. It completes and subverts the spatial effect, which otherwise is what de Rijke describes as "an essay in plywood." The space behind and underneath the raked seating of the auditorium will become the library, and is perhaps the least satisfying space in the project. Although it is ingenious and economic, and cleverly uses the lower level of the original transverse building that stood here, it feels a little like the poor cousin of Koolhaas' Kunsthal café in Rotterdam, with none of the openness. The views from the slightly higher level of the atrium floor are great, though.

There is little doubt that this is the most important school building completed in Britain in a very long time. However, the comparison with the original building is marked. When Leslie Martin built Kingsdale, it was part of a huge explosion in architect-designed school building. DRMM's project has some of the same social optimism that characterised Fifties architecture, and is a wonderful two fingers up at the aloof Dulwich College. One feels, though, that dRMM's school will remain a beautiful, glorious exception to the general rule of school buildings. In the context of their career, it is a hugely important project, and will be the UK's most talked about internal public space since the Great Court of the British Museum. And it's better than that.



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Kingsdale School - Home Page

Specialist College in Performing Arts

The Multimedia School of Academic, Creative and Vocational Studies
Alleyn Park, Dulwich,  London SE21 8SQ
Telephone: 0208 670 7575   Fax: 0208 766 7051
Head Teacher:  Mr. S. Morrison


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Kingsdale School

Kingsdale School is one of the first schools to have the whole of the college interior under one roof. Galliford Try carried out the construction of an innovation in school design incorporating a "bubble" style roof and modifications to the entrance for associated surface water drainage.

The project comprised the new build construction within the occupied school including creating a new roof over the main courtyard, together with the construction of walkways and a bridge at the first floor level, an auditorium, a library, a new dining area and assembly hall.

Central to the scheme is the major development to the main school structure, including alterations, extensions to classrooms and refurbishment to the whole building. In line with the focus on improvement, Galliford Try also carried out extension and refurbishment works to the music block and the gymnasium changing rooms.

Client: The London Borough of Southwark
Value: £8m
Location: South London


see also: "Please miss, can I have a detention?"

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June 05 Last Updated June 05