Greg Penoyre on the fruits of van Heyningen & Haward’s long-term involvement with Latymer Upper School in west London. Photos: Nick Kane
The three buildings designed over the last 15 years by van Heyningen & Haward at Latymer Upper School provide an insight into the development and gathering maturity of approach at the practice. The designs reflect not only a changing architectural culture but also the evolving nature of the office itself. Rather than follow a dominant doctrine of formal composition, each building is an essay in its own right, reflecting the preoccupations of the time and all within arguably the most productive and varied period of the practice’s work.
To the visitor Latymer Upper School is an oasis of red brick gothic in the London stock brick and stucco of Hammersmith. One has the feeling of entering a small medieval town with characteristic typologies: a picturesque square, complete with special tree, small ‘streets’ and a variety of ‘houses’. All this is held together by the strong hues of terracotta, red brick and paviors. The result is a memorable identity and a strong sense of place for the school. When van Heyningen & Haward arrived on the scene, the site was an ad hoc accretion of buildings of varying quality. At its heart was the extraordinary original 1890s school building. The site is long and thin, stretching from King Street to the River Thames, and so too is the original school; an attenuated ‘head and tail’ building with a hall at the front and teaching spaces running back down the site, either side of a central rooflit corridor. This ‘gothic’ structure, with green glazed brick and varnished pine interiors, had a strong presence on the site, and required delicate handling both in the masterplan and in the design of the adjacent new buildings. Not untypically the van Heyningen & Haward masterplan came about only after its first building was complete and as the desirability of an overall vision for change became clear. The restricted site has demanded ingenuity and skill to make best use of available space, leading to dramatic scale changes and juxtapositions, which in urban design terms are ‘eventful’, if not actually risky.
The buildings are very much in the van Heyningen & Haward tradition, designed with firmness and clarity and at a human scale. They are also made to last, in a palette of ‘decent’ materials too often out of reach in the design and procurement of schools that lack the resources of this independent co-ed. The first to be built, the Edward Latymer Theatre and Arts Centre (1995-99), is functional but intimate. Perhaps because of the proximity of the adjacent performing arts centre, the entrance seems played down. Once inside one arrives in a small but satisfying atrium and gallery space before striking left into the auditorium. The practice’s expertise in acoustics has ensured that the atrium space works well; a balance of hard and absorbent surfaces make a calm but robust environment of quarry tiles and white plaster, in marked contrast to the timber-lined ‘casket’ of the theatre itself.
The Performing Arts Centre (2005-08) is at the heart of the masterplan. Placed axially facing the new central square, it is the most overtly ‘public’ of the group. The building has a distinctively strong plan, again characteristic of the practice, with an open and inviting glazed frontage onto the ‘square’ and more sensitive inward-looking spaces, including the recital room, within. Apart from the transparent frontage it is a building of few windows and the long brick flanks have minimal articulation. This is where the overall scheme gets interesting. The performing arts building is slipped into the space between the long facade of original school building and the theatre block, with little room between. The narrow passages, arcaded on one side, provide circulation and outdoor social space at a contrasting scale to the open central square, and together they give the whole the feeling of a small town.
Although not entirely new (the previous buildings removed to make way for these had similar juxtapositions), these scale changes and adjacencies are a happy outcome of the masterplan and site constraint.
The Science & Library Building (2005-10) brings the van Heyningen & Haward additions at Latymer up to date, with a mature, assured design on a larger, more ‘grown-up’ scale. The suggestion is more university than school, perhaps a conscious move to foster the young adult in the students. This is the most expressive of the group and, standing forward of adjacent buildings, it has a dominant presence within the school. The entrance is off the corner of the square, also somewhat underplayed, but this is compensated for by the firmness and clarity of the interior. The position of the library on the ground floor gives the whole building a studious and purposeful air. Rising from within the library the four-storey atrium unites all the floors and importantly provides the basis for the passive ventilation strategy. This atrium is definitely narrow and one can feel the pressures of floor area constraint and site fit coming to bear in its design. However it works effectively to interconnect the three science floors above the library. These are differentiated somewhat predictably by colour coding the doors. Fortunately the identity of the three sciences is also expressed in display cabinets of relevant curiosities, welcome expressions of the learning life of the building.
The library is a broad open space occupying the full depth of the plan. By contrast the science teaching spaces above comprise cellular and traditional laboratories. No Building Schools for the Future ‘transformational learning’ rhetoric here; instead the traditional relationship between teacher and class is emphasised.
Externally the design is a departure. Corporate terracotta cladding replaces the comfortable red brick of the earlier buildings and the east and west facades are punctuated with powerful white polycarbonate brises soleil. These hang like banners and have an expectant air, as if waiting to be adorned with latter-day medieval emblems. Interestingly the architects have chosen to give the contextually quite different school-facing and street-facing sides near identical elevations.
The detailing of the new building is exemplary, a subject of pride and importance to the practice, and the happy outcome of a traditionally procured building with an appropriate budget. The architects were given a fairly free hand to determine materials, a reflection of the long-term trust built up with the client. The internal timber acoustic linings, carefully contrasted with the exposed concrete, show meticulous detailing and specification. The degree of control, down to positioning of switchgear and displays (the bane of many institutional buildings), shows just how worthwhile that effort is.
This last piece in the Latymer jigsaw fits snugly into place. Now only the immediate external landscape awaits completion. As the school’s central (and only significant) outdoor space as well as its social and circulation heart, attention to material detail here will be as important as anywhere. If these buildings represent three chapters in the van Heyningen & Haward oeuvre, the first might be summarised as having an intimate and economic firmness, the second as more exploratory and dramatic and the third as assured and corporate. This richness of approach, all very much within the over-arching aesthetic of the practice, has led to a sophisticated and memorable assembly of buildings at Latymer Upper School.
Chris Wilderspin of vHH writes:
Following completion of the Theatre and Arts Centre in 1999, we realised that Latymer could use the precious external spaces of its tight urban site more effectively. Removing car parking would give the students more outdoor social space, and we proposed a landscape strategy that would tie the disparate buildings together by means of a ‘red carpet’ of brick paving that resonated with the original Victorian building. The development plan proposed a number of interventions that would give greater meaning to the spaces – the new square is animated by the Performing Arts Building with a glazed foyer, and the reading area of the new library looks onto this space.
Each of the three buildings has been a development of an architectural language, beginning with the red brick Arts Centre, a direct response to the original building. The Performing Arts Centre has a more abstract expression with its fin walls of red brick holding north and south elevations of glass and zinc respectively. The Science & Library Building is a further iteration, sitting on a red brick plinth with red terracotta tiles above – two red clay materials with differing forms.
A fourth building, a sports pavilion on Latymer’s playing fields at Wood Lane in north Kensington, opened in 2004.
Greg Penoyre is a principal in Penoyre & Prasad, whose recent school projects include the Woodside Learning Campus, north London.
Architect: van Heyningen & Haward Architects; design team: Chris Wilderspin, Matt Patterson, Adrian Truan, Alex Thomas, Ben Buswell, Birkin Haward, Camilla Pitt, Dana Haqjoo, George Omalianakis, Hazel Thompson, Peter McMahon, Richard Faith, Rupert Willard, Sira Warneke, Sophie Teh, Yuli Sung; client: Latymer Upper School; qs, CDM coordinator: Synergy; m&e, acoustic engineer: Max Fordham; structural engineer: Price & Myers.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Main contractor: Higgins Construction; m&e subcontractor: Briggs & Forrester Special Projects; concrete: Corbyn; in-slab cooling: Batiso, LTI Advanced Systems Technology; structural glazing, glazed link: Cantifix; facade design, terracotta cladding, brises soleil: LSC Facades; windows: Velfac; rooflights: Vitral; steel/aluminium doors: Fendor, Velfac; timber doors: Leaderflush Shapland; bespoke furniture, lab benches: Cre8 Interiors; joinery: Hatfull Bros; handrails: Handrail Design; raised access floor: Kingspan; floor finishes: Nora, Gradus, Interface Flor.
AT215/ February 11, p48.