A school by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris will play a crucial role in integrating the Olympic site with its neighbours, says Ricky Burdett. Photographs: Tim Soar.

View of Chobham Academy from the playground. The £33m tripartite school will serve 1800 pupils aged three to 18 (ph: Rob Parrish).

Chobham Harris Academy feels like a school. It doesn’t smell like one yet, but I’m sure it’s well on its way. This is quite an achievement for a building that has not had a ‘proper’ educational client and will not hear the shrieks of five-year-olds or the growls of teenagers for another year and a half. Yet, the building resonates with institutional gravitas even though its first incarnation will be as a gym and offices for some of the 17,000 athletes who will occupy the Athletes’ Village this summer for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The school is a linchpin between the Olympic site and its social and spatial hinterland. Located on the eastern edge of Europe’s largest regeneration project in the Lower Lea Valley, it is close to Leyton and Stratford where mixed communities have for generations inhabited East London’s unremarkable neighbourhoods of three-storeyed terraced streets and concrete housing estates. At the same time it occupies pole position in the rigid grid of superblocks that defines the Athletes’ Village, a five-minute walk from the mammoth Westfield shopping centre and Stratford International station.

Model showing the ETFE roof, facade and atrium interior of the Main Building; aerial view of the academy at the head of the axial boulevard that organises the Athletes’ Village. The 2661 sq m Phase One building is to the left; the 8472 sq m Main Building is in the centre; and the 4163 sq m Specialism Building, with a saw-tooth roof, is on the right.

Recently re-baptised as the catchier ‘East Village’ by its new suitably global owners Qatari Diar, by late 2013 the Village will be inhabited by an ‘instant’ community of social and private tenants who will live in the first 2700 homes – many of them four-bedroom townhouses for families with children – where nearly 40 per cent of the units are owned by East Thames housing association. Up to 8,000 homes are to follow as the Olympic legacy masterplan fills out across the wider site, establishing the catchment area for this vital component of the emerging piece of city.

The academy is not a single institution but a campus with three distinct components: an infant school, an upper school and a specialism building for arts, performance and sports. The ‘all-through’ campus will accommodate 1800 kids from the ages of three to 18 (from pre-school to sixth form), creating the sort of mixed economy that could generate a more vibrant dynamic than the traditional primary or high school. In terms of programme, this particular academy harks back to the 1967 Plowden Report (Children and their Primary Schools) which called for more experiential learning, increased parental involvement, universal pre-school education and social priority zones to boost opportunities for the less privileged. While it is unlikely that our twenty-first century neo-con political culture will embrace such ideals, the multi-dimensional campus has the ingredients to create a far more integrated learning environment than most idiosyncratic academic buildings of recent times. The mere fact that parents and pupils of all ages and diverse backgrounds will come to the buildings at different times of day or the week, to collect toddlers, meet friends or use the non-academic facilities on a 24/7 basis for weddings and receptions will, I suspect, contribute to a very different sense of place. The building and its edges will have to accommodate everything from pram congestion to hooded/unhooded youths ‘creeping unwillingly to school’, smoking joints, exchanging Twitter messages or simply ‘hanging out’ outside the school gates.

Ground-, first- and fourth-floor plans: 1 primary building entrance, 2 reception, 3 atrium, 4 administration, 5 teaching, 6 dining, 7 learning resource, 8 plant, 9 changing, 10 theatre, 11 staff area, 12 hall, 13 catering, 14 playground, 15 Chobham Square, 16 classroom, 17 music, 18 breakout teaching space, 19 theatre, 20 bridge to playing fields, 21 brown roof, 22 Sixth Form study, 23 library, 24 group room, 25 terrace, 26 green roof.

The building, therefore, has a significant urban vocation as well as an educational one. AHMM was ideally placed to respond to this multi-faceted brief, given its dual role as adviser to the masterplan for the Athletes’ Village (for the Olympic Delivery Authority and Lend Lease) and its expertise in school design, celebrated in recent buildings like the Stirling Prize-shortlisted Westminster Academy. It is therefore both an intrinsically urban building, Janus-like, facing the emerging urban landscape of the Olympic Park and an intimately scaled environment for a transient population – some of them less than a metre high.

Placed on axis with a major boulevard that opens out towards the Olympic Park – elegantly landscaped by Vogt – the view from the upper floors of the academy takes in Anish Kapoor’s Orbit as well as Norman Foster’s Gherkin and Renzo Piano’s Shard in the distance. Such a classic urban planning device confers on the building a civic status that transcends its scale and function. A century ago, one might have expected a grand cathedral or public library to inhabit such a lofty location. Yet today, the building is dwarfed by the eight- to ten-storey apartment blocks that surround it, and within a decade could be further affected by 20-plus-storey structures that already have planning permission, all within a stone’s throw of the school gates.

During the design process, the architect often complained that there was not enough ‘programme’ to make the building sit up and be noticed – its brief only adds up to a five storey building with two-storey extensions. Nonetheless, AHMM has firmly stood its ground. By employing classical planning devices and formal geometry, the architect has succeeded in intensifying the urban presence of the school. It is, in effect, a building designed as much from the outside-in as inside-out. A central five-storey drum confidently marks the territory at the apex of the grand axis. Two lateral blocks, one rectilinear the other a serrated square, flank the drum creating a degree of enclosure to a tight urban square dominated by Eric Parry’s eight-storey apartment building to the southwest. It is as if Gunnar Asplund’s canonical Stockholm library had been cranked open, and its orthogonal wings dislocated to form a tripartite partie that neatly captures the distinct functional components of the academy: an upper school in the drum; an infant school in the rectilinear block; and the specialism building in the side wing. A landscaped garden and playgrounds (by Lynn Kinnear) will cleverly screen the classroom areas from the railway tracks that define the eastern edge of the site. A 95-metre corten steel footbridge further extends the school’s reach over Temple Mill Lane to generous sports fields to the north and east, towards Leyton and existing residential communities from which the first intake of students will be drawn when its gates open in 2013.

The basic planning partie belies a highly pragmatic design methodology that has served AHMM well in a string of recent award-winning buildings. In the absence of a visionary headmaster, the plan has taken over as a regulatory authority. The architect has, in effect, invented a solution that responds to the technical brief with precision but also allows a degree of flexibility to adjust to future pedagogical regimes and class sizes. The classrooms in the infant and upper schools have been designed to move around as needed, and the ground floor of the drum is equally adaptable to reconfiguration given the simplicity of its loadbearing in-situ concrete structure.

The academy shown within the Athletes' Village

1 Nursery block, 2 Main Building, 3 Specialism Building, 4 Phase One entry, 5 Phase Two and Three entry, 6 entrance plaza, 7 access to sports facilities, 8 school entry to Specialism Building, 9 covered play space, 10 car park, 11 bridge, 12 landscaped playground, 13 multi-use games area, 14 pitch, 15 cricket nets, 16 forested embankment.

Though the three structures are linked, they function as discrete elements. The infant school occupies an appropriately scaled two-storey linear structure that abuts the south-facing garden, with a single-storey daycare centre that defines the street edge. Inside, the single-height spaces provide a double-height experience for small users. The simple arrangement of a central corridor and side classrooms feels intimate and permeated by daylight (with circular light wells on the upper floor), rather than institutional and inward-looking. Great care has been taken to provide light and views at infant eye-level – with circular portholes at adult and child height in the nursery classrooms. Colour is used judiciously, in a more sedate manner than at other AHMM buildings, to provide counterpoint and identity.

The Main Building, which contains four levels of classrooms surrounding a circular full-height atrium, is more dramatic in its impact even though this is achieved with relatively modest gestures. The classic problem of disorientation in circular spaces is mitigated by the intrusion into the central drum of two ‘lobes’ containing teaching and office spaces. Three brightly painted stair cores are slightly hidden off the central atrium but will no doubt become active social spaces in the daily routine of the school. Arrival from the main entrance will be an uplifting experience simply as a result of the vertical visual excitement of this classic architectural device further animated by the sounds and shadows of people moving along the internal facing corridors. While the space lacks the drama and dynamism of the Guggenheim ramp, it demonstrates an understanding of theatricality and scale that will serve future generations of school kids in East London well.

Main building atrium.

Sunlight penetration is deep, forming strong contrasts and varied experiences during the day and throughout the seasons. Daylight permeates from the ETFE roof and side windows making a more pleasurable circulation space than the drab double-loaded corridors so prevalent in senior school designs. Circulation areas have been cleverly combined with work areas adjacent to the Sixth Form study areas on the fourth floor, with individual study desks located in the generous corridors, though concentration may prove difficult at peak hours with hundreds of students moving between classrooms below. The roof terraces are an added bonus. Generously planned, they are not leftover spaces littered with technical plant, but attractive open areas with exceptional views of the surrounding urban landscape, with the Velodrome to the north-west and the grand landscaped axis to the south.

The Specialism Building provides some of the more architecturally complex and rewarding experiences of the project. AHMM struggled with the final shape of this building for some time before finding what feels like a natural solution to the site. The building addresses the adjacent public space with a certain confidence, even though it lacks the height to compete with its taller neighbours. But what it can’t achieve in size, it makes up for in the texture and richness of internal spaces and its dramatic saw-tooth roof. The double-height entrance lobby is genuinely grand. Blank concrete walls and circular rooflights enrich the experience providing a clear reference point for any visitor to the building. Importantly, this facility will not only be used by students to access the dramatic art rooms with north-facing skylights – which possess a raw industrial quality of space and light – but also by visitors and students who will attend performances or use the sports hall when the school itself may be closed. During the design process, it became clear that there was great need amongst East London’s Asian community for large spaces for weddings and religious celebrations. It is more than likely that the architecture of the building will contribute to its success as a 24/7 operation that reaches out to the wider community, helping the academy fulfil one of its principal aspirations.

Specialism Building theatre lobby.

The three structures are unified to a degree by the design of their facades. Composed of plain glass panels, back painted in white to highlight the green colour that reflects its high iron content, they offer a respectful response to the muted colour palette of the surrounding residential blocks. Slanted air intake cowls act as heavy eyelids that define the scale of the buildings’ storey heights. The building sponsor, Nigel Hugill (now chair of the academy’s board of governors) originally favoured a stronger orange tone for the exterior, which carried favour with the architects who so enjoy the use of colour in many of their other buildings. But despite the attempt at unification, the buildings read and work as three separate entities rather than as parts of an organic whole. This, to my mind, is not a weakness. It is a recognition that the architecture needs to regulate three very diverse metabolisms of educational life, especially in the absence of an overall ‘conductor’ who can determine how the instruments are fine-tuned.

Chobham Harris Academy will, I believe, work well as a school. It will also play an incommensurately significant role as part of the wider regeneration project for London. Over time, it has the potential to act a social condenser for both existing and new communities in the area – a litmus test of whether the entire Olympic project will become an integrated part of East London or stand as an isolated ghetto. It inhabits the frontier zone between Stratford’s past and future. If the school succeeds in becoming ‘home’ to parents and children from these areas as well as the new generations of inhabitants who will occupy the Olympic site, the wider project will, to my mind, succeed. If it doesn’t, it will fail. I suspect that AHMM’s architecture will help the Olympic legacy on its way, marking its transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Ricky Burdett is a professor of urban studies at the LSE and was chief adviser on architecture and urbanism to the ODA from 2006 to 2010.

Project team
Architect: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris; design team: Simon Allford (pictured, left), Stefan Busher, Jon Brent (centre), Ben Clark, Corinne Davidson, Cormac Farrelly, Jonathan Hall, Jonathan Harris, Anita Howard, Tamsin Landells, Will Lee, Federico Nassetti, Timothy Neville-Lee, Paul Monaghan, Peter Morris, Andrew O’Donnell, Mirin Leon-Perfecto, Maria Plura, Louise Regan, Jonathan Rixon, Christian Schwedler, Holli Thackray, Philip Turner (right), Joe Wright; structural engineer: Adams Kara Taylor; civils: Arup; project manager: Lend Lease; qs: Gardiner & Theobald; services engineer: Buro Happold, Hoare Lea; landscape: Kinnear Landscape Architects; fire consultant: JGA Fire; main contractor: BAM; acoustic consultant: Hawksmoor; traffic consultant: WSP Group; theatre design: Charcoal Blue; access consultant: David Bonnett Assocs; client representative: George Cochrane; client: Lend Lease.

Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Trade contractors: Parry Bowen, Thorp, Litchfield, Lee Warren, WRR, Toureen Mangan, Graham Wood, Atlantic Joinery, Lab Systems; facades: Schüco, Lindner; ceilings: SAS; doors: Leaderflush; cubicles: Grant Westfield; drywall: Fermacell; sanitaryware: Ideal Standard; plasterboard: British Gypsum; flooring: Nora, Duracryl; screeds: Ryebrook; paint: Dulux; lighting: Zumtobel, Iguzzini, Encapsulite.

First published in AT227, April 2012

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