More with less subtle interventions by Walters & Cohen have transformed two schools in Bristol, says John Waldron.
In terms of impact, the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, scrapped just two months after the coalition government took power, had the potential to match the post-war school building boom. Over a period of just five years it resulted in a significant number of new and upgraded schools that achieve architectural excellence while meeting their users’ needs with rigour and sensitivity. BSF additions to two schools in Bristol, designed by Walters & Cohen for the Skanska-led Local Education Partnership, exemplify what is possible when dedicated architects work with visionary clients and a supportive education authority.
The locations of the schools could not be more different: Cotham School, an academy with ‘high performing specialist status’, is in a leafy Victorian suburb, while Colston’s Girls’ School, recently designated as an academy, fronts directly onto Cheltenham Road, a stone’s throw from April 2011’s so-called Tesco riots. But they share similar challenges: both anticipated growing student numbers, both had acquired an accretion of structures around original buildings, and both were in conservation areas.
Built as a grammar school, Cotham consisted of a well-proportioned 1930s stone and brick building, but various ad-hoc extensions had fragmented the remaining area. A recent teaching wing, curving away from the original building to embrace the playing fields and terminating in a sports hall, had resulted in the attenuation of internal corridors such that the school no longer had a discernable centre of gravity. Access difficulties were compounded by a storey-height level change from front to back.
The brief was to provide for an increase in the school population from 1300 to 1480 and to replace art, science, humanities, languages and design technology facilities. Circulation and access issues were to be resolved, indoor and outdoor spaces provided, and the main entrance improved. The architectural response is deceptively simple, with a sinuous two-storey circulation spine, attached to the original building and running north-south, terminating with a new entrance on Cotham Road. An upper-level walkway, protected from the elements by an open timber screen, gives access to the science laboratories. Here daylighting in the deep plan is enhanced by clerestorey windows, with a change in section differentiating between areas for practical and written work. Any temporary discomfort experienced when classroom doors are opened to the circulation route on a cold day is more than compensated for by excellent cross-ventilation which, together with the thermal mass of the concrete soffits, helps avoid the problems of poor air quality and overheating that have beset many newly-built schools.
The faceted timber screen, a nod to Denys Lasdun’s Hallfield School in Bayswater, provides glimpses of a new outdoor social space and oblique views of the existing building. Whether concrete paving was appropriate in areas not washed by rain can be debated, but otherwise this is a delightful space that makes the business of learning visible along the whole route. Externally the screen provides a dramatic backdrop to the courtyard, knitting together the existing structures while protecting neighbours’ privacy.
A hallmark of Walters & Cohen’s work is its ability to extract delight from essentially functional features. For example, the device of simply widening the first floor where it meets the stairs to allow for increased traffic creates an interesting interplay between the timber screen and the deck. Setting the first-floor level to match the original building meant the ground-floor art rooms could be almost double-height, giving a great sense of drama. The extra volume is further exploited where the spine touches the existing dining space, providing a social ‘hub’ outside the brief, and effectively shifting the school’s centre of gravity.
The landscaping in this area – not by Walters & Cohen – lacks the attention to detail apparent elsewhere. The space between the wings is more successful, however, with a variety of areas that flow down the contours while allowing for discreet supervision.
The decision to link both sides of the site with the spine demanded a strong statement where it meets Cotham Road. Here a series of steps and ramps combine with a cantilevered flank wall to create an impact not altogether appropriate to the relatively small number of students who currently use it. On the other hand it is in the nature of schools and their changing catchment areas that this could one day become a more significant arrival point. In every other respect Walters & Cohen’s modest addition – less than one quarter of the total floor area – has an impressively disproportionate impact on the whole school, unlocking the convoluted circulation routes, transforming the learning and social spaces and engendering a new sense of collective pride.
The original 1930s building has also been given a new lease of life. Dado-height glazed tiles have been restored, woodblock floors stripped, and accretions cleared away to reveal the quality of the original. One has a sense that after another 80 years, the simple proportions and natural materials of the new building will have stood the test of time equally well.
Across the city, Walters & Cohen’s work at Colston’s Girls’ School also shows how intelligent design can resolve complex issues. The grade-II listed building, built in 1891 by William Venn Gough in an eclectic mixture of gothic and northern renaissance, is a dominant presence on Cheltenham Road. Despite its academic reputation, numbers at the school had been falling, possibly a consequence of Bristol’s investment in its maintained secondary schools. In 2008, however, Colston’s converted to academy status and gained access to a share of the city’s BSF funding. This has resulted in the construction of new teaching accommodation and a performing arts centre, allowing an increase in student numbers from 380 to 720, as well as addressing longstanding maintenance issues and, crucially, the organisation and image of the school as a whole.
Walters & Cohen located the performing arts block immediately on the street frontage, replacing a car park, and hiding the blank end wall of the sports hall. The two-storey glazed link with the existing buildings provides a welcoming entrance for students and a foyer for the arts and sports facilities. Doubling as a social space, it allows glimpses of the previously hidden landscaped area behind the school.
On the upper level the art rooms provide a flexible space of great subtlety with a variety of daylighting effects and windows that frame the streetscape views.Within the listed building the laboratories were relocated to allow the library to be placed more strategically at the centre of the school. The route between the library and the performing arts centre forms an axis around which the whole complex is organised. Exploiting a fall across the site, the music rooms were accommodated at a lower level, allowing the roof to contribute to the hard play space. In conventional terms the cost of this might be difficult to justify but on such a congested site it makes good economic sense.
Principal Lesley Ann Jones was involved with the detail design throughout, for example in ensuring the original teak laboratory worktops were recycled to provide balustrade cappings in the foyer. Likewise, a passion for geology led her to visit the stonemason’s yard to help select the granite floor for the entrance.
In resisting the temptation to follow their predecessors in copying the ‘streaky bacon’ brickwork of the listed building, and instead proposing an uncompromisingly modern building on the street, the architects risked conflict with the planning authority. Their response is beautifully nuanced, however, with the texture and pattern of the brickwork acknowledging the existing building in a contemporary manner while the elevational treatment at ground level strikes a fine balance between the openness demanded by the planners and the school’s need for privacy.
As the political emphasis shifts away from new-build schools, these two buildings demonstrate what can be achieved with the challenging sites that characterise much of the existing school estate. Few question Ofsted’s mantra that student outcome arises primarily from teaching quality, but the impact of intelligent design on student behaviour and motivation, staff morale and parents’ perception is here undeniable.
John Waldron is principal of spaces4learning. Formerly schools director at Architecture PLB, he is a member of the South-West Design Review Panel and Bristol Urban Design Forum.
Walters & Cohen
Founded in 1994 by Cindy Walters (pictured left) and Michál Cohen, born and educated respectively in Australia and South Africa, Walters & Cohen quickly established a reputation for the thoughtful intent and material qualities of its work across many sectors. Its school projects have attracted particular attention and won many awards.
Project team (Cotham)
Architect: Walters & Cohen; design team: Giovanni Bonfanti (pictured), Michál Cohen, Anton van Aswegen, Kirsten Holland; project manager, costs: Skanska UK; structural/m&e engineer: Arup (Bristol); ICT: Northgate; landscape: MacGregor Smith; contractor: Skanska Construction; photos: Dennis Gilbert.
Suppliers and subcontractors (Cotham)
Steelwork: William Haley Engineering; roofing: Allmass; timber screens, balustrades: Long Engineering; glazing: Solaglas Architectural Systems; brickwork, stonework: Sandford Building Contractors; render: Woodman Bros & Sons; carpentry: Edgewood Joinery; waterproofing: Radmat; standing seam roof: Kalzip; windows, rooflights: Technal; brickwork
accessories: Ancon; brickwork: Ibstock; ceilings: Burgess Architectural Products; blockwork: Tarmac Topblock; plasterboard partitions: Knauf Drywall; internal doors: Timbmet; wc cubicles: Amwell Systems; glazed blockwork: Forticrete; paving: Charcon, Aggregate Industries; carpet: Heckmondwike; lino, vinyl floor: Forbo Nairn; rubber floor: Altro; paint: ICI Paints; tiles: H&R Johnson.
Project team (Colston’s)
Architect: Walters & Cohen; design team: Cindy Walters, Catherine Sunter, Lorenzo Baldini, Anton van Aswegen; project manager, costs: Skanska UK; structural engineer: Skanska Technology; m&e engineer: Arup (Bristol); ICT consultant: Northgate; landscape architect: 4D Landscape Design; contractor: Skanska Construction; photos: Dennis Gilbert.
Suppliers and subcontractors (Colston’s)
Steelwork: William Haley Engineering; glazing: Solaglas Architectural Systems; waterproofing: Radmat; standing seam roof: Kalzip; windows, rooflights: Technal; facing brickwork: Wienerberger; external render: Permarock; blockwork: Tarmac Topblock; plasterboard partitions: Knauf Drywall; acoustic ceiling panels: St Gobain Ecophon; internal doors: Timbmet Door Solutions; wc cubicles: Amwell Systems; carpet: Burmatex; linoleum, vinyl flooring: Forbo Nairn; paint: ICI Paints; tiling: H&R Johnson.
First published in AT229, June 2012