Schools are interesting as a building type for a variety of reasons: they have a clear function, i.e. accommodating children and organising teaching and learning; there are clear temporal patterns in usage and stark differences between classroom activities and the times before, after and in between; and the interface of schools is complex, too, in allowing teacher – pupil interactions, but also pupil – pupil and teacher – teacher contacts. A fascinating analysis of school life and everyday contacts has been made by colleagues from ISI Torino, but even more fascinating is the associated visualisation of contact patterns.
A school essentially is a combination of a workplace and a playground, it is a social arena and a learning environment. Therefore, last weekend’s London Open House offered a good opportunity to see a recent and modern new school building from the inside.
I visited ‘The Bridge Academy’ in Hackney, built in 2008 by BDP on a very narrow and compact site for more than 1000 pupils. It was advertised as “a piece of urban design integrated into the city fabric”, an “architectural origami” featuring “magnificent roof-spaces for performing, learning and play”. All of that sounded fascinating, and I wasn’t disappointed. The building is wrapped around a central heartspace, creating vistas from and to the library and the galleries on all the different floors.
BDP talk about the school as a design maximising social cohesiveness in a school without corridors. There is a lot of interesting material on BDP’s website including a series of videos explaining the key design concepts.
Indeed, the main circulation has no corridor feel. Instead, all major pathways lead along the open galleries and visibility is key. Not only can you see up and down and across to other galleries, the library and social spaces, there are also windows from the galleries into each classroom, allowing daylight to flood the building. An architect from BDP toured us through the building, and she mentioned that visibility is one of the key factors in making this school a success with its users. The pupils love to hang out around the galleries and watch others.
I can clearly see this happening. It reminds me of an almost urban space with the idea of ‘seeing and being seen’ – it definitely feels public and open, although the central space is not very large. Even on a Saturday a few pupils were using the library and computers in the social space, but it must be a wonderful (and probably slightly crazy and noisy) social experience when in full use. I’d love to see that.