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Adaptive learning: O'Donnell Brown, UK

Schools in London’s Tower Hamlets have been imaginatively extended and improved by O’Donnell Brown despite limited budgets

O’Donnell Brown have been shortlisted for the AR Emerging Architecture awards 2019. View the shortlist here

Controversy surrounds the UK government’s Priority School Building Programme, including claims that it is underspending and delayed, and that the schools it has produced are, due to significantly tightened budgets, inferior to those provided under the preceding Building Schools for the Future scheme. Yet there are some causes for optimism in this area, among which can be counted the schools built by Jennifer O’Donnell and Sam Brown in Tower Hamlets, London. 

O'donnell brown drawings architectural review

O’donnell brown drawings architectural review

Click to download

Brown worked, until recently, for the borough council – where the existence of an in-house design team is cause for celebration in itself. In 2013, he was joined by Jennifer O’Donnell to form the practice O’Donnell Brown. Collectively, they have overseen the renewal of buildings for Swanlea Sixth Form, Whitehorse Road Playgroup, Cubitt Town Junior School and Seven Mills Primary School, among other projects that aspire to do a great deal with the limited budgets allocated to them. 

In the case of Swanlea Sixth Form, a two-storey extension with a saw-toothed roof was added and the whole clad in striking, black-stained timber. This new skin unified the old and new parts and concealed a thick layer of insulation, previously lacking. Within, a double-height circulation space lined with unstained wood creates a pleasant and spacious interior. The choice to extend, rather than demolish and rebuild, obviated the need to relocate classes during the project and allowed more money to be spent on the building itself, in place of the Portakabins that had initially been proposed. 

Seven mills primary odonnell brown architectural review emerging 0043

Seven mills primary odonnell brown architectural review emerging 0043

Seven mills primary odonnell brown architectural review emerging 0151

Seven mills primary odonnell brown architectural review emerging 0151

Slender white columns support a sheltering timber canopy extending from a newly built annexe at Seven Mills Primary School. Both images: Tim Crocker

The prominent use of timber is a recurring theme in O’Donnell Brown’s work. The material also features on the junior school at Cubitt Town, London, where their extension, clad in brick and vertically aligned wooden slats, is provided with a generous timber porch. The classroom in the extension, which can be opened to the playground through three sets of double doors, is light-filled and expansive thanks to the decision to raise the ceiling into the pitched roof. 

In 2016 the pair moved to Glasgow, returning to the city where they had first met as students at the Mackintosh, which allowed them to ‘start putting some of the ideas we had for the city as students into practice’. There they built their own office as an extension to the house they share, which also accommodates three additional members of staff who have since joined the team. From this new setting, the practice has continued to work on projects in London, and is currently preparing a housing scheme comprising 206 homes to be built on the site of a former foundry in Glasgow’s Southside. They have also developed a self-initiated project titled Community Classroom, a versatile, lightweight timber structure in kit form, intended for easy erection and adaptability. 

O'donnell brown drawings architectural review 2

O’donnell brown drawings architectural review 2

Click to download

The practice has several projects in the pipeline. Along with a proposal for another scheme of 90 homes in Tolcross, in east Glasgow, they are also working on the renewal of the currently defunct town hall on the Isle of Cumbrae, which it is proposed will be brought back into self-sustaining use by the addition of three flats for holiday rent. They are particularly excited to be crowdfunding public ‘meanwhile uses’ on the Graving Docks site in the neglected district of Govan, which faces Zaha Hadid Architects’ Riverside Museum across the River Clyde. Glasgow has long spurned its river, but this much-lamented missed opportunity looks as though it might finally be on the verge of being grasped. The architects add that they would also like to continue building educational projects in Scotland. The country could surely do with some help in this area: in 2016, a total of 17 shoddily built schools in Edinburgh that were funded via a private finance initiative were closed following the discovery of structural flaws. 

This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today