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Out of the woods: Studio Weave, United Kingdom

Studio Weave’s woodland classrooms for Belvue School in Northolt provide a magical nurturing environment for children with learning difficulties

Studio Weave has been shortlisted for the AR Emerging Architecture awards 2018

Once upon a time, nestled in an enchanted forest just off the A40 in Northolt, a young architecture practice called Studio Weave built a gingerbread house in which all the children of Belvue School could play and learn. This gingerbread house, however, was actually made of larch, clad in cedar boards and won an RIBA London award earlier this year.

Studio weave site

Studio weave site

This is Studio Weave’s classrooms for a school for 11-19 year olds who have learning difficulties. Located in the suburbs of west London, it is their largest new building to date. At 93m2 this may not seem like much, but for a practice with an apparent penchant for the miniature – sometimes imp-size – this feels like something of a milestone. The practice, led by Je Ahn and co-founded with Maria Smith (now of Interrobang), has been doing big things with pocket-sized projects for several years now; it was highly commended in the Emerging Architecture awards eight years ago for The Longest Bench in Littlehampton, and joint winners in 2013 with the Lullaby Factory – a steampunk art installation on the facade of London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Weaving through the practice’s eclectic oeuvre is the magic of storytelling. The classrooms at Belvue School form a gateway into a small patch of woodland, reimagined as a magical forest of another world akin to the wardrobe to Narnia. The children were invited to write their own stories – a collective narrative – for this mysterious wooded world: who and what would live there, and what would the gateway to their world look like? The architects decided on a delicately scalloped roofline, like three turrets of a fairy-tale castle, punctured with neat cookie-cutter windows to the front (facing the playground and the rest of the school) and large south-west-facing glazing looking into the woods.

Studio weave drawings

Studio weave drawings

Click to download

Behind the fairy stories, however, is a robust, hard-working plan, comprising a central gatehouse and a classroom either side: one as a serene chill-out area and informal teaching room, and one as a student kitchen and dining area. The warm birch interior is studiously simple and compact, with storage and seating nooks neatly tucked into the depth of the larch frame. The apparently whimsical swooping roofline invites sunlight to wash down across the billowing tent-like ceiling through clerestories and allows the rooms to be passively ventilated through openable vents at the top of the lantern. All this was achieved for just under £250,000 (the school was initially offered two Portakabins but rightfully believed it deserved better).

Underpinning the spellbinding stories, playful whimsy and infectious imagination, engaging adults and children alike, Studio Weave are serious about challenging the role of the architect, indiscriminately turning their hands to urban planning, curation, product design, illustration, community engagement and architectural research – and shaking up the traditional design process. ‘We enjoy finding practical solutions to complicated problems and sprinkling them with happiness’, Ahn explains. ‘We would like to think that our uniqueness is in creating something that feels very human, with warmth.’ And everyone, as they say, lived happily ever after.

Belvue jimstephenson 31

Belvue jimstephenson 31

Architect: Studio Weave

Photographs: Jim Stephenson

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

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