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Two London Schools: Cottrell and Vermeulen, Agents of Change compared

In stitching together disparate school campuses, these two additions reinterpret a London idiom to reaffirm the facade’s urban significance and the lost art of ornament

It’s strange how you wait for ages for a thoughtfully ornamented new building, and then two decorated schools come along at the same time. Consideration of these projects by two highly regarded London practices reveals some interesting trends in current attitudes towards the importance of context, the uses of architectural history, and the desire for an appropriately weighty design response to place.

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Spa School, London, Agents of Change

Spa school

Spa School is designed for autistic children in inner-city Bermondsey, within sight of, but seemingly a million miles away from, the towers of the City of London. The area has an established urbanism of 19th-century terraced housing, although there is also a significant amount of 1970s infill nearby the school.

Spa is a typical Victorian board school, all multi-colour brick, big windows and repeated gables. Five years ago, the far end of its site acquired a lumpy sports hall and it is in the gap between the main school and the hall that the practice agents of Change (AOC) located its building.

Clearly they looked hard at the gables and windows of the existing school, at the vaulted roof of the sports centre, and at the roof forms and refractory brick of the 1970s housing across the road. They condensed all these into a single composition of three different gables, which wears its mixed ancestry with an assertive insouciance.

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uplifting polychromy is not only confined to the outside

Not for it the more diffident etiquette of the main school’s street elevation. It is modern, the new thing, and it knows it. We shall return to this elevation, but first let’s take a look at the riffs around the back the building. Two different species of brick pointing, separated by a vertical joint on the line of the main entrance, with black windows on one side and white on the other. further along, to yet another rhythm, the facade also cants in plan. There are clear architectural intentions here, although in execution they exhibit an unintended jitteriness.

Inside, the main stair skewers the centre of the plan, with six spacious classrooms around it on two floors, the upper ones making ingenious use of various roof geometries. A primary ambition for the project has been to achieve really good classrooms, a simple aim, but one too rarely realised in many of the schools constructed with the British government’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme over the past few years.

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Spa School, external view

This ambition, arguably, has been achieved, but some of the building’s other subtleties have not survived the design and build procurement regime unscathed.

The street elevation is about more than just gables, and there is a concerted foray into the difficult territory of applied decoration in the form of slightly recessed brick crosses arranged in a lozenge pattern, and with emphatic protruding framing to some windows and openwork brick ventilation zones.

Originally this facade was designed to be executed in a single-colour red brick with reddish pointing. Subsequently, planners pressured the designers to hold a public forum to choose a favoured brick, and the two-colour outcome was the result. The architect’s choice of hard modern bricks may be driven by budget but is also a homage to the 1970s housing opposite.

Cognoscenti see this decorated shed as mannerist and witty; locals by contrast may well find it reassuringly friendly, with perhaps just a touch of the eccentric and bizarre.

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Consciously of their time and employing a similar palette of brick, the two new parts nevertheless exhibit very different approaches to external decoration

Brentwood School

At Brentwood, a prosperous London dormitory town, Cottrell & Vermeulen has added to the existing buildings that make up the campus of an independent secondary school. There are two main interventions so far, slightly dissonant with each other, to either side of the late Victorian sixth-form block.

To the north, the existing building now links to a large classroom block and extends the sixth-form teaching areas. To the south, it connects with an assembly hall for the entire school. The two additions exhibit very different approaches to external decoration, which are worth exploring in detail.

The classroom block has an ‘L’-shaped arrangement of classrooms off a corridor on three floors. It is a simple form with a pitched roof that gets surprisingly complicated in one corner. Corridors are broad, and generously-proportioned windows with low internal sills form window seats.

Classrooms feel small, but are impressively kitted out. Their windows, unlike the corridor’s, are set back on the inner face of the external wall, allowing for ventilation in the reveal of the opening. air enters here and is extracted by means of oversized brick chimneys that serve each classroom.

Externally a diaper pattern of contrasting coloured brick or tile runs over all surfaces of both walls and roof − apparently the tilers so enjoyed forming the pattern that they even ran it within the valley roof slopes where it had not been asked for and where only God can see it.

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This patterning is akin to that on the street elevation of AOC’s Spa School. It is flat, and feels to have been applied retrospectively to the base design of the building, wrapping it willy-nilly without trying to meet corners or window openings in any formal kind of a way. In this way, it is intensely modern, and owes more of a debt to Denise Scott-brown than to William Butterfield.

The assembly hall is something else. It is a large, high-ceilinged shed with a lower skirt on two sides. Most of it is flat-roofed, but this is not apparent to a ground-level observer as the bulk of the building has been eroded by an arrangement of gables on all four sides.

This is pretty clever, and made cleverer by the completeness of the integration of a simple steel structure into the complex roof, so that you start wondering whether Cottrell & Vermeulen will soon be discovered by the big supermarkets looking to repeat their trick of making a quart look like a pint.

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The new assembly hall has a complex faceted ceiling, expressed by the geometry of the gables, though despite appearances, the steel-framed roof is largely and cunningly flat

However, none of this is immediately perceived. What you notice straight away is the decoration applied to the gables of its facades, decoration whose sureness of touch is ironically comforting to Joe Public while troubling to those architects who might prefer their pleasures to be less picturesque.

The gable decoration takes the form, once again, of a diaper or lozenge pattern, but this time the pattern is in relief, with brickwork in at least five different planes either projected or recessed from the main wall plane.

What is apparent in this case is how different this mode of decoration is from the wrapping of Cottrell & Vermeulen’s classroom block or of AOC’s Spa School, because here the entire setting out of the building, in plan, elevation and section, is almost entirely dependent on the size, coursing and patterning of the bricks, and that once the informing reticulation of the decoration is established, you would alter it at your peril.

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Classroom in the refurbished Victorian sixth-form block

There is something else though about this form of decoration. It makes the architect, and the architect’s necessary interaction with the craftsperson who builds it, oddly indispensible. It is complex in a way that is not just spatial but also conceptual, and it is work that non-architects may struggle with.

Could it be that an expertise in applied decoration might rescue architects from their ever-increasing diminution of status in the modern procurement of buildings? Perhaps berthold Lubetkin was right in identifying architecture as a minor branch of the art of ornamental pastry cooking, and maybe this is a talent that architects, uniquely, can provide.

Brentwood School
Architect: Cottrell & Vermeulen
Photographs: Paul Riddle

Spa Secondary School
Architect: Agents of Change
Photographs: David Grandorge

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