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Evelyn Grace Academy by Zaha Hadid in London

On Saturday 1 October, Zaha Hadid Architects picked up Britain’s most prestigious architectural award for the second year running. The AR covered the building when it opened last year, praising its layered and lovable interiors. Photography by Luke Hayes

As this month’s AR goes to press George Osborne, the British Chancellor, will be giving details of the severest public spending cuts for nearly a century. And while it’s risky to predict where the Spending Review’s £83 billion savings will come from, the Department for Education looks a likely place. By far the biggest beneficiary of the previous Labour government’s splurge, the department’s real-term expenditure expanded by a colossal 198 per cent over the last five years.

Attacks on education spending are familiar territory for the new Liberal-Conservative coalition. Earlier this year the Tory education secretary Michael Gove abolished Building Schools for the Future (BSF), Labour’s £55 billion secondary-school investment programme. However, what has come as more of a surprise – not least to the targets themselves – has been the attack on architects.

Gove’s accusation (levelled before he gained power) that the profession was guilty of ‘creaming off cash’ from BSF was the lobbed-stone to the anti-architect ripple of the last few weeks. ‘Are architects the new Muslims?’ followed Toby Young’s tangential gambit in The Spectator. The columnist averred that ‘academic attainment is almost wholly independent of the type of building a school is in’, and went on to claim that architects have ‘perpetuate[d] the myth’ to the contrary.

Soon after the Daily Mail bellowed with the ‘Scandal of Blair’s £31m flagship school’, referring to the benighted Bexley Business Academy, completed by (Labour-created peer) Norman Foster in 2003. ‘It’s a nightmare to run’ complained the school’s chief executive, employing 
a workmanlike metaphor that the journalist trounced with the more poetic: ‘a nagging smell of sewage pervad[es] the school, though that might just as easily be the stench of New Labour’s hubris’. Stirring stuff.

Just as architects appeared defeated, the next day the battle’s dynamics switched with the arrival of the profession’s very own Boudicca. Fresh from winning the Stirling Prize for Rome’s MAXXI (AR July 2010), Zaha Hadid emerged as the unlikely saviour of school design as she welcomed the press to the Evelyn Grace Academy. Set into the tough urban context of Brixton in south London, a tour round Hadid’s first completed building in England reveals it to be a tour de force that transforms the brief’s complexities into a remarkable piece of architecture. 

Sponsored by London-based financier Arpad Busson’s Absolute Return for Kids (ARK), the 1,200-pupil academy adheres to the charity’s ‘small schools within a school’ philosophy. The Evelyn and the Grace of the name are separate branches, with both an upper and lower division, creating four schools – each with their own head teacher – within the same building. Alongside this organisational intricacy, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) had to supply 11,000m2 of accommodation plus game-playing amenities on a cramped 1.4ha site.

Having explored and rejected as unworkable the planner’s preference for the school to trace the perimeter at the same scale as the adjacent listed period houses, ZHA set a larger single building towards the central long axis. A bold red 100m running track streaks through the middle, terminating with a gate at both boundary ends. Journeys then diverge to separate doorways for the four individual schools, resulting in a fairly modest main visitor entrance.

Compared with the inside, the external appearance of the building is less successful, perhaps initially intimidating, and at times its sharp angles seem contrived – a needless deployment of Zaha’s artistic artillery. However the interior is a more convincing spatial experience, with curving corridors and volumetric variations. The central spaces shared by the schools are large and light-filled, with floor-to-ceiling glazed curtain-walling from Schüco. The inclines of the walls – so dramatic from the outside – appear in the classrooms to give appropriately-scaled definition and character.

The building is cast in in-situ concrete, mostly exposed, and the accompanying material palette is robust yet refined. Unlike many recent schools that resort to a ghastly rainbow of colour-coding to differentiate areas, ZHA has limited itself to three – two greens and a yellow – that very subtly articulate the identity of Evelyn and Grace.

The strategic use of glass and lighting creates a sophisticated interior, layered and – not a word I would expect to associate with Zaha’s cool geometric approach – lovable.

Mace completed the school under a Design & Build contract, and both ZHA and the contractor’s design teams deserve great credit for the control they’ve maintained over the detailing. The architectural clarity of some similarly delivered schools has been marred by servicing and signage; here the expression of what can’t be dispensed with or hidden fades into the background.

Well-designed schools are a good investment. Doubters of this should visit Evelyn Grace, where ZHA has manifested the academy’s belief in ‘the power of education to transform lives’. The institution combines ambition with discipline, such as the rule that pupils must carry a book at all times. Those who might argue that the way things look are superficial to these efforts ignore the sense of purpose things like school uniforms can instil.

With many pupils coming from chaotic backgrounds, the school provides a high level of order and the building is an integral part of that. It demands a certain level of respect – for instance, the running track must be walked around, not across – but it also gives respect back. The stepping-in of the plan creates terraces for the different communities in the school, more private as one ascends through the year groups. This is architecture that treats its pupils like adults, and expects them to behave like it.

In September Gove opened another of ARK’s projects, the Globe Academy in Elephant and Castle by Amanda Levete Architects. In his speech he talked of Winston Churchill’s passion for bricklaying and quoted him: ‘We shape buildings and then they shape us’. This is the ultimate riposte to the bashers of school architecture, and Evelyn Grace Academy exemplifies it.

Architect Zaha Hadid Architects, London, UK
Project team Zaha Hadid, Patrik Schumacher, Lars Teichmann, Matthew Hardcastle, Bidisha Sinha, Henning Hansen, Lisamarie Villegas Ambia, Judith Wahle, Enrico Kleinke, Christine Chow, Guy Taylor, Patrick Bedarf, Sang Hilliges, Hoda Nobakhti
Project manager Capita Symonds
Engineer Arup

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