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Chobham Academy by AHMM

AHMM has applied its trademark futureproofing to this school, located at the heart of the former Olympic Village, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Tim Soar

From the rooftop terrace at Chobham Academy - a proper rooftop terrace, not some leftover space-in-between-plant - there is a clear view across to the Olympic Velodrome. Hopkins Architects’ masterful arena looks even better now that much of the clutter from last year’s jamboree has gone. Its lightweight, double-curved roof gives the impression that it might be an ark, one that would float away safely should the Thames spill over in some shocking future catastrophe.

You can imagine being a pupil here, feeling connected to it somehow, not only because you can see it clearly but because your own school too was part of the Olympic project, and perhaps also because overlooking you there is a cluster of towering blocks that once made up the Athletes’ Village. Some are tacky, others have dignity, others still, near-instantly forgettable. Together however, from Chobham’s rooftop at least, it looks like a real place. What’s more, Mo Farah and Usain Bolt, Serena Williams and Andy Murray - they lived here during the 2012 Games. If you were a pupil at Chobham you would feel that you were part of that world. How exciting that must be. How inspiring it must be.

But you’d feel a connection too because your school is brand new, and will feel that way for many years to come. New like the red Orbit tower that glows even redder, even brighter at night. New like Westfield’s starship bulk where you bought your first iPhone, then traded it in for your first Google Glass. And new too like all of rebuilt Stratford, the home of tomorrow’s London.

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Chobham may be new, new, new, but it’s not the first school to look or feel the way it does. Classrooms are colour-coded in neon. Corridors have vision panels. Inspiring soundbites and random factoids are printed on walls and windows. There is a mighty atrium with a bubble-glass roof. These might have seemed striking in Barnsley or Paddington, where Chobham architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris has deployed these ideas before. Here in future London though, this method has been refined, dialled down a good few notches, and is less glossy, less bizarre. Here, in fact, the formula feels right.

East Village, the new name for the Athletes’ Village, is the nearest thing to a new town that Britain is prepared to build these days. It’s closer in spirit to the brownfield urban extensions backed by the likes of Richard Rogers than it is to Cumbernauld or Corby, yet there is a feeling in the air, an experimental, optimistic feeling, that suggests its pioneers might just find a new way of doing things.

AHMM, which has played a huge part in the wider townscape project (see page 36), clearly sensed this, and its bold design will ensure exemplar status for Chobham - an academy with a specialism in literature and the performing arts - at the cutting edge of contemporary state school design. Chobham has studios that rival Britain’s better art schools, a theatre that would be the envy of towns up and down the country, and sports facilities so new, so extensive, you’d think a premiership team might train there. This is because the school, at the heart of this built-from-scratch townscape, has been designed to play a leading role in defining how the East Village community takes shape, with all those great facilities forming part of the neighbourhood’s offer.

Chobham’s first intake of pupils was in September, but when it properly fills up it will serve 1,800 pupils, aged three to 19, from the established local communities of Leytonstone and Stratford as well as the emerging post-Games village. It’s rare for an architect to be granted a role like this. In this respect, it is AHMM’s most significant completed building to date, as well as a labour of love for director Simon Allford, who has spent close to a decade working it through.

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Chobham Academy comprises three buildings, with a dominant central five-storey drum linking them together, perhaps because it creates a more immediate sense of place than if it had been one single container, allowing the formation of an adjacent square in which the community can gather.

The infant school is a two-storey rectilinear block to one side of the drum, with its own entrance, that faces on to the Eric Parry-designed village block (the one with the ceramic ‘towels’ that form the balcony balustrades). A childcare centre, run separately from the academy, has a south-facing play area, nursery and reception spaces on the ground floor, its T-shaped plan running along the street edge as well as into the school’s site footprint. Upstairs, a double-loaded top-lit corridor gives access to classrooms and breakout spaces, and a tough-looking external stair leads down to the playground.

A ground-level connection links the infant school to the drum, home to a middle and upper school. It has a full-height atrium, intruded upon by a pair of wedge-shaped classroom stacks with angled windows and open galleries circling each floor. The eight-year-old graduating into this space will probably have mixed feelings when they first set eyes on it: the scale will terrify the more faint-hearted child, the wedges bearing down like nightclub bouncers, but I’d guess the majority will find it thrilling.

These blocks, AHMM calls them ‘lobes’, contain flexible classrooms, or in the words of the project’s spirited architects Philip Turner and Jon Brent, ‘learning resource’. (This is typical of the nebulous language contemporary school programmes inspire but this vagueness has a place here.) They split the ground floor of the atrium into two distinct spaces: a reception, manned with a large corporate style welcome desk, and a less defined ‘room’ beyond. Beyond that there is a glass-lined cafeteria, nice enough but way too small for Chobham at full capacity (which suggests anything dubbed ‘learning resource’ today could well be used as ‘dining resource’ tomorrow.)

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The top floor opens out on to three generous roof terraces - open-air classrooms - with views across the Olympic park.

The drum connects, under a broad canopy, to the specialism building, a two-storey square box with a saw-tooth roof that brings north light into its first-floor classrooms. A generous lobby, with a vaguely civic atmosphere, which also opens on to the public square outside, gives on to a double-height theatre, a sports hall and changing rooms, and dance and drama studios.

There is one more element binding the campus together, in the form of a Cor-ten bridge, designed with AKT II, and 95m in length. It links the campus to playing fields across a busy road. Proportionally it’s slim, but its expressive form, derived from the stress diagram used to create it, packs a fair heft too. Its two double-V support trees, resting on concrete piers, round off the campus ensemble.

A few clever moves allow the various components to effectively cohere. A unifying plinth, fashioned in smooth black concrete, forms much of the ground floor of all three buildings. Upper floors are enclosed with pale green curtain walls and feature sloping projecting air-intake cowls. Elsewhere, light-grey ribbed concrete panels grant the specialism building a new-town civility. This muted palette is unexpected given the vibrancy of other AHMM schools such as the lime green Westminster Academy. (Although the Olympic masterplan stipulated single-colour buildings, and the architect was talked out of rendering Chobham in orange shades.) The result is a building that feels consciously retro, from the outside at least, with the cowls especially stressing the fun in functional.

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Any one of these buildings would be an interesting project in itself. There are aspects some might find disappointing - some of the interiors, the breakout spaces in the infant school for example, are banal, but bum notes like this are more than offset by keynote moves such as the brilliant art class studio in the specialism building and the rooftop terraces in the drum. 

The bigger achievement at Chobham however has much to do with Allford’s ‘universal use class’ theory, which argues that good buildings should be flexible enough to allow for almost any kind of programme. It is an approach which underpins AHMM’s White Collar Factory workplace projects for Derwent London, but is perhaps more explicitly explored here in Chobham, which before it opened its doors as a school, was used very successfully as a security and training centre for Olympic and Paralympic athletes. 

Furthermore, the project developed over several years with a number of different clients, and the programme was drawn up without a headteacher involved. The ambiguity over how the Athletes’ Village would be used in legacy, which very much depended on its eventual owner (scandalously developer Qatari Diar, following the government’s decision to sell it off post-Games rather than keep it in public hands), was another punishing constraint. Yet remarkably, as a close study of the three-building plan will show, the architect has juggled a number of potential use scenarios without losing control of the form, colour and texture which remind you that Chobham is a school for the time being, whatever the future holds

Readers' comments (1)

  • Congratulations Simon, Philip and Jon. Extended to the rest of the project team and modelshop. I was always so pleased you moved away from orange, despite liking the colour in any other context. This building is up there with AHMM's greatest hits. Seems such a long time ago designing Lee Mallet's house conversion in Canonbury.

    I have this building down for Stirling Prize nominee at minimum in 2014.

    Best,

    James

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