Sarah Wigglesworth finds AY Architects’ Montpelier Nursery in Camden an enchanting and imaginative building that perfectly captures the needs of childhood. Photography by Nick Kane
Entering the nursery from the freezing outdoors, my nostrils are ambushed by the warm, sweet aroma of lunch, which is being served from the kitchen hatch. Bliss … Sitting on their miniature bent ply chairs around small tables, children are quietly and happily devouring their freshly cooked Caribbean meal. Through lines of columns in the lofty space, there are views ahead and across onto a wooded garden and intensely green slope. Despite the bitter cold, a scattering of pale pink blossom heralds the arrival of spring.
The classroom is full of light; natural light, there is not a lit bulb anywhere, despite the cloudy day. Saw-tooth, south-facing rooflights are augmented by a larger north-facing rooflight; light reflects off the pale white coated walls onto the cross-laminated timber roof structure to create a bright ceiling. As lunch finishes, the collateral damage of scattered rice and beans is hardly noticeable on the white-flecked, grey lino floor. The quiet area in the corner is made up with sleeping mats, and calm descends as the children fall into afternoon slumber.
The Montpelier Nursery is one of only two community nurseries operating within London Borough of Camden providing affordable childcare for working parents with children between two and five years old. Managed by a voluntary committee of parents, it had been operating from a dilapidated temporary structure since 1983. AY Architects’ founding partners Anthony Boulanger and Yeoryia Manolopoulou (parents of two nursery-age children) prepared a feasibility study and obtained planning permission that unlocked funding of £429,000 from Camden’s Early Years Capital Programme to construct a 130m² nursery for 24 children. The initiative was set up by parents for the community, a demonstration of self-help and persistence to the best ends.
The nursery responds skilfully to its site, a pocket park at the centre of a triangle of houses sloping downhill towards Kentish Town. At the centre of the former Montpelier estate is a Regency villa, which sits behind the nursery and is used as a youth facility by Camden Social Services. The park is public and has three points of access. The nursery managed a land swap with the villa and park to create a better relationship with the rest of the garden, while gaining more play area and offering a new bench in the public realm against the warmed south-facing nursery wall.
The sedum roof echoes the zig-zags of neighbouring dwellings
The magical, secluded nature of the open space, with its mature trees, muted colours and encircling houses is celebrated in the subdued cladding of the building and sedum roof that echoes the zig-zags of neighbouring dwellings.
AY makes a virtue of the way in which life helps create architecture, and it appreciates that the dynamic programme is part of a broader dialogue with history, place and material. Thus, the plan of the building is simple: a large main room with a wall of supporting spaces including kitchen, stores, WCs and quiet room. This arrangement is animated and elaborated by light, vista and the colourful children’s drawings everywhere. Windows, doors and overhangs are arranged to create settings that encourage carers to occupy them flexibly and with imagination.
Understanding the importance of a seamless transition between inside and outside in the learning-through-play that characterises education at this age, AY has made whole walls openable, connecting grounded indoors with dancing nature and offered covered outdoor thresholds for making all manner of mess. For the architect, there is an enjoyable game at play in the geometric shift between the orientation of spaces and roof. So while the plan takes its lead from the villa, the roof faces true north-south, altering the axis by about 15°. This produces an unorthodox set of interstitial spaces in plan and section, with unexpected planes and playful lighting effects.
This is a building for children, designed by adults that have a knack of imagining what it is like to be a child again. It is a place in which everything is enchanting, full of possibility and resonant with its setting, a place of beauty, calm and generosity, such that I imagine children would never want to leave. I was told one child had declared his preference for eating here to eating at home. Having borne witness, I can understand why.
Sarah Wigglesworth is founder of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects
Secluded wonderland: Montpelier Nursery by AY Architects