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The quad squad: Park View School by Haworth Tompkins

Haworth Tompkins has introduced light and circulation to a warren-like academy in its makeover of Park View School in Birmingham, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Richard Haughton

It’s our first state school’, says Haworth Tompkins associate Jim Reed, as we enter Park View in the inner-Birmingham district of Alum Rock.

‘That suggests two possibilities,’ I think, as the underwhelming street entrance reveals a long vista down the new larch pergola-like loggia that has been driven into the heart of the school. ‘The architect has either made naïve mistakes or brought a fresh perspective and energetic zeal to the enterprise.’ The low-key entrance between the end of a suburban terrace and an uninspiring strip of landscaping, along with Reed’s account of a tough assignment in a rough neighbourhood are inauspicious.

Park View secondary occupied an ad hoc accretion of 60s, 80s and 90s buildings developed piecemeal over the past 50 years. ‘Its corridors were dangerously dark, narrow and overcrowded,’ says the school principal, Hardeep Saini. Working with a modest budget in a BSF swansong project, Haworth Tompkins patched, mended and master-planned the school, which stayed open during a six-phase construction programme completed last June.

At the end of the vista, beyond the grim exterior of a former community building now reworked as a high-illuminance reception, the arcade opens up to a reinvigorated courtyard. ‘It was totally unused and the trees had ripped up the paving,’ explains Saini. This courtyard is integral to the new circulation logic. ‘Looking down that corridor now, we’ve got light,’ he exclaims, as we arrive at the original teaching block. Apart from rationalising circulation and adjacencies, enlarging classrooms, introducing more daylight and enabling passive supervision, Haworth Tompkins has added a new multi-purpose sports hall plus a classroom and dining hall extension.

‘The catchphrase was “teaching transformation”,’ says Reed, so there are open learning areas aimed at simplifying teaching. The school’s shopping list also included improvements to toilets and other measures to deal with bullying and graffiti. Almost all of the pupils are Muslims, so prayer rooms and segregated ablutions were also on the list: these and various other improvements were paid for by the school, being extrinsic to Birmingham Council’s state schools budget.

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English is a second language for over 90 per cent of the pupils and more than 58 per cent are eligible for free school meals. But don’t jump to conclusions. Academically, Park View School - Academy of Mathematics and Science, to use the name conferred on it last summer, was already a high achiever before Haworth Tompkins’ appointment. Only four Birmingham state schools had better GCSE results last year and it was the first within its framework rated Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ in all areas. Despite its commendable meritocratic grammar school ethos, some will regard its focus as too narrow. ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Respect’ are 70dB(A) buzzwords and, although the new business sheds are cutesy enough to be shortlisted for AJ Small Projects Awards, its easy to be annoyed by the attendant jargon, preachy fair trade disclaimers and statements like, ‘We encourage our students to [….] manage risks well’. Give us a break. Still, although the 2011 riots challenged the wisdom of grooming teenagers as passive little consumers, what could be more despicable than turning your nose up at entrepreneurial second generation immigrants.

Despite the ‘teaching transformation’ catchphrase, the learning areas remain comparatively cellular. ‘This was because of the restrictions of the budget and existing fabric,’ says Haworth Tompkins project architect Matt Sicolo. ‘The school could see the improvements open areas would bring to the quality of the circulation and communal spaces.’ Then there’s the subject of community. The catchment radius is only 360m. In fact, the school didn’t want a bike shed. It was happy with just four cycle spaces, so Haworth Tompkins had to find BREEAM points elsewhere. Community use was part of the brief and the new walkway gives it access to the sports facilities without opening up the main buildings. Security was perhaps a conflicting priority: Park View retains its low-profile street presence. ‘The school knew exactly what it wanted,’ says Reed. Fair enough.

Given the background of a high performing school with some quite conservative values, it can be difficult to assess what Haworth Tompkins has done as a catalyst for change, but what’s most impressive is the practice’s focus on the brief.

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‘There wasn’t a square metre we didn’t touch,’ says Reed. The larch walkway is a grand gesture, but a comparatively inexpensive one and this left money in the pot to enlarge undersized teaching areas by moving walls, to install glazing in doors, more insulation and swanky light fittings and to replace under-performing windows at the back of the original teaching block. Haworth Tompkins overcame the school’s resistance to open toilet areas and, now that these are in place, the bullying and graffiti are gone. New services were installed throughout and £1 million was spent on IT.

It’s a caring, responsible and professional approach, conserving and nurturing assets of the original fabric, such as the textured brickwork, avoiding overspending in conspicuous locations and working with the school to optimise gross internal areas within the constraints and benchmarks of funding approval protocol. Ground floor level circulation on the north side of the courtyard, excluded from approved floor area calculations because it was external, was later enclosed at the school’s expense, avoiding awkward set-back detailing. When executive principal Lindsey Clark said a tree in the courtyard would limit flexibility, Haworth Tompkins conceded the point.

‘So what do you think?’ Jim Reed’s eyes seem to say as we survey the courtyard. ‘Couldn’t you have had some colour?’ I venture, a little ho-hum and finding it all rather dour. In so many words, the answer is ‘no’, underlined by playful banter as our tour continues. He mentions that other schools have abundant colour, suggesting he sees this as a cliché and that this wasn’t Haworth Tompkins’ way. ‘The colour is inside,’ he consoles me. I begin to read colour into the walkway’s orangey larch and see blue tints in its galvanising, but this will weather into a symphony of greys and will look best against the spectacle of pupils parading through the school, as greenery rises from the planters or in bright sunlight, when you might compare the walkway’s unplaned zebra-skin slats to the béton brut mullions of La Tourette, without the permanence.

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Although there’s a ramshackle informality in the way the walkway dips as it wraps the courtyard, as its slats change tempo to suggest windows, there’s also a strong sense of control. Working in a hard-headed design and build environment with property group Lend Lease, which now manages the school, and addressing a 10 per cent budget cut, Haworth Tompkins struggled to safeguard the design’s essential spatial configuration, modules and setting out and defended spec items such as the relatively expensive larch on grounds of life cycle costs. Other battles, such as aluminium rainwater goods, were lost. Low lay-in grid ceilings remained, perhaps to be stripped out when funds are available. The sports hall budget wouldn’t stretch to a sprung timber floor, although Haworth Tompkins fought hard to line its walls with plywood. As with the walkway, timber unifies and softens.

The greatest joy is the sports hall exterior, with a super-precise polycarbonate lantern, silver anodised aluminium framing, white precast coping and grey, fair-faced blockwork, all sitting prettily with those colourful business sheds and the larch. Returning to my original musing, Park View comes down strongly on the side of fresh perspective with energetic zeal, as you would expect, given Haworth Tompkins way with existing buildings. But, despite its relaxed but sober architectural qualities and red biro’d price tag, to my mind it’s best seen as a stepping-stone towards a future school that will have more delight: one for the CV rather than the portfolio.

Project data

Start on site February 2011
Completion June 2012
Gross internal floor area 6,000m2
Procurement Design and build
Total cost £8 million
Architect Haworth Tompkins
Client Lend Lease
Structural engineer Nolan Associates
M&E consultant Hulley and Kirkwood
Quantity surveyor Wood and Weir
Landscape architect Fira
Artist Catherine Greig, Make-Good
Project manager Catalyst Education
CDM co-ordinator Lend Lease
Approved building inspector
Birmingham City Council
Main contractor Lend Lease

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