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The thinking man’s BSF

AOC’s south London school extension demonstrates the power of teamwork, integrity and above all, thoughtfulness, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Timothy Soar

You can tell when an architect has really thought about what they’ve done with their latest building design. That doesn’t mean the building is good, or any better than others that have been simply knocked out. But it does show integrity. With AOC’s extension to St Saviour’s and St Olave’s, a secondary school for girls in south London, that thoughtfulness can be seen in a number of details. The cranked wall on Bartholomew Street, for example, angled ever so slightly at two distinct points along its 50-metre length. It’s an eye-catching move, a break with the bland, and a handsome address to the patchwork of shop-fronts across the road.

You can sense it too in the blaring glazed facade. It’s four storeys high, but not all of it is see-through, because behind some of that glass there are plasterboard panels (and an existing, enclosed staircase). Like much of what you encounter in this school, it makes you ask ‘Why?’, but AOC director Tom Coward, as he does for all tricky questions put his way, has a straight-forward answer: ‘Large glazed facades can appear vacuous and ubiquitous’. Paxton, Foster and Mies would surely argue the toss, yet Coward has a point: the binary effect here is really quite attractive.

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There are more strange details in St Saviour’s and St Olave’s that suggest this Southwark Council BSF school has been thought over, thought over some more, and then thought about again, just for good measure. The ‘concrete billboard’, large-scale three-dimensional lettering that spells out the name of the school and crowns the west facade, is fun, cartoonish and can’t have been cheap. But like the glass facade at the opposite end - ‘something that grabs your eye on Great Dover Street’, says Coward - it projects the school into its neighbourhood. The lettering also speaks to the cars that zoom across the flyover on the Old Kent Road, the same flyover that choked the old entrance to the century-old school when it was built in the early 70s. (Perhaps the concrete billboard is really a two-fingered salute.)

Another strange detail is the stray column, left in the middle (in truth, not quite the middle) of a first-floor science lab. It has been painted maroon, the school colour, which gives it status and respect, even though it’s clearly a mistake, or a consequence of making some other aspect of the building elsewhere work better. ‘We could have spent 200 grand trying to move it,’ says Coward, unbothered, and when he puts it like that, calling it a ‘mistake’ seems blunt, inelegant, more so than the column itself. ‘We strive to be better at making decisions,’ he adds. ‘This is our first big project. It’s a significant step up.’

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AOC (Agents of Change, a longhand quietly dropped) has built a successful business on the back of thinking deeply about how architecture emerges from the gloom. ‘How are political situations best translated into form?’ asks Coward, as he explains this project’s back story. ‘How do you effectively communicate architectural ideas?’

AOC was commissioned by 4 Futures, the Southwark local enterprise partnership formed with Balfour Beatty (which also hired Wright & Wright to design Newlands School in Peckham, AJ 07.03.13). Despite its boutique studio feel, AOC’s track record - a couple of new-build primary schools, a recently completed free school - and its skill in dealing with big, swarthy clients like the ODA (it did the red telephone box installations in the Olympic Park), gave Southwark the confidence to hand the practice a BSF project. Yet AOC is no pup: it was founded 10 years ago by Coward, Geoff Shearcroft and Vincent Lacovara (a collaborator more than an active director these days, since he went full-time at Croydon Council heading up its place-making team) along with Daisy Froud, a mutual friend with a background in languages and translation. ‘During our last year at the RCA, Vinnie, Geoff and I ended up very successfully critting each other’s work,’ says Coward. ‘We got interested in that ability to support each other.’ Setting up together was an obvious next step.

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St Saviour’s and St Olave’s oozes that critical approach that binds the team - now 12 strong - together. If there’s such a thing as a thinking man’s BSF school, this is it. There’s no whizz-bang atrium for a start, which feels like a triumph in itself. Instead there is a provocative, slightly odd extension that makes sense of a crazy estate: a jumble of heavy-set buildings, the oldest dating from the early 1900s, others from the 60s and 90s. None of them are great but then none are awful - although the 90s one comes pretty close. As Coward, wearing a box-ticking grin, declares: ‘It’s 22 per cent more accessible now’.

This efficiency stems from an act of demolition. The AOC new build sits on the site of an earlier science block extension, an actually quite good 60s number with a precast concrete frame. ‘It had an alright character, but its fabric was poor,’ says Coward, and removing it allowed AOC to place the school’s new front door on the street. And it was this bold decision that allowed the key architectural moves - the cranked wall, the concrete lettering, the glazed facade - to follow through.

AOC’s extension houses a broad suite of rooms over three new floors. On the ground, there is an activity studio, music rooms, plant, a science lab and an ICT classroom. There is also a community room on the Bartholomew Street side that overlooks the neighbourhood.

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The first floor is mostly science labs with English classrooms among them (one of those strange AOC decisions that Coward will tell you is right - or at least not wrong - and you’ll believe him), but it’s the corridor here that really stands out. It’s wide, splayed like a bow-tie, and has a lovely maroon painted bench you’ll want to have a seat on, and a sculptural skylight at the west end that makes the corridor glow. The second floor is where the sixth form hang out, in a study room and a common room - which comes with a spacious terrace - with seminar rooms and a brown roof filling out the floorplate. Classrooms throughout are carefully composed: windows are big, views pick out landmarks and vision panels brighten the corridors that serve them.

‘We thought we’d get a better building if we had better conversation with our client,’ says Coward. ‘And they did want a wow-factor atrium,’ he admits, even though AOC really didn’t want to give them one. ‘So we tried to translate what they meant by “wow factor”. We spent a lot of time talking to the school about that.’ The result was the ‘Beacon’ - the glass facade - which has come to symbolise the re-energised school. It’s a weird thing, this Beacon, when seen in the flesh; part-window, part-wall and part-parapet too (it screens off the brown roof). It’s way more ‘What the-?’ than ‘wow’. But it makes you think. Good. That’s what schools are for.

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