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The Wright stuff: Newlands School by Wright & Wright

Wright & Wright’s school for boys with behavioural problems shows architecture with a serious purpose matters, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by James Brittain

Wright & Wright’s Newlands School in Peckham restored my faith in British architecture. Dramatic huh? But really, the truth. I went to see it the day after Sou Fujimoto was announced as the designer of the next Serpentine Pavilion, the day after Twitter was set alight by mindless gasps of ‘Yay!’ at this news, and it felt like the perfect tonic. ‘This is why I studied architecture,’ I thought. ‘This is why I write about architecture. This is why it’s worth it.’

Moi, pretentious? Maybe so. But sometimes, and more and more often these days, it takes a project like this - one at the opposite end of the spectrum from the world of unquestioned celebrity, one that is real, solid, and one that strives to be more than a 3D calling card - to remind you why architecture matters. A project like this suggests good architecture can truly provide a useful public service. 

Newlands accommodates up to 70 boys from all over London, aged 11 to 16, who have emotional and behavioural problems. Some are withdrawn or isolated or disruptive, some are hyperactive, lacking in concentration or have troubled social skills. Some of the children who have passed through the school in the past have been victims of serious crimes. Others have committed serious crimes themselves. Wright & Wright’s building, appropriately, is a serious piece of work.

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You have to visit Newlands and see it for real, to fully understand just how good this building is. The photos we publish here clearly show its bold cubic form, its deep reveals, the large picture windows and its well-laid bricks. The sense of its weight, its finely attuned civic presence, however, and the spatial properties within, which skilfully enable passive monitoring - there are indoor windows and vision panels everywhere - are much harder to capture in print or on screen.

The facilities too - such as the well-equipped design technology workshop on the first floor with its own terrace, and because drama is central to Newlands’ curriculum, the extensive performing arts studio and courtyard auditorium off it - are really best experienced in the flesh. Despite off-the-peg details and kit, which might dampen the experience of an average building, at Newlands it doesn’t matter, because the plan is so good, the flow from room to room so thoroughly considered.

The school sits in the ample grounds of the building it replaces, a knocked-around 1874 residence and adjoining conversions a few minutes walk from Nunhead Cemetery. Mature trees and a handsome brick wall with railings line the perimeter. It’s typical south-east London, very residential. Two of the new school’s elevations face two- and three-storey terraced streets, with porches, yellowish bricks and parked cars everywhere.

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It appears to be entirely built from Ibstock yellow brick. Because of context and cost? Sure. But there were other reasons too. ‘I worked for Andy and Isi,’ explained Sandy Wright during my visit, citing Robinson College and his long apprenticeship with Gillespie Kidd and Coia before setting up Wright & Wright with his wife, twice shortlisted woman architect of the year Claire Wright. ‘There’s some Aalto in Newlands, some Lewerentz, too. Sticking to one material, pattern-making with form and plan, stepping parapets up and down…’ he tails off. ‘With too many materials, you get a fruit salad, you get Building Centre elevations.’ I know what he means. Pseudo-modernism. ‘CABE-ism’. The kind of buildings a wolf could blow down. Newlands is nothing like that. ‘There are only two materials here, brick and the bronzed steel panels that sit above entrances. Our buildings are heavyweight. It’s the same with the Hull Truck Theatre for example.’

It’s not entirely masonry-built though. It has steel frame, although floors are concrete, and left as exposed ceiling in classrooms.

And all this, despite the measly £1,500m² budget and Michael Gove’s 10 per cent land-grab midway through the project. ‘He put it through the mincer,’ says Wright. In 2009, a report showed a typical BSF project was £1,850m², an academy £2,240m². But Wright’s view is surprising. ‘We’ve done stuff for the Royal College of Art at £1,200m². We like constrained programmes.’ Don’t shout that too loudly, I want to tell him, but Wright’s simply too upbeat, too pragmatic to be put off by cost-cutting ministers. ‘Glasgow School of Art,’ where he studied, ‘was done on a tight budget by Mackintosh.’

Headteacher Andrew Ramsay, who on his appointment in 2010 began turning the school away from its outdated borstal-style mentality towards the caring, inclusive environment it has become known for, is full of praise for Wright and project architect Paul Cannon. But none of them are comfortable about overplaying the role of designing in changing behaviour. It is a fashionable idea among some architects and critics, partly because of the success of Maggie’s Centres in mitigating the dreadful experience of cancer wards. I’m sceptical too and Newlands has yet to be tested: it has only just opened its doors to pupils in the last week or so. But Ramsay does say that Wright & Wright’s building should make his own job, and those of his dedicated staff, much easier to do.

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The plan provides the best evidence: there is a separate, discrete outreach entrance, sometimes used by the police who may need to talk with specific pupils, for example. On the first floor, the toilets are located next to classrooms so that pupils don’t wander off, as they are sometimes prone to do. Breakout spaces make corridors feel spacious. And the entire floor can be segmented into quadrants should there be any serious disturbance. The most obvious element in the plan is the internal street, basically a wider than usual corridor that runs through the building from entrance to playing fields. What I like about its deployment here, and which I’m sure will improve the experience of using it day in, day out, is that it allows you to see through the entire school. That feels right for a project like this.

Wright seems happy with the job project partner Balfour Beatty has done. It was in fact the contractor who brought the architect on board to the Southwark Council BSF schoolbuilding programme in the first place. A great design reputation was one reason, but Wright & Wright had also conducted research into schools for troubled boys that clearly made the Camden firm an attractive choice. 

Not every building can have a social purpose like Newlands. And few can tug your heartstrings like this one. Everyone involved has worked so hard, thought deeply, and juggled meagre budgets. And it’s probably unfair to set a showbiz pop-up alongside it and ask, ‘Which is better?’ - and then browbeat those who speak up for pavilions. Yet if this building succeeds in making life for its pupils a little more bearable, a little less trapped, that would be welcome news indeed. And if the Serpentine Pavilion attracts records numbers this year? Seriously: who cares?

Readers' comments (1)

  • Good to such architects who can design a new school, to tight budget, so very well.
    London's gain is Glasgow's loss - the architect comments 'with too many materials you get a fruit salad, you get Building Centre elevations', and the reviewer refers to 'Pseudo-modernismn. CABE-ism. The kind of buildings a wolf could blow down'.
    A classic example has recently appeared in Great Western Road, Glasgow - St Peter The Apostle High School, Kilbowie, Clydebank. I wonder what Isi Metzstein would've had to say about that confection?

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