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Child's play

building study

The colour and dynamism of Format Milton Architects' Pokesdown Primary School, in Bournemouth, takes child-oriented design to new levels. It provides the pupils with an exciting and stimulating environment to encourage learning

A commission to design a school, particularly a primary school, is an opportunity to give children their first experience of architecture: to introduce them to differing scales, spatial organisation, circulation systems, and to a variety of materials and details, such as handles, taps and coat-hooks - small items that they will touch every day.

Within this building type are many different solutions. At one extreme lies the redbrick Victorian public school which, with its high window sills and penitential playground, was an environment calculated to repress and control young minds and bodies - the era that is credited with inventing childhood did not specialise in child-friendly schools and it is ironic that so many of these redundant buildings are now being successfully converted into sought-after 'loft' homes. At the other extreme lie the series of schools designed over the past few decades by Hampshire County Architects' Department. Here the children's enjoyment is uppermost in the architects' minds, as at Elson Infant School and Burnham Copse Infant School with their 'Big Top' assembly halls, and Woodlea Primary School (aj 3.6.92) which grows organically out of its woodland setting. At Pokesdown Primary School, commissioned by Dorset County Council but completed after local government reorganisation under Bournemouth County Council, Alton-based practice Format Milton has taken child-orientated design one step further.

At the outset of the project, directors David Lovegrove and Neil Armitage held a workshop with the pupils of Pokesdown, based on the theme of their new school. They asked for 'lots of nooks and crannies'. In effect, what they wanted, says Lovegrove, 'was a large piece of play equipment that happened to be a school building'.

The space available for the footprint of the new school was restricted by the presence of the former school building, a dilapidated Victorian structure, and by a ruling that pupils must have unrestricted access to the playground throughout the construction process. This dictated a two- storey building, never the first choice for a primary school, with its endemic problems: linkage of the top-floor classrooms with the playground and the provision of disabled access. In addition, at Pokesdown there was a further constraint which conflicted with the two-storey format: the building had to preserve a low profile in keeping with the residential character of the neighbourhood. The architect's decision to tackle two of these problems (linkage and a low profile) by sinking the new school half a storey into the ground has generated its unusual section and inspired the features and stratagems needed to make this section work, particularly where issues of light and circulation are concerned.

Classrooms are grouped on the southern (playground) side of the building; senior classrooms on the upper floor are linked to the playground by playdecks (external teaching areas), younger classes are on the lower level with immediate access to a sheltered terrace under the bridges. The double- height shared spaces - hall, resource centre/library, music room - are on the north side of the building. The reception class, at the west end of the site, has its own entrance and forecourt on Darracott Road.

The Dunblane tragedy occurred during the early design stages and influenced the move from a multi-entrance arrangement to a single, secure entrance through the playground, with a limited east-end entrance for extra-curricular activities.

Internally, ramps dispense with the need for lifts; they provide total accessibility and impart a dynamism to the layout of the interior which stairs, landings and lifts would have eliminated. The two-storey structure, its sunken position and deep plan threatened to reduce the provision of natural light and ventilation at the back of the lower classrooms; this problem has been addressed by a central pitched rooflight, by computer- operated high-level vents to aid ventilation as heat builds up, and - most spectacularly - by the introduction of structural 'light scoops' (shells formed from sprayed concrete on steel sub-frames). The experimental light scoops had to be justified as a means of reducing lighting costs, but as novel design elements they recall the side chapels at Ronchamp, where the converging walls act as dramatic light funnels.

So much has gone into the design of Pokesdown Primary School that pupils will - at a conscious or unconscious level - 'experience' architecture the moment they step through the main entrance. To the left, a glazed floor-to-ceiling slot in the lobby wall reveals a classroom on a lower level, an inkling of the vertiginous gravity-defying effect of glass flooring, now incorporated into so many new public buildings. Glimpses down the main spinal corridor present what appear to be the hides of wild animals - zebra, giraffe, tiger - the painted backs of the light scoops. Ahead is the curving ramp that will lead them - preferably at a run - down to the resource centre/library: a 'pool of knowledge' at the heart of the building. Playful Corbusian references are everywhere - in the shared areas, random wall openings give unexpected views of different floor levels; cutaway corners along the main corridor reveal the music room and hall; punched openings frame views of the outside world. The reception class, lovingly detailed, has a built-in reading island reached by its own miniature stair - a real hideaway, out of bounds to all but the smallest members of staff.

The playground exhibits the same inventiveness with its interplay of different levels and contrasting play areas - courts for different games, a secret garden, a pond area, an amphitheatre that fits naturally into the excavated bank in front of the ground-level classrooms: no place here for boredom and no lack of visual stimulation.

The south elevation uses a limited palette of materials - concrete, timber, steel - and, though busy because of the bridges and dropped ground level, it is entirely successful. The less satisfactory irregular north elevation on Darracott Road - described by the architect as '1930s international style' - is finished in white, marbled render, punctuated by panels of exposed aggregate and smooth-faced blocks, and incorporates glazed areas enclosing entrances to the reception class, the assembly hall and the resources centre (used by parents coming to school events).

Some members of staff, familiar with the cellular classrooms in the old school, are finding it difficult to adjust to the higher noise levels produced by the partially open plan of the new building. The pupils, on the other hand, should have no complaints - after all, the building has been designed specifically for them. This well-intentioned and imaginative approach on the part of Format Milton raises only two queries. The first concerns the double-height central resource area and its generous encircling ramp - ideally placed so that pupils will come into constant contact with books - for this occupies far more space than is commonly assigned to a room where pupils spend comparatively little time. The second is the colour scheme. For Armitage, the options were a pristine white foil to the art work generated by the pupils, or an overall white finish broken by occasional planes of bright colour. Neither option seemed right. 'We thought they wanted a vibrant colourful building in tune with the toys they had just left behind,' he says. The result is a very rich range of purple, blue, green, red (in the wcs) and yellow - but is there a danger of so much stimulation resulting in sensory overload?

It will be interesting to return to Pokesdown in a few years' time and ask the staff what effect they think the design has on the pupils: whether it has been beneficial and worked with the school programme, or whether it has generated conflicts. In the meantime, the children at Pokesdown have had their wishes granted by Format Milton and acquired the architectural toy they wanted.

Structural engineer's account

MARK LOVELL

Mark Lovell Design Engineers (previously Oscar Faber)

The philosophy that was developed for the building after the early design team meeting was one of robust forms with simple structural elements. The primary structural elements were informed by the ground conditions present on the site.

The foundations and ground-floor slab were combined to form one element for several reasons.

Firstly, the close proximity of the gravel strata to lower ground-floor slab and, secondly, the need to achieve a clean working area within the building due to the constricted site - a result of being within a working school. The thinness of the foundation construction alleviated the problems of excavating into the water table close to the ground surface.

The load-bearing walls were constructed directly off the ground-bearing slab; this design approach allowed total flexibility of the plan form, which also benefited the release of production information.

Some of the internal walls were constructed from united twin-skin blockwork. A thick in-situ concrete slab, and the sliding screens, produced large, almost clear-span, twin-width classrooms.

The in-situ 300mm-thick concrete ground-floor slab was adopted to provide a strong adaptable element; the thickness of the slab provided both good thermal mass and excellent sound-absorbing characteristics.

The first-floor slab is supported in three locations by sprayed concrete light scoops. These curved concrete shells provide light and ventilation to the lower floor as well as being a structural element and producing a surface for artists to decorate.

The interesting geometric forms and elements together with the main body of the building are simply capped with an efficient timber-joisted structure in the general areas. In the hall and resource areas, where the spans were too large for this approach, cranked steel beams were inserted.

The building had to be built in a phased manner to take account of the new and old schools sharing parts of the same footprint due to the tightness of the site. The bridge links had to be added to the new building during a holiday period when the old school had been demolished.

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