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Notre Dame High School, Greenock, Scotland, by Archial

With its giant colonnade and stepped entrance, Greenock’s Notre Dame High School is a genuinely civic building, writes Alan Hooper. Photography by Keith Hunter

Lodged between a steeply sloping railway embankment and an arterial road, the site conditions of the recently completed Notre Dame High School (a replacement building for the 850-pupil school in Greenock, north-west of Glasgow) demanded an urban response.

Unlike the majority of contemporary schools isolated from their communities within a landscape of car parking, Notre Dame is embedded within the fabric of its town. The school’s proximity to the public realm of road and pavement recalls Glasgow’s traditional parish schools, conceived and constructed as an extension of the urban tissue.

Archial has fully exploited the opportunity to achieve a civic presence, referencing the language of town hall and public institution through the use of a giant colonnade and stepped entrance. While the formal arrangement of the school is an assembly of discrete parts, the colonnaded frontage acts as a screen, presenting a civic face to the local community and creating a formal unity seldom achieved with this typology.

As such, urbanist Kevin Lynch might have applauded the school’s contribution to its locale, citing the intrinsic need for social identity within the built environment.

The building arrangement is rightly centred on the social gathering space of the dining hall and the library, manifesting the two fundamental aims of education: engendering active citizenship through mediated social interaction, and pursuing a reflective, meaningful life through scholarship. The proportion, day-lighting and volumetric generosity of the dining space makes for a very pleasant environment, and in Louis Kahn’s terms, achieves the elevated status of a room, or in this case a great hall.

NotreDame

The traditional Victorian school provision of a central top-lit assembly space is evoked, offering a static, demarcated space of architectural character, in marked contrast to the preponderance of morphous, foyer-like social spaces in many contemporary schools. Unfortunately the assured architectural accomplishment of the dining space does not extend to the library-hub, where formal dexterity and a lack of spatial cohesion confirm its primary conception as an object rather than a space, the pragmatics of the suspended ceiling limiting the expression of the shell-like volume.

The building’s construction is appropriately robust, the expression of concrete and masonry elements offering a perceptive heaviness, enhancing the building’s civic presence, and as such is uncharacteristic of the layered palette of steel frame and rainscreen cladding prevalent in recent school design. In general, the school is well built and the detailing rigorously resolved, however in the construction of the Oratory the detailing stakes are raised. In attempting to create numinous space, the unresolved detailing of the steel frame and glass block infill highlights a key problem of contemporary architecture, as cited by David Chipperfield. In the main, material specification in the making of contemporary architecture has been reduced to the catalogue selection of prefabricated components, limiting the architect’s engagement with the intrinsic nature of materials.

During a recent visit, it was apparent the building had received a very positive reception from the school and the wider community. As a profession rooted in the act of creation, architects are justifiably transfixed by the new, however the increasing interest in post-occupancy evaluation recognises the need to critically assess and evaluate buildings over time. As the demolition of much Brutalist architecture has demonstrated, permanence does not reside within a building’s material durability, but with the appropriation of a building by its users. As such Notre Dame’s final assessment will be given by the generations of school children who pass through its colonnade. So, while Archial has delivered a fine addition to Greenock’s urban realm, not only is the jury out – the jurors have yet to be born.

Alan Hooper is head of undergraduate studies at the Mackintosh School of Architecture

Project data

Start on site July 2009
Completion May 2011
Gross internal floor area 13,475m2
Type of contract or procurement PPP – Design and Build using NPD methodology
Total cost £27 million
Cost per square metre £1,980
Client Inverclyde Council
Architect Archial
Structural engineer Stuart McTaggart
M&E consultant FES/Wallace Whittle
Landscape consultant TGP Landscape Architects
CDM coordinator Cyril Sweett
Main contractor Miller Construction UK Ltd
CAD software used AutoCad Architecture 2009
Estimated annual CO2 emissions 46.79kg/m2
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >2% 94%
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >5% 22%
Airtightness at 50pa 4.7m3/m2/hr
Brickwork Wienerberger Chepstow Multi and Wienerberger Granite Blue Drag-faced (base-course and details)
Zinc cladding to library VM Zinc Pre-weathered Quartz-zinc Standing-Seam
Roofing (standing-seam) Kalzip 440/65 Stucco Mill finish Aluminium
Roofing (single-ply) Trocal S & Trocal SGmA single-ply membranes
Curtain walling SAS SMR900 range windows, SAS SPW600 range
Brise-soleil Renson Sunclip

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