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St Mary Magdalene Academy, Islington by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

[BUILDING STUDY + IMAGES + PLANS] Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ St Mary Magdalene Academy is specific to its location, and is all the better for it, writes Kieran Long. Photography by Hufton + Crow

We have written often in the AJ over the last couple of years about the current school-building boom, and as much of that commentary has been about how to deliver large numbers of schools quickly as it has been about designing individual buildings for individual sites and briefs.

The scale and speed of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) and the academy programme, plus BSF’s contractor-led procurement system, has defined the conversation. The resulting tendency has been to see recent schools as prototypes, as exemplars useful in a broader context. There is lots of talk about raising the general standard of school design, and the language of the discipline has somehow altered as a result.

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ (FCBS) RIBA Award-winning St Mary Magdalene Academy in Islington, North London, is the opposite of this tendency. Despite an impressively collaborative team the building is not a prototype. It is impossible to imagine transplanting this building anywhere else. It is absolutely specific, and a major achievement as a result.

There are various reasons for this. The process of the school’s design and construction was shaped by a traumatic planning process with many articulate local objectors. It was also defined by a site that is tight for the amount of accommodation provided. St Mary Magdalene is a 1,360-student school for all ages from infants to sixth formers, and fits on a 1.2ha site woven between residential streets.

The objections were many. Firstly, the process was politically charged by the fact that Lord Adonis, then schools minister and architect of the government’s academy programme, was a local resident. There was a judicial review in 2006 when a local parent challenged the closure of the primary school (also called St Mary Magdalene) that originally occupied the site, on the basis that its replacement would compromise the children’s human rights. The legality of the decision to close the school was upheld by the High Court, but time was lost. The project also had to be submitted for planning twice as a result of a challenge to the process.

The truth of the objections, though, seems mixed with idealism and a generous dose of Nimby-ism. There was a strong feeling from local residents that a school of this size was too big for its site, and, indeed, one terrace of houses to the north backs directly on to the school’s playground. It is true that, while there is reasonable playground space, the building has to make ingenious use of the topography and geography of the site to fit in an early years centre, a primary school and an academy secondary school with sixth form. 

The site is an L-shape, with a frontage on four streets. The busiest of these is Liverpool Road, across which the site faces an old and beautiful church garden. Here, FCBS created the signature facade of the building – a grand volume, clad in timber and subtly inscribed with an Ichthus pattern. The Ichthus (an abstract fish symbol that was an early sign of Christian faith) is visible only when the sun shines on the facade from a certain angle. This choice of insignia also reveals the identity of the academy’s sponsor – the London Diocesan Board for Schools.

A major victory for FCBS was persuading the client and contractor that stacking the large volumes of the sports hall and the assembly hall/theatre one on the other was a good idea. The assembly hall is in fact a building within a building, structurally independent of the box around it. This allows for acoustic separation, but most importantly, this arrangement keeps classrooms from the noisiest road, while still providing a large and civic-looking volume facing the street.

On my visit, as we stand on the spectacular rooftop football pitch, project director Ian Taylor points out a very large Victorian school to the north-west of the academy. ‘The Victorian board schools were big,’ he says, ‘and I think that a school should be a more important building in the city.’ Despite the project’s tricky planning process, it is great to hear an architect with a desire to create something civic and grand that makes a contribution to the city. The planning objections detailed above would have prompted many architects to try to hide the building, or blend it into its context, but FCBS has more confidence than that.

The other main entrance to the site is at the western end, for pupils at the primary school and early years centre. Accordingly, the scale is more modest, a two-storey block that is pretty closed with no views through. The block has a long facade along Bride Street – again, a modest brick and glazed facade behind a fence and a new line of trees on the street.

Inside, the design of the school is full of incident and enjoyment. Entering from Liverpool Road through the timber-clad building, you reach a low reception that overlooks the school hall through full-height windows. The hall is dug a storey into the ground, creating an external amphitheatre in the playground outside. This sectional shift is really exciting, and despite the long, low arrangement of the school in general, you feel you can command a view of a large part of the site as soon as you arrive.

Moving into the school, you pass through a long corridor with full-height, north-facing glazing – an internal colonnade facing the playground. Off this corridor are labs and wet rooms. At the end of the colonnade is the so-called forum space, a kind of central dining hall cum four-storey atrium with light streaming in from large, high-level clerestory windows. Daylight is reflected down to ground level by a faceted white ceiling (cleverly concealing plant), and a curiously shaped volume in the middle of the space containing a (rather small) library, plus offices and a modest chapel. Arranged around the atrium are floors of pretty conventional classrooms. Not for St Mary Magdalene trendy removable walls or classrooms open to the atrium. The sponsor felt that innovation in teaching methods should drive the arrangement of classrooms, not the other way around.

The secondary school is connected to the primary school and early years centre by a locked door, but the students are not free to mix, and have separate playgrounds. Entry to the primary school from the street involves passing through a gate and then turning right into a very small reception area. The primary school headteacher’s office is right on this corner, overlooking the playground.

The primary school is spatially less grand than the secondary, and there are some great things about it. The need to carve spaces
from the tight site produced a really intimate pocket garden in the south-west corner of the site, shaded by a large mature tree (retained with admirable care). Each classroom has a generous balcony on which it is envisaged outdoor teaching will take place, although the teacher I spoke to had not yet made use of it.

Downstairs is the early years centre, a nursery for the youngest children. This is separate from the primary school, and arranged attractively around another intimate playground, which feels very safe and removed from the context, with classrooms looking over it through full-height glass.

The whole arrangement is ingenious, with diverse spaces of real character issuing from the cheek-by-jowl positioning. But one negative is the terribly dark primary classrooms, which are naturally lit by strange projecting windows that don’t allow much light in. It is difficult to see why this decision was made, and it detracts from what is otherwise a lovely environment for children.

In summary, though, the building is a triumph. FCBS, working with contractor Mace Plus, has fashioned an architecture of character, richness, detail and beauty, particularly in the timber-clad elements. There are spaces here – the birch-faced, ply-clad sports hall, the rooftop football pitch, the external amphitheatre, the glazed colonnade – that are dignified, civic and very beautiful. St Mary Magdalene Academy is not a prototype to be rolled out across Islington – it is specific. It is time all schools were designed with this in mind.

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