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AJ Writing Prize Shortlist: The Carrot and the Cane by Malcolm Birks

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As gestures go, the 100m sprint track at the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, South London, is a very powerful one; an act of great force running through a void in the centre of the building. ‘Education is a competition,’ it shouts, ‘so you’d better get in training now.’ But is it just a one-liner, a clever juxtaposition but no more?

When Matte Trucco designed a test track on the roof of the Lingotto car factory in Turin, he was making a statement about the power of the motor car and its leading role in the Modern Movement. But he was also making it with a feature that integrated perfectly and poetically with the function of the building.

More recently, when Rem Koolhaus designed a bold route that sliced through the Kunsthalle in Rotterdam, he was using it to open up the guts of the building, and connect places on either side. The design of the ramp he employed, was not in itself resonant with imagery but the way it broke apart the structure and revealed the activities within, was a challenge to what people thought constituted a modern building.

By contrast to Koolhaus’ ramp, Zaha’s running track terminates at either end and although these link with the two entrances to the site, there is strangely little feeling of connection. Its emblematic quality overrides all else. The route it defines does not serve as the main thoroughfare for the school, since the students peel off to various entrances at the sides. Lonely visitors approach along the track edge, almost tiptoeing towards the main reception, because it feels naughty to step onto the pristine orange surface.

Perhaps Zaha Hadid has most in common with Le Corbusier. She shares his emphasis on the fluidity of space and of an architecture which expresses movement, drama and event. Le Corbusier’s Millowners’ Building in Ahmedabad has a similar grand gesture to the running track - a large ramp ascending in the middle of the frontal approach, before entering through the void in the monumental, concrete, brise soleil screen, signalling the promenade architecturale, the grand tour of architectural plasticity.

But this is where Hadid and Corbusier part company. The ramp at the Millowners’ Building is an integral part of the movement through the building - its symbolic role is secondary to its main function: to allow entry to the building and a sequence of views. As the great man himself once explained: “Architecture is experienced as one roams about in it and walks through it … So true is this that architectural works can be divided into dead and living ones depending on whether the law of ‘roaming through’ has not been observed or whether on the contrary it has been brilliantly obeyed.”

Zaha’s buildings are not made for roamers but rather for photographers, who seek and find powerful, photogenic vignettes full of force, form and energy. At Evelyn Grace, the race track is almost foreboding when you see it up close. It just as powerfully speaks of pressure, expectation and detachment, as it does of ambition and achievement.

This is not an integral piece of the rough and tumble of everyday school life but rather one to experience more satisfyingly from the comfort of one’s armchair, looking at a magazine. More natural and functionally coordinated are the tongues of fluid plinth that are employed to establish a base level of ‘servant’-type accommodation, upon which sit the primary elements of the school. These provide multiple, flowing pathways through the site and into the building and this successfully breaks up any external congestion of pupil movements and goes some way to dissolving the traditional boundary between building and landscape.

The School is split into two smaller schools, Evelyn and Grace, each with an upper and a lower form based on age. In common with many recent schools, this is founded on the premise that this structure gives pupils closer identification amongst their peers and staff and they will hence be more comfortable and manageable. The school split creates a curious division overall which the bridge over the running track is meant to resolve.

The common elements of hall and dining meet in the middle, allowing for shared activities to take place between the schools. It feels forced, as the resolving piece of the diagram, but is done with such conviction and energy that one accepts it as a natural part of the architecture. Exposed, in-situ concrete is used extensively in the building. In particular, the diagonally-sliding principal staircase impressively showcases the material. The robust tectonic this establishes provides an assertive contrast with the shiny, metallic grey cladding. It’s not quite Brutalism 2.0 but it feels like a debt is owed to that tradition.

Certainly the combination of tectonic material expression and the, often connected, social reforming zeal is in evidence, even if any ideas about ‘honesty’ and ‘truth’ in construction and design, have long since vanished - our generation tends to scoff at such things. The Evelyn Grace project is a grand experiment with a grand hypothesis: can extreme architectural form contribute significantly to the solving of deep-seated, social and educational problems? Does investment in school buildings that is this explicit, this dynamic and this extraordinary, yield ‘results’? The headteacher, (a Super Head, naturally, using the common parlance of the last age) offered us the following Goethe quote: ‘If you treat an individual as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be…’ Can this be true?

Based on this, what kind of people will this School produce - astronauts and star gazers? This takes us to a perennial question…is it the job of architecture to raise us to a higher plain of living; to help make us better than we are? A derivative of this thinking is deliberate, moral and social engineering which is supposed to be out of fashion and yet keeps returning and certainly here.

The Evelyn Grace Academy is the proverbial spaceship, landed in a disrupted urban landscape to bring dynamism, hope and reform. It is the muscular bodybuilder of the educational world, pumped full of steroids and flexing its curves. As such, it is the apogee of the New Labour school building programme, the ultimate school in the definitive ‘difficult context‘, with a budget to match.

Now that the political, economic and educational climate has such a different complexion, accurate perspectives on the project seem ever more difficult and remote. Against the current backdrop of cuts and austerity, many people may see it as excessive and indulgent but of all the things to invest properly in, surely schools should be at the top of the list, some way above nuclear submarines and fighter planes. Goethe would certainly agree.

Will it stand the test of time and be as admired as Corbusier’s Millowners’ Building or as practical and adaptable as, say, the Victorian Board Schools that stand aplenty in this part of London? The latter were also concerned with moral and social reformation and yet we seem to forget this and concentrate instead on the fine craftsmanship and solid, sensible design, with good reason perhaps. Nevertheless, the high ambitions of the New Labour school building programme certainly chimed with those of the Victorians.

What is curious about the pedagogical model for Evelyn Grace is that it is actually very rigid and conservative and this seems to contradict the architectural expression which is all about flow, interactivity and dynamism. The educational philosophy of the School is not at all interested in the recent emphasis on pupils as self-directed, independent learners working on cross-curricular themes. Such ideas are in strong evidence in many of the recently completed new schools in the UK but not here. Instead of more diverse open plan learning zones, there are banks of cellular classrooms.

Pupils hand in their mobile phones at the beginning of the day and sign an eight-page pledge regarding their behaviour and attitude. It’s easy to imagine a reincarnated Victorian headteacher, with his gown and cane now updated to the power suit, directing the boys and girls towards their separate entrances, intoning Goethe’s aphorism.

The disjunction between the educational basis of the school and its outward expression has sinister overtones of a controlled and regimented society, clothed outwardly in the fashionable language of the age in an attempt to divert attention from what lies within. But for the Head, the tough discipline ‘establishes a baseline of behaviour where children can learn and teachers can teach.’ Results are impressive. Aspiration and expectation are the keywords and university the goal for everyone.

The carrot and the cane - is this the real recipe for success? I hate running, but 100m is just about short enough for me to think: ‘I can do that. I might even win’. Of course, I won’t, I am temporarily deluded. The question is, can Zaha’s flashy running track and sexy spaceship go beyond symbolism and delusion? Can it really inspire and enable its pupils to become powerful athletes in the world? Or is it merely a jazzy wrapping of a contemporary Board School, and the podium a distant mirage?

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