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How AOC carefully unpicked the architectural history of Southwark Park Primary School

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At Southwark Park Primary School AOC has created a series of light-touch additions and simple homages to Victorian brick, says Laura Mark 


When AOC first arrived at Southwark Park Primary School in 2011, it was confronted with a jumble of structurally unsafe, but beautiful buildings. The school was in a dire state. The site sits on a mix of both made ground and alluvial bands which had shifted over time, causing the building to move. The result was a series of huge cracks displacing the masonry structure. The entire school had to be moved out to a temporary site down the road and remained there for 10 years. Students who had thought they would be returning to the building after its refurbishment had moved on to secondary school before works were in hand.

Sitting empty and deemed structurally unsafe, Southwark Park was a sorry sight for such a great example of British schoolbuilding. The Grade II-listed Victorian board school in Southwark, south-east London, had grown through a series of expansions in 1870, 1899 and 1910. The resulting site is an object lesson in Victorian school design. With architect Edward Robert Robson at its helm, the London School Board built some 400 schools across the capital in its 30-odd years of existence (1870-1904). This is one of the first.

Façade evolution

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC


‘It’s almost embryonic,’ says AOC director Tom Coward. ‘It started to test the template of the classic board school you see all around London. It is, therefore, kind of imperfect.

‘We were really keen that our work didn’t hide the different periods of the school’s development and that it showed the new buildings as a continuation of the campus’s three periods of school-building. Ours was to become the fourth addition over a 150-year period.’

When AOC’s project began, a series of initial enabling works had already been carried out as part of a previous scheme, which had stalled in 2007. This included the underpinning of some walls, new piled foundations, and the removal of large areas of internal walls. AOC had both a blank canvas, albeit within the external walls of the listed buildings, and also a tricky layout of piles to work its design around.

Diagram showing demolished walls at start of AOC project

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

‘The challenge for the team was to re-use the previous structural works but with new layouts and extensions to fit the constraints of the brief and budget,’ says Simon Robinson of the project’s engineer, HRW.

For AOC, which has been cutting its teeth on school buildings for 10 years, this feels like a perfect project. The practice, which featured in the AJ’s ‘40 under 40’ back in 2005, has been able to combine its expertise in reimagining spaces and creating community with a theory-driven approach to investigating the historic building stock.

The project amounted to a complete reworking of the building’s internal spaces, alongside three extensions for a hall, early years classrooms and a link block connecting the infants to the juniors. It plays on the gradual reclamation of space that has taken place over the many years of the school. The additional buildings have also been used to help shape the playgrounds and create a separation of spaces between the school’s different key stages.

AOC has replanned the site, which previously provided little connection between its buildings, to create routes that progress through the school and link all the spaces. As at many Victorian schools, the halls had acted as one of the main avenues of circulation, but in modern pedagogy this arrangement can be disruptive. The issue was resolved with the addition of a new hall and conversion of existing hall spaces into corridors with linking break-out areas.

The new hall is a little gem. It’s just big enough for the whole school to assemble within it, and at playtimes the doors can be thrown open, offering another space for the pupils to inhabit. A lower ceiling at one end sits above a stage, creating an intimate space designed to be undaunting for even the smallest of children.

In the entrance, what was once a tight, unwelcoming space between two masonry walls has been transformed. At the beginning and end of the day the doors are thrown open and there is level access from the street right through to the playground and ground-floor classrooms, where parents drop off or pick up their children. During the school day the space becomes a break-out area where small groups can work, or staff and parents can conduct meetings.

For students, who range from nursery age to year six, there is a sense of progression. Spaces get bigger as the children advance through the school, while the classrooms for the older kids are on the upper floors, so they quite literally move up the building as they grow.

aoc gif 1

AOC’s careful unpicking of the site has revealed the historic progression of how school buildings have changed over time from the Victorian era to the modern-day buildings of Building Schools for the Future and then Gove’s dulling-down.

It almost prompts the expression ‘we don’t make them like this anymore’, but actually what AOC has done here at Southwark is move the style on. It doesn’t have the glamour and ornament of some of the earlier blocks, but there is still something there in the practice’s light-touch additions and simple homages to the brick of the Victorian and Arts and Crafts blocks.

The whimsical pop-ups on the new extensions, with their white precast concrete contrasting with the bright yellow frames of the new windows, are very AOC; but they are also practical, providing natural light and ventilation into each of the spaces they serve.

‘We were interested in continuing the tradition of masonry construction in a contemporary way,’ says Coward. ‘It was about trying to tell the story of the history of the building while expressing what is continuing as an efficient way of building schools, but also enjoying the differences between the different bits.’

It is very much a continuation of AOC’s work. There are cranked walls, similar to those at AOC’s earlier St Saviour’s and St Olave’s girls school – commissioned by 4 Futures, the Southwark local enterprise partnership formed with Balfour Beatty that was also responsible for this school.

Some of the upstairs classrooms, with their full-height spaces reaching into the eaves of the building’s roof, conjure up visions of the practice’s Langley Hall Primary Academy – another school occupying a Grade II-listed building. Yet Southwark Park Primary School is complex and challenging. It may lack the fun of some of AOC’s earlier schemes, but it is almost like a grown-up version, demonstrating the practice’s approach to rigorous, thoughtful architecture.

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Source: Dennis Gilbert

Client’s view

We knew it would be difficult to balance the budget for our school’s expansion with our educational needs, especially on account of the building’s Grade II-listed status. After years of limited maintenance and major structural failure, the building required significant change.

We had three separate buildings, accessed across open playgrounds in all weathers. All internal circulation was through the halls, with a detrimental effect on the teaching. We wanted the new school to be connected indoors from front to back, with discrete circulation and additional flexible spaces for teaching interventions.

The new room layout and arrangement of connected corridor spaces have had a positive impact on behaviour. The décor helps make for a calmer, more focused and appropriate atmosphere – nice touches like the globes in the main corridors break down any institutional feel.

We wanted a hall for whole-school assemblies, and funding the required space was a struggle, but in reality it works at a squeeze. The hall is a feel-good, flexible space for sport and drama and is especially useful during lunchtime when we open it up as an extension to the playground, using it for clubs and other activities.

We needed spaces for small group teaching, and each year shares a designated room for this, but other spaces have been cleverly fitted in – from the entrance ‘living room’ to broad window sills in the corridors. What AOC did really well was combine the old with the new, making unique spaces such as the linking corridor and stair, where people enjoy sitting in a full-height window looking out over the playground at the now-internal old wall. We use that landing to have reflective conversations with pupils.

Carole Pellicci, headteacher, Southwark Park Primary School

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Source: Dennis Gilbert

Ground floor plan

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

First floor plan

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC


Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Perspective section through new hall 

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC


Clay facing brickwork and new-build masonry
Freshfield Lane Brickworks

Concrete facing blockwork in new hall

Precast concrete window surrounds in new hall
North West Precast

Kooltherm K8 rigid cavity insulation in new hall

PPC aluminium doors

Internal veneer doorsets

Single-ply pitched roof system in new hall

Liquid-applied waterproof roof coating system

Rigid board insulation to flat roof of new hall

Perforated acoustic metal ceiling panel in new hall
Acousticabs Noise Control

Factory-finished 129mm timber floating floor in new hall

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Southwark Park Primary School by AOC

Source: Dennis Gilbert

Project data

Start on site 2013
Completion 2015
Gross internal floor area 2,500m2
Form of contract or procurement route Design & Build
Architect AOC
Client 4 Futures Southwark Council
Structural engineer Engineers HRW
M&E consultant Wallace Whittle
Fire engineer W1 Engineering
Project manager Balfour Beatty
CDM coordinator Sweett Group
Approved building inspector AIS
Main contractor Balfour Beatty
CAD software used Vectorworks 

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