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Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

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It’s the calm chaos that disguishes this school, writes Jay Merrick


If you walk down Citadel Road, Plymouth, and pause by the Baronial Gothic limestone and granite of the Duke of Cornwall Hotel – 1865, by Forster Hayward – the town’s new School of Creative Arts is about 250m away. From here, it’s only partly visible and seems to be a big chilli-red metal box rising, apparently smooth-sided and unremarkable.

As you get closer, the box reveals itself as an arrangement of rectilinear solids in a 6,920m2 superblock building, with outdoor play areas, covering a 5,385m² site. The vertical strips of incarnadine sheathing are in groups of two widths with raised seams. These sculptural and surface qualities generate a graphic punch, its three-dimensionality epitomised by the deep triangular cantilever jutting over the angled cutback of the entrance elevation. Crank-and-carve, solid and void. This, Dr Watson, can only be the cunning work of Feilden Clegg Bradley.

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The building’s red façade is cut back to form the entrance

The building’s formal and haptic qualities are immediately impressive. The design, led by practice partner Andy Theobald, has created an important pivot point in the townscape, while enclosing a series of radically open-plan, loose-fit interior volumes. On the day the school of opened, one mother told the head teacher, Dave Strudwick: ‘I like the chaos. It’s so calm.’

With slightly more than half the free school’s eventual 1,050 pupils enrolled, Ofsted has given it an interim rating of ‘good’ with ‘excellent’ aspects. The dynamism is palpable. Strudwick’s freewheeling pedagogy informed a six-week design process, which he described as ‘brutal’. Intensely committed input from project sponsor Plymouth School of Art and Alastair Mullen of Kier Construction has supported a remarkable outcome: school architecture for children aged four to 16 built for £1,450 per m2 – two-thirds the figure for typical Building Schools for the Future stalags. The building has a polemically raw simplicity of structure, volume, surface, and exposed gubbins.

This intelligently articulated cheapness is, in passing, a critique of those axially atriumed academy bunkers praised, with trainspotting desperation, for incidentals such as ‘interesting’ furniture, ‘vibrant’ colour-coded spaces, or ‘innovative’ seating terraces. How different here. ‘I wanted to have visible engineering and concrete slabs,’ says Strudwick. ‘I wanted to see the making of the building everywhere, as a creative inspiration.’

The school’s site is on the first roundabout encountered on leaving the ferry port, and the council specified a striking gateway building; indeed, their demand for a ‘played’ main facade to widen the view across the roundabout has given the entrance elevation greater presence than it might have had. 

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

One of the building’s three double-height volumes

Three years ago, the site was part of a blasted heath of dereliction. Sawrey Street, running along the back of the school’s play areas, had once been Hooker Central. David Mackay’s 2003 Vision for Plymouth set out the council’s long-term regeneration strategy, and the school is within the envelope of Ferguson Mann’s subsequent local area masterplan.

The school’s design concept is an amalgam of three building types: gallery, theatre and department store. ‘We had a tight team who were very agile,’ says the head. ‘We knew we had to do something very different. Once Feilden Clegg Bradley was selected, there was an intense iterative period examining the agility and transparency of the spaces, and how they linked to the pedagogy – using spaces as a provocation, making to learn, motivation to learn, different learning and processing needs.’

This seat-of-the-pants pedagogic radicalism is a rebuttal of what Strudwick describes as the dependency culture of ‘retrieval’ learning. The rebuttal is evident everywhere you look in the building: desks on wheels; amoebic groups of noticeably relaxed and energetic pupils; big spaces; activities ebbing and flowing across subject area demarcations; floor plans and atriums that create industrial-issue raumplans; and Roman Abramovich’s former chef telling his culinary class: ‘Attendez! Au fond, everyone up the front pour réflexion!

The school’s design concept is an amalgam of three building types

Theobald recalls: ‘We had the construction funding amount [£10 million], we had the space targets, so it was almost – how do we carve the building? It was refreshing to have an open-plan brief, which is something we haven’t had in a long time.’

The building is polygonal in plan, with two right-angled elevations, and three double-height internal volumes. A 15m-wide atrium in the southern quarter of the plan punches down through the first floor and is top-lit from a narrower linear rooflight above the third level. A second, disconnected, atrium runs at right angles to it, and illuminates two levels. The sun path, in relation to the alignments of the atriums, and the double-height glazing across the entrance facade sluice light right through the plans and sections.

Programmatically, the most flowing open-plan areas are on the ground, first, and second floors. A big oblong gym box, forming the school’s highest point, rises from the third floor, covering almost a third of the plan. The building contains functionally specific zones, such as its theatre, teaching kitchen, labs – all substantially glazed on their internal faces – and a dance studio and recording-cum-music rooms.

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The first floor is the most compelling, viz a viz what might be called the Strudwick Alt Protocol. There is very little sense of spatial or functional separation and, despite the faint department-store character of the sightlines across the floorplate, the atmosphere is thoroughly engaging. Something interesting, and not quite definable, is at work here, which the ghosts of Edwardian educationalist John Dewey and his 1970s philosophical descendant David Kolb might recognise. Dewey spoke of ‘experimental intelligence’ and Kolb popularised experiential learning.

The school’s design was the servant of an ultra-loose fit pedagogy, and the interiors radiate this quality. But externally, the segmentations of mass, the step-changes and ‘lost’ corners, the asymmetric positioning of big windows in the elevations generate a potent three-dimensionality. Particularly as seen from the east, north, and north-west, the building is an engrossing composition of solids and voids.

Feilden Clegg Bradley is one of a small coterie of go-to practices for notable educational projects. Clients know the studio is as well-versed in curriculums and pedagogy as it is in the formal qualities of educational enclosures. But do architects always have to know what they’re doing, confidently, to produce something special? The school’s design was itself a product of calm chaos, and its success demonstrates Aristotle’s remark: ‘For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.’

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Plan adjacencies

The brief

Affectionately known as the Red House, Plymouth School of Creative Arts is a four to 16-year-olds ‘all-through’ free school sponsored by Plymouth College of Art. The school and college combined form a unique continuum of creative learning from nursery school to degree and postgraduate level. The school is a place for making things – making ideas, making technology, making art – for discovering how knowledge, values and language, identity or experience are made. It is a place of performance in both senses: performance as doing; performance as achievement – a place of creative learning in all subjects.

Andy Theobald, project partner, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Working detail

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Section AA detail

Plymouth School of Creative Arts uses a form of construction more associated with industrial typologies. A primary steel structure sustains its articulated form. A robust black brick plinth envelopes the ground floor. Above, the external wall build-up is made from horizontally spanning composite panels fixed directly to the primary steels. Metal facings bonded to a high-density structural stone wool core can span up to 12m. The product is waterproof and vapourproof and offers high structural, thermal, acoustic, and fire resistance performances.

The school was externally clad in profiled steel sheets. The product was originally developed as roofing and has been extensively tested in marine environments similar to Plymouth’s. The sheets are fixed at the bottom and clipped to fasteners ascending the composite panels. The sill and parapet profiles are detailed to allow for upward thermal expansion. The product has two standard widths which are deployed across facades for rhythm and variety.

A strong red colour highlights the artistic prominence of the school, while the anthracite grey denotes the sculptural ‘cut-aways’. The wall build-up is concluded with large curtain-wall windows and internal plasterboard lining.

Floors are power-floated in-situ composite slabs with a dry shake finish. There are a few internal walls of metal stud and plasterboard. Acoustic wood wool panels and exposed services are soffit fixed. The spaces are deep in plan and sunlit with two large roof lights.

This school has different expectations and processes. It requires a different kind of space in which to do this. This very basic industrial palette has been contrived to create variety in height, plan, light and scale, now colonised and thoroughly enriched by the school’s creative endeavours.

Alan Keane, project architect, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Architect’s view

Plymouth School of Creative Arts is a free school located on a brownfield site in Millbay, Plymouth. It is sponsored by Plymouth College of Art to create a continuum of arts education in the city.

As the first key building visible from the ferry terminal, the ‘Red House’ creates a distinct gateway to Plymouth from Europe. Through making, performing and discovering, the school pursues its core intent of ‘creating individuals’ and ‘making futures’. The building is a response to both its very particular arts education brief and to its austerity free-school budget.

This ambition provokes a departure from conventional teaching methods and spaces. Different outcomes require a new habitat for a creative educational ecology. Industrial in character and varying in height, plan, light and scale, the school’s design stimulates and charges the teaching environment. It is a place for making – making ideas, making technology and making art. To enable this, a series of open-plan studio-like spaces have been created with few finishes. Indeed the use of concrete floors and exposed services suggests an informal almost found space type.

School building is not only an architectural issue, but a societal, political and educational issue. It embraces unconventional teaching methods founded in arts and culture where knowledge and creativity can flow between teachers and peers.

Three interlocking double-height spaces create clarity, legibility and a unique teaching atmosphere. There is no ‘art room’; art is made everywhere. The school’s values guided the design of this building, and the building reciprocated by putting those values on show. This school is a prototype for creative learning on a strict budget. This is a building of the arts and a gateway to Plymouth, one that is quickly becoming the new heart to the local community.

Andy Theobald, project partner, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Plymouth School of Creative Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Client’s view

As a school we wanted a building that would provide spaces reflecting our strong and proud specialism around creativity and the arts; spaces that were agile; and studios rather than classrooms, provoking staff to work in new ways.

The time scales involved were very limited. We had partial occupation 18 months after the architects were appointed, which required intricate planning and people on all sides to consider the impact of choices on each other. The budget was exceptionally tight, and forced limitations and different design solutions. That we have such a stunning space reflects the skills and expertise of all involved.

Having a building that is so different has supported different expectations and shifted our pedagogical approach.  The building made sense very quickly to students, who have made very good progress in their learning.

Staff recognise that working here has been amazing for their own development, particularly working in open-plan studios where they can team-teach and learn from each other.

The transparency of the space mirrors our culture. It helps people feel supported and also raises aspirations.

The new school has significantly connected with the community – the local paper included it in its list of the city’s 10 most interesting buildings. The school is already used in the evenings and on weekends. It is is the first thing visitors see when coming off the ferry. For years this was just scrubland; now the city is on the front foot.

Personally, I’m proud of our school. We will always be grateful to Feilden Clegg Bradley and Kier for their vision, insight, graft and teamwork to make our children, staff, parents and community proud to be here.

Dave Strudwick, head teacher, Plymouth School of Creative Arts



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Northampton Academy (2005), Northampton by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

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