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Sacred Heart Catholic School by Cottrell & Vermeulen

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Spared the constraint of having to build alongside a working school, Cottrell & Vermeulen was able to completely remodel thesite plan of Camberwell’s Sacred Heart Catholic School, writes Ellis Woodman. Photography by Anthony Coleman

Architects tasked with delivering replacement school buildings rarely enjoy choice over their siting. Faced with their client’s desire to remain on site throughout construction, they commonly end up building on the games pitch then levelling the old facilities once the school has decanted.  Short-term cost savings aside, it rarely proves an ideal strategy, slowing construction, impairing teaching and often lumbering the new building with a site inferior to the old.

When Cottrell & Vermeulen was commissioned to design a new building for Sacred Heart Catholic School as part of the London Borough of Southwark’s £220 million Building Schools for the Future programme this, at least, was one set of challenges it was spared. The school’s site in Camberwell was simply too small to allow for a new building to be constructed prior to the old one’s demolition. Fortunately, the BSF programme was also delivering a completely new school, designed by Allies and Morrison, a couple of miles away at Elephant and Castle, so for two years Sacred Heart was able to borrow that building before returning to its newly remodelled Camberwell site at the start of this academic year. 

Despite the licence this situation afforded, Cottrell & Vermeulen declined to build on the site occupied by Sacred Heart’s former accommodation. Designed in 1960, that building comprised a three-storey bar located in the middle of the plot, framing a series of meagre outdoor spaces around it. By contrast, the replacement block runs hard against Camberwell New Road, the street that forms the school’s principal address. Largely drawn from neighbouring post-war estates, many of Sacred Heart’s pupils are dealing with considerable economic and social challenges. However, this is a high-achieving school - its most recent GCSE results outstripped those of the nearby and fee-paying Dulwich College - and its head teacher was keen that the new building should reflect its essentially traditional academic culture. Faced in brick and dominated by a tower supporting a clock, the street facade answers that desire while acknowledging a neighbouring terrace of Georgian houses. The facade is articulated by a series of zip-like vertical recesses, a detail inspired by the ragged-edged terminations employed by the facades of 19th century board schools to form a key for any future extension. Here, the treatment introduces a rhythm of divisions that echoes the party walls of houses on the rest of the street.

The facade might have continued along the pavement unabated, were it not for the presence of a magnificent holm oak towards one end. Instead it kicks back to make space for the tree, dropping in height from three storeys to two in the process. Crossing the small forecourt beneath the oak’s wide-spreading branches we find the entrance set within the lower wing. The massing is particularly expressive here, a series of cuts into the body of the building serving to mediate between the low, recessed entrance and the five-storey clock tower that rises alongside. Beyond lies a small courtyard roofed in polycarbonate, which in turn  gives onto the play area that now occupies the middle of the site. This is essentially a five-a-side football pitch besides which a walled-in multi-use games area and an area of outdoor gym equipment are located.

To the rear, Cottrell & Vermeulen has also built a new sports hall: a standard brick shed elevated by decorative timber detailing at its upper level.

Despite the games area’s compact dimensions, all 850 pupils line up here each morning before being admitted to the classrooms. These are ranged along the longer of the building’s two wings, the other comprising a full-height dining hall and drama room. The block’s two inner facades exchange the fierce red brick of the street elevation for a dark grey and are further differentiated by their greater horizontality. Common to both is a sense of the building as a solid mass that has been shaped by extraction.

The BSF programme closely defined the dimensions of all rooms but Cottrell & Vermeulen has introduced a sense of generosity through the use of lightwells in the middle of the plan which rescue the circulation spaces from the status of mere corridors. In keeping with the school’s wishes, internal glazing was kept to a minimum: a strategy conceived as a means of sparing students distraction and as a vote of confidence in teachers’ ability to perform their roles without undue internal surveillance.

While expressing very considerable frustration at the lack of provision within the BSF process to allow him to brief his architect, the head teacher admits a certain amount of clandestine conversation took place nonetheless. If rules were bent, it was certainly worth it. Sacred Heart may not rank among its architect’s most refined work but it is a robust and flexible building with a strong urban presence. And, while the schools delivered under BSF have not always found favour with end users, the staff and students of Sacred Heart are evidently delighted with theirs.

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