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St John Bosco Arts College by BDP

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BDP’s St John Bosco Arts College is not a pretty building but it is quite remarkable, writes Owen Pritchard

Saint John Bosco was canonised in 1934 and given the title ‘Father and Teacher of Youth’. Bosco is informally known as the patron saint of conjurors and illusionists but has never been formally declared so (despite a pilgrimage of magicians petitioning the Vatican in 2002). The St John Bosco Art College in Croxteth, Liverpool, opened its doors to pupils at the start of the current academic year.

Designed by BDP, it delivers 15 per cent more area than the traditional Building Bulletin 98 school. After the death of Building Schools for the Future and the fears surrounding the Priority School Building Programme, how did BDP pull this rabbit from the hat? Is it sleight of hand, or has the architect performed a miracle?

Originally, the building was to be delivered under the BSF programme. The school had been through the tortuous and expensive bidding process and was ready to spend £20 million on new premises. Overnight, the then education secretary, Michael Gove, pulled the plug on BSF. All the hard work was binned and St John Bosco had to start afresh. ‘I never thought that I would thank Michael Gove,’ says headteacher Anne Pontifex. ‘But even though we had more money under BSF, we have a better building now.’

St John Bosco Arts College

St John Bosco Art College now occupies a massive shed clad in Kingspan panels which reference the colours of the school emblem. It’s not a pretty building. Set alongside a busyish road and facing a large housing estate, the only thing that designates it as a school, rather than a warehouse or supermarket, is the shouty megagraphics on the south facade. It is important to keep the budget in mind. The walls and roof keep the weather out and the children in. That’s all they need to do.

Inside, however, BDP has done something quite remarkable. The functions around the school are arranged over three floors around a central space called The Hill. This is a faceted, bright green, stepped structure which manages to cram in an auditorium, a refectory, a library, rooms for students with special needs, the headteacher’s office and administrative rooms.

The Hill provides a space where formal and social functions overlap: at lunch the pupils sit on the steps of the auditorium or gather in groups around the cold buffet bar; in the evening, youth and dance groups take over the flexible spaces. It is a bold design move that appears to really work: the identity of the school and pupils manifests itself on The Hill. High above, the open-span trusses of the pitched roof sit mute, painted gleaming white. There is no attempt to hide what they are. There’s no need to: all the activity means that they go unnoticed.

St John Bosco Arts College

The teaching spaces are arranged to the north, west and east of the floorplan. The uppermost floor has the traditional faculties: maths, humanities, English. With class sizes of around 25, the extra 15 per cent of space means the children are not shoehorned onto desks. Outside each classroom is a breakout space for group work and activities that can break the tedium of more didactic lessons. The middle floor has the messier activities, with art studios, science labs and media suites. The corridors are situated on the balconies that wrap around and overlook The Hill. On the ground floor are the drama studios, music rooms and a teacher training college that was originally intended to be a primary school.

Even though we had more money under BSF, we have a better building now

So far, so good. The architect has managed to fit a school in a shed on budget. The walls are plasterboard, the carpets hard-wearing, the furniture is plastic and the classroom ceilings are cheap, suspended efforts. It works, but BDP needed to inject some character into this space.

Looking closely, this gigantic set draws from an unexpected array of architectural influences. The green, fuscia and yellow colours used to denote the school’s different functions could have been plucked from the sock drawer of Richard Rogers; the deep windows punched randomly in the full height of the building around the prayer room are masked with coloured film – a budget homage to Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp; The Hill plays games with folding forms that could be out of a Bjarke Ingels’ pattern book; the breakout spaces from the classrooms, the nooks and snugs on the balconies and in the library, which overlook each other and allow groups to gather, offer a dash of Hertzberger. It’s a series of spaces that help develop an identity for the school community. Where the architect could have provided just enough and blamed the budget, it has provided something playful and intuitive – a landscape for learning and personal development.

Pontifex says that behavioural incidents are down, and more children are eating breakfast and lunch at the school. As it only opened its doors in September, the impact on exam results is yet to be known, but staff are confident they will see an improvement. This giant shed is a cheap and cheerful school. And that is in no way an insult.

St John Bosco Arts College

What could be problematic is the precedent this building sets. When Gove was in office, architects were made the villain of the piece when it came to the spiralling costs of BSF schools – they were accused of ‘creaming off the cash that should have been going out to the front line’. The catchment area of the St John Bosco is Croxteth, a district of Liverpool that has a gun and gang problem; it is a short walk from the school to the site where 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot in 2007. This school is a haven and a facilitator that provides opportunities for its pupils.

St John Bosco’s functions are centred around the performing arts. The architect and school worked incredibly closely together to achieve something remarkable. The senior staff travelled as far as the US to visit exemplary educational facilities, and BDP offered a crash course in architecture – even taking the headteacher to shopping malls and public spaces to demonstrate what might be possible. St John Bosco is an exercise in executing what is specifically possible for a school and community with very specific needs. The danger is that local authorities will only see the numbers – this not a Niemeyer CIEP that can have cookie-cutter copies.

Alas, the school is not a miraculous conception. From the wreckage of BSF, BDP has used intelligence, both spatial and financial, to deliver a school with a bag of unexpected tricks that, surely, would not fail to delight the most ardent of St John Bosco’s conjuring petitioners.

The brief

St John Bosco Arts College is a new-build secondary 1,100-place girls’ school in Croxteth, Liverpool. It is housed in a 91m x 55m three-storey, single-span, column-free environment containing an exciting mix of open-plan and cellular learning and social spaces, all focusing on a sculpted landscape set at the heart of the school.

With a budget of just £1,191/m2 for all building elements – including prelims, OHP and 5 per cent contingency – the response uses a simple efficient building form, which delivers 15 per cent more area than the traditional BB98 school, allowing for greater flexibility in learning environment to create both transformational and inspirational spaces.

Clever internal planning minimises circulation space and allows for multiple functions, colour and graphics, creating a unique response to the school’s identity and sense of place in its community.

The potentially singular large open environment is subdivided by ‘The Hill’, a central device that creates a series of spaces and scales of environment to suit different functions. The building feels like a new breed of school – unique, contemporary and an example of how small budgets don’t necessarily have to deliver standard products.

The architect’s view

The project is still ongoing, with the completed first phase encompassing the base build and a portion of the landscape, while the second phase is under way, involving the demolition of the previous school building, which is on the same site.

Liverpool City Council’s brief at the project’s outset was to design a big box scheme that was flexible for the future. The build cost was to be driven by comparison of the PFS Campsmount project delivering 15 per cent less area as a way of delivering efficiency. The council’s reaction to this was to ask for 15 per cent more area but for the same reduced cost – a great challenge to be given!

St John Bosco Arts College

Concept sketch

Core parts of the school’s identity are its Catholic faith, arts college status and teacher training accreditation. The outstanding results produced by the school in a challenging part of Liverpool are all credit to the school’s control and vision for the pupils and the interaction with its community.

A new public piazza opens to the street, directly engaging with the community, and opening its facilities for a wider use than currently allowed. The school’s faith is expressed through the ‘Salesian pod’. Salesians are members of the order founded by St Bosco, dedicated to supporting and nurturing children and communities. This is expressed by a bright yellow object, clearly visible throughout most of the school.

The teacher training centre is integrated into the school, but remains distinct and separate with independent access from the entrance foyer creating a hotel-like experience – an often talked about feeling desired for this space.

The school looked for an adult space that bridged the gap into higher education for its pupils. The use of space, subdivision, colour and graphics worked with their identity to create a unique response. The core colours – green and yellow – were derived from the existing school crest, with yellow expressing the aspiration to act as a beacon in the community, and green the connection with the landscape and nurturing element they expressed. The arrowheads in the signage are derived from the Salesian sisters’ logo, coloured with an additional complementary colour to the core branding – a bright fuscia.

The school has undergone a full rebrand as part of this process and adopted the new colouring into the uniform and marketing material.

  • Mark Braund, architect director, Manchester, BDP

The client’s view

Pupils, staff and parents have waited a long time for our new school, but now it has been completed we are all absolutely thrilled with the finished project.

The school has had two ‘outstanding’ Ofsted inspections, and it was important that the new build could enhance teaching and learning in order to move education in Croxteth beyond outstanding. The new facilities more than deliver this.

On our opening day in September it was wonderful to watch the sheer delight on our students’ faces and to hear the shrieks of excitement as they got to explore and know the building. 

St John Bosco Arts College

Our vision of a learning environment that supports our Salesian ethos of ensuring that ‘all young people are loved and cared for’, especially via passive supervision, has more than been realised.  We have a defined blend of traditional classrooms and open breakout spaces which, when combined with flexible furniture and fittings, enables truly creative teaching and learning to take place.

Our partnership with the architects developed into an open, honest and creative relationship, which enabled ideas, theory and the concept of truly ‘thinking outside the box’ to take place.  As a result, we have what I believe is a unique, exciting and stimulating school, which supports our already outstanding teaching and learning.  These two strands will enable young people to achieve their true potential.

Feedback from children at our school has a common theme: that they feel safe and secure as well as proud of their school and motivated to succeed.

  • Anne Pontifex, head teacher

Material study

The project relies upon standard products, with adapted details to stay within the budget allocation, and an architectural quality enhanced by the use of colour and supergraphics.

Externally, brickwork is used at low level to provide a civic quality and robustness, while insulated Kingspan panels at high level provide an efficient wall treatment and airtightness. The cladding panels also introduce an element of colour and pattern to break the large mass of the building and link back to the school’s identity and brand, with a yellow corner picking up the crest and beacon-like vision, and an opposing green corner picking up the link to the landscape.

Typical Kingspan cladding details are adapted to create sharp reveals and avoid the typical large flashgap junctions.

This approach continues internally, with a singular environment broken by lightweight partitions, glazed timber screens and balustrades clad in plasterboard.

The Hill sits at the heart, creating an artificial green focal point to the large volumetric space, but also subdividing and breaking the scale of both the ground floor and upper floors.

Technically this is a continuation of the simple steel frame with lightweight partition infills, but through the use of form, supergraphics and colour, it creates a series of spaces and allows the building to open and close views, creating an interactive and enveloping experience for students.

  • Mark Braund, architect director, Manchester, BDP

Related projects in the AJ Buildings Library

The Elmgreen School

The Elmgreen Schoolby Scott Brownrigg

Hampden Gurney School

Hampden Gurney primary school by BDP

Richmond School

Richmond School by Denis Clarke Hall



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