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Established in 1992, Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture has a reputation for innovative work in early-years and primary-school design. Key projects include the cardboard classroom at Westborough in Essex and the Lilliput Nursery, for Portakabin, selected by the Design Council as a 'Millennium Product' and the first prefabricated structure to win a Civic Trust Award.

The journey from London Bridge to Bermondsey gives the impression that gentrification, like a pot of double cream, has been tipped over and is oozing slowly through the gap-toothed townscape: a landscape of welfare composed of disconnected good intentions, made concrete in a bewildering range of styles and materials. The legacy of fragmentation imposes few rules or conventions, and a culture of individualism seems successfully to reproduce itself on this fertile ground. In Grange Road, fronting the small park of Spa Fields, a development of ats by Pollard Thomas Edwards, incorporating a school and doctors' surgery at ground level, now rears up from the low-rise unpretentiousness of the area, but it is a tiddler across the road, the new Children's Centre in Kintore Way, by Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture in design partnership with MRA, that commands attention.

Cottrell & Vermeulen is doubly in its element here: as a practice that has made its name with public-sector educational buildings, especially those for younger children, and as an office located in south-east London. Cottrell & Vermeulen has a distinctive style, involving strong colour, strong shapes and a tolerance for components in a raw state, adding up to an approach which represents a dominant view of childhood in developed north-European society, as a condition that invites adults to speculate on themselves and their assumptions while forming those of the next generation.

In many parts of the country, however, childhood is no joke. In Bermondsey, we are in the territory of the founder of nursery education in Britain, Margaret McMillan, whose pioneer work in Deptford before the First World War with her sister Rachel established principles reected in the government's Sure Start programme, launched in 1999 for children from six weeks upwards and featuring as part of the Kintore Way Children's Centre.

McMillan came from an educated background with a socialist sense of mission. 'Her enemies were ignorance, prejudice, dirt and disease' said a follower, Emma Stevinson, and she set no limits to her ambition to help the whole of society through the medium of children. Her original school (still in use as the Rachel McMillan Nursery), and others following its lead, emphasised the importance of surroundings, especially of light, nature and fresh air. Health and nutrition came before learning, which was itself presented in the form of play, still a revolutionary idea. The McMillans could not afford much in the way of architecture, and put their attention into garden-making rather than building, but it is not hard to imagine them taking pleasure in Kintore Way's combination of fantasy and robust common sense, an architecture that can think utopian thoughts without freezing them into the forms that normally denote utopias.

The architects' model for the scheme shows a snaky rooine made of red and white stripes folded down the sides of the structure and bending round to enclose the garden of a 1920s nursery school on part of the site. Although the colours have been toned down to a range of blues and greens, the basic form of this roof has come through the design process without major modification and the building still gives a colourful lift to this section of the street. Without raising your eyes, you could scarcely miss the signage at the street entrance, consisting of a jumble of bright plastic shapes, each representing a local landmark, and providing a very helpful orientation of the school's location in relation to the City and the Thames. This was developed by graphic designer BCMH in consultation with children at the nursery school. Inside the hallway and extending into the garden, which is visible through the narrow foyer space, the columns are bright red, while there is a buttercup-yellow soffit running all round the three sides of the new building. This building combines with its refurbished predecessor, an LCC brick building of the 1930s in the McMillan tradition, with three linked pavilions, which was kept out of respect for the work it has done in the area over many years, and is enfolded into the free forms of the new addition. In the space between them is the original garden, around three tall plane trees. It is largely hard surfaced, and seems prepared for intensive use. Picket fences enclose holding pens outside the areas belonging to different age groups, and they are let out to play in the middle on a rota through the day.

As part of the Sure Start scheme, the centre provides 34 day-care places at different age levels up to two and a half.

These are in a sort of developmental order extending through the main new-build section of the project to the left of the entrance, an L shape, fronting Grange Road and dropping down along the eastern site boundary. Diagrammatically, the plan of the new section carries the child through the pre-nursery years in a succession of phases. There are larger spaces with high ceilings with exposed roof trusses and skylights. Facilities for speech and language therapy, child development and family support, aspects of the programme that deliberately seek the full involvement of the parents and other adults, branch off them. Emily Adlington, an expert on Margaret McMillan's work, points out the wider value of this interchange in relation to McMillan's aims: 'she especially wanted adults to see how important children were, that they must be seen as precious first-rate citizens as opposed to troublesome beings at the bottom of the social system.'

Stairs go up from the entrance lobby to a suite of offices for the staff and a larger meeting room, but in the children's rooms the roofspace is open to view. Clusters of paper lampshades hang down from the sloping planes of the ceiling, a simple but poetic touch. Margaret McMillan wrote: 'for the young child the tone is more than the word, the colour and the light is more than the lesson book, the sights and sounds and contacts of the school are inuences that mould him.' On this basis, architects ought never to lose touch with the fresh vision of the child. As in previous Cottrell & Vermeulen projects, the roof trusses are of untreated timber with connectors - a continuation of the 'as found' tradition in school building which not only made its name at the Smithsons' Hunstanton School, but was also displayed in the raw Stramit ceiling panels familiar from the Hertfordshire Schools system.

An earlier Cottrell & Vermeulen school in Southend was made of cardboard, and it worked in the late 1990s with Portakabin to develop portable low-cost school units. Many children are curious to know how buildings are made, and therefore to 'show the works' could be considered an additional bonus for an educational structure. When they reach the end of this side of the building, the children start again in the nursery wing, where no radical internal changes were made. Through the whole building, however, there is a range of curtains for dividing the rooms, with patterns developed by the children. Some element of decoration is fast becoming a standard aspect of new buildings, and Cottrell & Vermeulen has often used children's designs in the past.

The whole building in fact holds an interesting balance between the decorative and the functional, those supposed antagonistic opposites. With its social mission, the Modern Movement was bound to take an interest in education, and with pioneers such as McMillan to hand, the early years were the subject of interest for architects such as Oliver Hill and Ernö Goldfinger, abetted by the visionary manufacturers of Bauhausinspired toys and equipment, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt. Cottrell & Vermeulen paid tribute to one of the best-known survivals of this period when it recently refurbished the nursery school at Kensal House, designed by Maxwell Fry and Elizabeth Denby. It is justifiable, however, to admit that most of what the Modern Movement wished for was antagonistic to a nurturing environment, being concerned with a rather mechanical form of rationality and averse to fantasy. At the opposite end of the scale one might find Disneyland and kitsch or the rather prescriptive architecture of Rudolf Steiner's followers. It is a remarkable and fortunate turn of events that has allowed various architectural questionings of Modernism, including the work of major figures such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, to be transmuted through a project such as Kintore Way into a practical, inexpensive and thoroughly appropriate form, which is not without some similarities to Steiner-inspired buildings. These could be seen as different forms of protest against coercive rationalism, although of the three architects named, only Gehry seems willing to portray his work as light-hearted.

Richard Cottrell, the partner responsible for the scheme, acknowledges the huge advantage of having the same head teacher, Sharon Donno, as a supportive client through the lifetime of the project, and at the same time avoiding PFI procurement.

There could have been a higher level of architectural incident on a higher budget, no doubt, and a few touches, like the painted display shelves at the turn of the staff staircase that cross over De Stijl with Donald Judd. After all, we could see the tower of Tate Modern from here if it wasn't for the houses in between.


Cost analysis based on gross internal floor area.

Costs refer to tender sum SUBSTRUCTURE Foundations/slabs £98.56/m 2Removal of Portkabin classroom and boundary fencing along with general clearance; trenches dug for concrete foundations;

split-levels to new building negotiating site level change;

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