The building’s segments resemble supersized, tensely interlocked graffiti script, spray-canned in silver, grey and black, says Jay Merrick
The architecture of Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, south London, has been perceived as ‘Zaha Hadid Lite’, or as a simplistic collision between parametricism and cost-cutting procurement. But this interesting building expresses very little of the socio-tectonic Sturm und Drang of parametricism as defined by Hadid’s earnest Herodotus, Patrik Schumacher.
The design is a direct demonstration of the educational zoning that drives its programme. That putrid phrase, ‘the wow factor’, can remain in its coffin.
The angular modelling of the academy’s facades and its swerving, chicane-like plan are certainly not an essay in avant-garde spatial reinvention. Nor, apart from one or two perspectives, does it have much to do with Suprematist dynamics.
Seen through narrowed eyes, the building’s segments resemble nothing less than supersized, tensely interlocked graffiti script, spray-canned precisely in silver, grey and black. And yet, here in SE24, after a year’s use by several hundred pupils, the building is unmarked by graffiti; indeed, there are almost no signs of even standard wear and tear.
Late cost-cutting did not allow swathes of concrete to angle through the building’s interiors as planned, and most of the interior detailing and materials are basic. But this seems irrelevant: the building’s strong formal and spatial rationale is what matters.
The school’s positioning on its tight site is admirable. On the eastern edge is Shakespeare Road, and small culs-de-sac off it; to the west, the Moorlands Estate and Coldharbour Lane; 100 metres to the south are Lambeth’s refuse-truck yard and the nondescript hulk that stores data from London’s surveillance cameras.
The school angles across the site, running south-west to north-east, and this significantly reduces the visual heft of the long, three-storey facades in relation to housing tight up against its two long boundaries. Sports pitches buffer the east and west edges of the site, and the 100-metre running track slicing through the building at about its mid-point breaks its graphic horizontality.
Hadid’s project director, Lars Teichmann, has delivered a school which exposes the tired thinking that has produced the default reaction to academy design - vast bunkers riven by obligatory central atria that create nothing less than mall conditions, presumably in the hope that students will think of education as part of our new century’s consumer entitlement psychosis.
In that comparative sense, the architecture of Evelyn Grace Academy is certainly iconoclastic. And, unlike the mall-cum-mixed-use-space models, this academy has managed to achieve secure separations between its middle and upper schools without creating any sense of panoptic control, or visibly impregnable barriers.
The design is a relatively simple, ‘what you see is what you get’ arrangement. The ground floor is composed of a central admin zone, flanked by an arts and technology block and an excellent sports and fitness wing that juts forward towards the edge of the site facing Shakespeare Road.
The middle and upper schools, which have separate entrances, sit on top, sharing the three levels asymmetrically. This determines the modelling of the facades: you see exactly where each school drops from two levels to one, or vice versa.
Inside, the chicane plan has the effect of giving the interiors and classrooms a loose-fit vibe when that isn’t actually the case. There is a great deal of natural light: most of the classrooms are about 50 per cent glazed. The two double-height central spaces, used for assemblies and lunch in each school, are fully glazed on their eastern facades, producing a remarkably cheerful atmosphere heightened by the way their internal end-walls angle down through them.
And - a good idea, this - there are roof terraces and balconies for the students. The Bauhaus has come to Lambeth, along with maths and sport, the two subjects that the school, and the hedge-fund tycoons who paid for the £36.5 million building, hopes to excel in.
Outside the school, looking north up Shakespeare Road, you see the Shard and the Gherkin very clearly. Directly opposite the gates is Langston Hughes Close, named after the black American 20th-century poet. In a poem titled Final Curve, he wrote: ‘When you turn around the corner/ And you run into yourself/ Then you know that you have turned/ All the corners that are left.’
The architecture of Evelyn Grace Academy will surely brand itself on the memories of most of its students; and some, perhaps looking south from a City tower in 20 years’ time, might recall it as a very different kind of turning point, a matrix of angles that carried them away from any prospect of succumbing to Hughes’ laconic truism.
Jay Merrick is architecture critic at The Independent
Q+A Lars Teichmann, Project Director, Zaha Hadid Architects
What was your design concept?
Our design has no rear but offers two equally engaging frontages and entrances. The nature of the programme - largely small, cellular rooms with little internal connectivity - meant that there were limited opportunities to sculpt large spaces.
We instead focused on how the pupils flow through the building and how we could offer them spaces with which they could identify. Each of the schools has its own entrance, sheltered courtyard and staircase, creating separate identities for each.
What were the challenges of designing a regeneration project?
Having to work with an urban site meant that the space available was far from ideal. The site is 1.4 hectares, compared to an ideal site of 8 or 9 hectares for a school with this many students. We had to design a very compact building that interacts with its surroundings.
However, the biggest challenge was to translate a strong educational vision and ethos into a building that carries those aspirations. We deliberately moved away from notions that a school needs to be colourful and playful in a childish manner. It relies upon students taking ownership of the spaces - educationally as much as architecturally.
Can the government learn anything from this building?
Evelyn Grace Academy is a very specific solution, and cannot easily be generalised. But schools do need well thought through layouts and meaningful design.
Are you surprised there is only one school on this year’s shortlist?
The RIBA had many good projects from a range of typologies to choose from. But given the current austerity measures, it seems obvious that there will be fewer notable architectural solutions in the education sector.
Is Zaha Hadid Architects likely to continue working on schools?
Working on a public educational project was both rewarding and challenging. Being part of a team determined to make a difference for the children and society in general was hugely satisfying.
Where does this building sit in the evolution of the practice?
This project was a great opportunity to apply much of our research - spatial configurations, hierarchy of spaces, flow patterns - on a more pragmatic level. Merging functional requirements with spatial and formal considerations resulted in contextually interesting solutions. It is therefore a good example of the work we are doing. At the time it opened, the academy was our first major building to be completed in the UK.
What would winning the prize for a second time mean to the practice?
Consecutive wins are rather uncommon, so it would be a fantastic achievement.