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Handled with care YRM has produced a tough and inspirational new block for a special-needs school in East London which stems from the best traditions of educational building By Kenneth Powell. Photogr

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The school-building programme of the 1950s and 60s was, it has been convincingly argued, the single greatest achievement of the crusade for a new social architecture which gripped Britain in the years after the Second World War. 'Can we build more simply?' asked Stirrat Johnson- Marshall, the central figure in the schools programme, in a radio talk given in 1950 - answering his own question with a plea for a style-free, rational architecture as functionally efficient as it was economical. The logical outcome of this approach - standardisation and prefabrication - eventually led to a natural reaction, expressed, for example, in the site-specific and sometimes overtly romantic Hampshire schools of the 1980s.

yrm's new block at Whitefield Schools and Centre in Walthamstow (phase I of a projected development of the site to a yrm masterplan, based on a study by van Heyningen & Haward) has its roots in the mainstream modern tradition and looks back, indeed, to the schools designed by the youthful practice of Yorke, Rosenberg & Mardall in pre-yrm days in the 1950s. The constricted Whitefield site, locked amidst streets of semis, hardly lends itself, in any case, to a romantic approach. Since the school was founded early this century, the site has been densely covered with a seemingly random collection of buildings, some of them never intended for a long lifespan (and now in a poor condition) and others exemplifying what the progressive architects of the 1950s would have seen as the tyranny of bricks and pitched roofs. Changing levels and tortuous routes do not make life easy for staff or pupils.

The classrooms and other internal spaces are formed of concrete blockwork, loadbearing in places, on a concrete frame, producing a solidly compartmented interior which meets the needs of the school. The classrooms had to be sound-proof and secure - they are familiar bases which children value. Acoustic ceiling panels soften the impact of boisterous children's voices. All classrooms have access to protected outdoor teaching space, while the interconnecting doors between them can be opened, for example, when all the school joins in weekly country-dancing sessions. Quiet rooms, where children can be taught on a one-to-one basis, adjoin the main teaching areas. Hygiene areas are very heavy-duty, like those of a hospital. There is also a kitchen, a staff room and specially designed spaces where sound and light therapy can be used to stimulate the senses.

Given the solidity of the building, the lightweight and transparent aesthetic of its curtain-walled exterior is something of a surprise. Transparency was, however, an ingredient of the client brief. By using high-performance glazing and sun-shading (in the form of curved 'eyebrows') the architects have flooded the building with daylight and given the children and teachers views out without compromising the building's environmental performance. At Whitefield, a teaching session may be conducted with everyone sitting or lying on the floor - so there is a point in the full-height glazing. On a spasmodically sunny day in June, lighting was switched on throughout the central circulation areas, but it was an extravagance - top-lighting, filtered through to the lower level through floor voids, would have provided a sufficient level of natural illumination. Early on in the project, the possibility of providing full air-conditioning was seriously discussed - an indication of the degree to which the building addresses a hospital- type brief. Working with Max Fordham & Partners, yrm devised an alternative, low-energy strategy (based on the use of the thermal mass of the building and stack-ventilation chimneys) which provides, according to the staff, very comfortable working conditions. The ventilation chimneys emerge as solid brick masses at roof level with the flat roof used, under strictly controlled conditions, as a play space (a throwback, ironically, to the rooftop playgrounds of many of the early board schools of inner London).

The response to the building from users has, in fact, been highly enthusiastic, but it highlights the gross inadequacy of Whitefield's other accommodation and reinforces the case for further investment in new buildings. The carefully considered budget allowed for good quality fittings up to health-care standard - solid nylon door handles, high skirtings made to withstand knocks and custom-made stainless steel radiators, for instance - which look good and are made for hard wear. (They also feel good and, for some of the users, that matters a great deal.) Colour is used sparingly but with the intention of guiding users around the building and reinforcing their identification with its spaces.

Back in 1972, Reyner Banham characterised yrm's work as 'a reliable social service that needs no apology as architecture'. It's hard to imagine that the partners in the (reborn) yrm of today would warm to their architecture being summed up thus. Yet the Whitefield building is good, social architecture in the old tradition, a gift to the 'terribly cocknified and choked up' (William Morris's words) backlands of the far East End. It is equally a progressive building in the terms of 1999, well tuned to the needs of children and teachers and, in terms of its solid quality, no less than they deserve. It would have been too easy to produce a soft, 'humane' building. But Whitefield needs the means to get on with its job, not sentimental gesturing. There is real rigour here, but it is in keeping with the character of the hard-working and inspirational institution which the building serves.

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