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Bedales School was founded to educate the children of 'kind, serious, intellectual people believing in co-education, temperance, votes for women, hygiene and liberalism? their politics inclined to Socialism'. The school was established, initially at Lindfield in Sussex, in 1893 - its founder, JH Badley ('the chief'), remained headmaster until 1935 and died in 1967 aged 102. Bedales was co-educational from 1898 and rooted in the progressive thinking of John Ruskin, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw and Edward Carpenter. It was a new kind of public school, far removed from the muscular Christianity of Dr Arnold's Rugby. Weaving and gardening displaced rugger and rifle drill. Bedales' alumni were more likely to become actors or artists than bishops or generals.

After the school moved to its present site, close to the village of Steep, on a dramatic escarpment above Petersfield, Hampshire, in 1900, the 'kind, serious, intellectual people' associated with it began to commission classic Arts and Crafts houses from architects such as Alfred Powell, Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker. Ernest Gimson's first work for the school was Lupton Hall, a cruck-built assembly hall paid for and constructed (in 1911) by Geoffrey Lupton, a wealthy young man from Leeds who had dropped out to become an acolyte of Gimson. After the First World War, Gimson returned to Bedales to build his masterpiece, the Memorial Library, one of the most memorable and magical of all Arts and Crafts buildings. Constructed from hand-made materials and full of books you would actually like to read, it is furnished with chairs and tables by Gimson and the Barnsley brothers.

The spell of Gimson isn't far below the surface of Walters & Cohen's newly opened teaching and administration building, 'a new heart for the school' as Cindy Walters describes it. The building is the first component in a new masterplan for the site developed by Walters & Cohen - an art, design and technology block, already given planning consent, is likely to follow within the next few years. 'Truth to materials', a key Arts and Crafts tenet with roots in the rationalism of Pugin, is fundamental to the project and poses no problems for Walters (who did a four-year stint at Foster and Partners before teaming up with Michal Cohen in 1994). But, as associate Giovanni Bonfanti concedes: 'This was our first pitched roof.' Timber has found a place in previous projects by Walters & Cohen - the visitor centre at Wakehurst Place, for instance - but not on the scale, and with the structural significance, of the work at Bedales. If there is just a hint of David Chipperfield's Henley rowing museum in the latter, the influence is freely conceded by the architects - as is, in spirit if not form, the more extreme example of Edward Cullinan's Gridshell in West Sussex.

Given the creative, artistic reputation of Bedales (persuading parents such as Lawrence Olivier, Ted Hughes and Mick Jagger, along with a number of architects, to send their children there) the school campus, Gimson aside, is architecturally something of a let-down. For the past 60 years its development has been largely entrusted to Old Bedalian architects, with sadly lacklustre consequences. From the mid-'70s to the early '90s, Barnsley Hewett and Mallinson, a practice of which Sidney Barnsley's grandson was a founding member, was responsible for a number of well-intentioned, but depressingly mechanical, buildings. A new direction was signaled, however, by Feilden Clegg Bradley's fine timber-framed Olivier Theatre, completed in 1997.

The decision to hold a limited competition (in 2003) for the new teaching and administration block confirmed the school's commitment to a more enterprising commissioning agenda - Glenn Howells, Niall McLaughlin, dRMM, Burd Haward and KPF were among those on the shortlist (the involvement of Edward Williams of Hopkins Architects, a school governor with a real interest in good design, doubtless helped). Walters & Cohen were selected and planning permission obtained, with no significant problems, in time for a start on site in the spring of last year.

The site of the new building is both sensitive and critical to the future development of the campus. A formal gateway would be out of tune with the Bedales tradition but the point of arrival at the school appears to be via a back door - as part of their masterplan, Walters & Cohen propose relocating the road approach - and, before the new building was completed, there was no obvious 'front door' to the school. The 1960s system-built structures that the new block replaced were an uninspiring sight, especially in the context of the Orchard, the green heart of the place, with Gimson's hall and library to the south.

Walters & Cohen's work on the Bedales project was clearly informed by their participation in the DfES' 2003 Schools for the Future competition, following on from its success in the 2001 RIBA Sustainable School competition. With four other firms, the practice was asked to look at primary school design. Working with Max Fordham and Adams Kara Taylor, both of whom were collaborators at Bedales, it sought to break down the conventional division between teaching and circulation spaces and to redefine the relationship between classroom and shared/open space. The project also investigated in detail the environmental management of school buildings and the optimum use of natural light and ventilation. The lessons learned were applied in the development of the Bedales scheme.

Barns, rather than cathedrals, were the ultimate inspiration for Arts and Crafts architects from Philip Webb onwards, so it was a natural move to draw inspiration from barn structures on this site. Many of the post-war buildings at Bedales had been single storey - there is no shortage of land - but Walters & Cohen were anxious to capitalise on the magnificent views obtainable from the site and to take their cue from the scale of the Gimson library. Conveniently, the local authority's design guide for new development in Steep village specified a formula of two storeys with possible accommodation in a pitched roof.

The new development consists of two south-facing threestorey blocks, teaching to the east, administration to the west, linked by a two-storey social and circulation space, topped by a roof terrace, that runs north-south from the main reception area - the central communication point for the whole school (the axis of this space aligns with the entrance to the Gimson hall and library).

An entirely timber-framed structure was ruled out as an option early on, largely on environmental grounds. Instead, the new building uses concrete as the principal load-bearing material, providing thermal mass as well as structural stability. Around the concrete core of the building, a timber structure (of Douglas fir), propped on the concrete frame, supports the external envelope, demanding only shallow foundations at the perimeter. In the teaching block, classrooms are placed on three storeys along the northern edge, where they are protected from direct solar gain.

They open on to a top-lit, highly glazed (but generously shaded) circulation space, along the south side of the building, with staff and support rooms and spaces for small-group teaching opening off them at ground- and first-floor level. Natural ventilation for classrooms and circulation spaces is provided by opening windows and roof-lights. In winter, the circulation space catches the warmth of the sun. Larch cladding (unsealed and intended to weather) and stainless steel roofs conceal generous quantities of insulation. The administration block contains cellular offices for the head and other key staff members, administrative accommodation and meeting rooms. The 'reading room' houses prized Arts and Crafts furniture and other artifacts, plus new furniture by Lord Linley.

Walters & Cohen suggest that, in cost terms, the building compares favourably to new schools in the state sector, certainly to city academies. While most state schools might not benefit from high-quality brick and timber floors and the quality of furniture seen here, it is (at around £1,700 per m 2) a far from extravagant building. Cindy Walters points out, for example, the use of simple steel balustrades (about £100 per metre) - glass would have cost four times as much. Joinery throughout is of excellent quality, thanks to main contractor Durtnell.

Walters and Bonfanti speak warmly of their relationship with the client throughout the project - 'they seemed to understand the value of design', says Cindy Walters. The school's head, Keith Budge, believes that the project's success stems from the architect's genuine concern to understand the school. 'Bedales is a community, not a business - it's a web of relationships. The building reflects that.' Budge cites 'transparency, interaction and the sense of common ownership' as factors that make it work well.

Coincidentally, these are the characteristics of progressive office design, which seeks to 'break down the box'. There is every encouragement for pupils to linger after classes in the circulation space, where tables provide places to read or plug in a laptop.

Every school building should be this good. But not every school has the luxury of educating 700 pupils on a 48ha countryside site. Walters & Cohen were lucky to have the inspiration and support of an informed client with a clear vision of its needs and aspirations. It would have been all too easy for the architect to succumb to the relaxed atmosphere of the place and allow a rosy Arts and Crafts vision to knock the rigour out of its work. In fact, what it has done is to restate Arts and Crafts values in an entirely contemporary way, using the materials most suited to the task in hand. Gimson would, I think, have approved.

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