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King of the hill

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Perthcelyn Community Primary School by the Rhondda Cynon Taff Property Consultancy is designed to sit comfortably on its hillside site in the Valleys, just north of Cardiff By Eleanor Young. Photographs by Jim Lowe

Driving up through the Valleys, just north of Cardiff it is hard to imagine what they looked like before the coal mines took over in the late nineteenth century. Slate-roofed terraced houses are stacked up the steep hillsides while the clogged up valley floors now play host to science parks attempting to regenerate the area. Since the coal industry has all but disappeared, 60 per cent unemployment exists in some places.

Approaching Perthcelyn from the south-east, its new community primary school - by Richard Woods of the Property Consultancy of Rhondda Cynon Taff County Borough Council - can just be discerned. Its roof seems to mould itself to the shape of the hill rather than marching across it as the terraces do. The school is tucked into the hill, a little white curvilinear form with a playground and steep parkland below and a banked-up terrace with a games pitch above. Three sheep graze just opposite the entrance.

Woods has used the gradient of the site to create an intimate, almost domestic space, using a split section. Visitors enter the school at the upper level where a generous gallery with stairs at either end overlooks the informal communal 'street' at the heart of the building. It is this double height space that links the whole school. Those in the offices and hall on the upper level catch the drift of voices from the classrooms and shared areas below.

The street is sinuous and eventful, its inflections following the contour of the hill and the formal alternation of shared spaces and enclosed highly serviced areas (wcs and kitchens) visible on the plan is indiscernible.

The infant classrooms have cosy reading corners with lower ceilings to encourage quiet play. A series of clerestory windows supplements the light from east-facing windows in each classroom. All the classrooms have their own cloakrooms with access to the playground, each with a horizontal slit window whose position varies according to the age of the class. They frame an exclusive child-level view of the playground and the hills beyond. Some of the simply painted white brick walls have been appropriated with bright paintings by the children (and presumably their teachers).

The classrooms look onto a playground whose organic shapes and informal divisions moderate the dramatic valley, creating a haven. It is from here that the exterior of the school is best appreciated. Each of its constituent parts is clearly distinguished by the gently rugged zinc roofs of each classroom which group themselves in a protective arc around the playground. Steps down onto the playground add to the sense of enclosure. The walls are clad with warm western red cedar offset by a deep battered plinth wall of Brithdir sandstone from the site.

The site drops by 30m from west to east and over a third of the school's £2.2 million budget was spent on external works. The memory of the local Aberfan tragedy of 1966, in which 116 children were killed when a slag heap overwhelmed the school, still haunts the Valleys, and so there was extensive site work. This included work to ensure that drainage could cope adequately with sudden deluges without collapsing or causing floods lower down the Cynon valley. The safety of children from intruders was also a concern. Visitors to the school can be vetted on entrance. Younger children are corralled in an under fives-area, with their own entrance and playground.

The school's Hampshire-informed, Aalto-style Modernism is both idealistic and compassionate. Internally, this means that the boarded concrete does not look out of place - and that there is a space for details, such as the discrete wash down area for children in the under-fives area. Despite calls for a colourful children's decor, Wood stuck to white throughout with a simple palette of materials - though he did compromise in the headteacher's study with a dado rail. On first seeing the school, one of the pupils said: 'You wouldn't think we were in Perthcelyn.' Within the town, the school has acted as a focus for Perthcelyn's £4 million Special Development Scheme and, emerging from the rugged hillside and looking towards the bright hills above the valley, it seems a metaphor for the community's regeneration.

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