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ORMS was founded in 1984 and is based in Clerkenwell, London.

Aware of the danger of relying on one type of work, the 50-strong practice has deliberately undertaken a diverse portfolio of projects to safeguard against changing economic trends. Its most recent educational projects have included the American School in London, the UMIST School of Management in Manchester, and work on site at University College School, Hampstead.

Uppingham School's new music centre by ORMS is a rarity: a successful marriage of modern and vernacular. This is a sensitive, understated building - with an edge, because of its unabashedly modern detailing. A few hundred yards from the town's historic market square, ORMS has inserted a large building on a restricted site where the school campus meets the town. Massing, roof pitches and symmetries, or rather asymmetries, have been carefully resolved. Much of this building's delight comes from its palette of local materials, its studied capturing of views, and its careful handling of light.

Founded in 1584 as an independent boys' school, Uppingham's 70-odd buildings (including an art/design technology block and a girls' boarding house by old-boy Piers Gough) dominate the pretty market town of Uppingham in Rutland. The school was established on the principle of rounded education, with sport, music, art and drama on an equal footing with academics, encouraging students of mixed abilities to find their own ways of excelling. Music has always been strong; a large number of pupils are music scholars and ex-cathedral choristers.

Mendelssohn's godson, Paul David, was director of music from 1865 to 1908. Today, students who want to pursue music to a high standard in the context of a broad education choose to go to Uppingham; many who arrive at the school play an instrument at Grade 7 or 8.

Music teaching was previously housed in two buildings near the centre of the campus. Bursar Stephen Taylor explains that it was clear from the outset that the new building had to occupy a central site in order to be near existing music buildings, which are in continuous use, and because of the difficulty of transporting heavier instruments between buildings. 'Because music is the department at which we excel most, ' he notes, 'the new music centre was built to a higher specification [than most of our recent buildings].' The building met its budget of £3 million. Along with classrooms and practice rooms, the brief included providing a focus for the music department's students and its staff of eight full-time and 44 peripatetic teachers, as well as a 100-seat recital hall.

This is an unusual building for ORMS, which is more known for its work for property developers and Holmes Place Fitness Clubs. ORMS director Oliver Richards, himself a music scholar and violinist, describes the practice's work as a blend of rational and humanist thinking, implying that a solution can be both modern and contextual. ORMS was recommended by an existing client, a developer for an unbuilt tower at 100 Middlesex Street in the City who also sits on the board of trustees at Uppingham, when the school decided to expand its music facilities to meet the increased demand which resulted from full co-education in 2001. The school wanted the building quickly because the need was urgent. With the arrival of girls, the demand for instrumental lessons jumped from approximately 300 to over 600 a week. ORMS was appointed on a design-and-build contract - a contractor who had completed two previous buildings for the school had already been selected and the school wanted to fasttrack the project.

The location of the music centre site within a conservation area near the market square was highly sensitive, particularly because the school had a recent track record of problematic planning applications. ORMS associate director Edward Toovey says: 'We were being asked to design a building which was invisible to the town but had a strong presence within the school, including a semi-public performance venue, the new recital hall'. The site opposite the school's memorial hall on School Lane had several existing buildings, including three Grade II-listed two-storey cottages (the oldest from 1687), a three-storey Victorian building and a stable building. After discussion with the Rutland County conservation officer, it was agreed that only the three listed cottages had to be retained, freeing the remainder of the site for the new building. It was still a highly constricted site, bounded on all four aspects by built fabric: to the south by a public right of way and an existing stone wall; to the east by a doctor's surgery; to the north by the service yard of the school-owned White Hart pub on the High Street; and to the west by the listed cottages.

The planners dictated that the demolished Victorian building at the end of the row of cottages should be replaced by a building form identical to the cottages; the result looks like an unfortunate stage-set which does not belong to the rest of the project.

The organisation of the new building evolved early on from Uppingham's urban grain of deep sites with long 'fingers' of built form perpendicular to the High Street. To meet planners' concerns, ORMS had to find a way to break down the building's mass. In the initial presentation to the school, the concept of a skylit foyer linking the cottages to a larger new building beyond was already defined; this was a straightforward organising principle. For acoustic reasons, administrative functions and a small library were grouped within the existing buildings, while the new building with music practice rooms and the recital hall are a sealed box.

The glazed link doubles as a focus for the department and a foyer for the recital hall and ties the existing cottages to the new building with door openings at ground level and a bridge at the first floor. Once the miscellaneous extensions were removed from the cottages, the rear walls of local ironstone were either repaired or rebuilt from stone salvaged from garden walls on the site.

Oak-veneer panels line the opposite wall - the 'exterior' of the new building - and random coursing of Lancashire stone on the oor gives the space continuity with the exterior. It's easy to imagine this space working well full of people before or after a recital. Even on a quiet school day, it doesn't feel too imposing.

Clerestory windows give natural light and accommodate the level changes between the roof pitches of the cottages. At the south end of the foyer, a generous steel-and-glass stair, well detailed but not precious, serves as the main vertical circulation.

Less obvious was how to make an entrance to the glazed foyer, buried in the middle of the site. In a bold move, which works better in reality than it appears in photographs, ORMS located the entrance around the corner in the White Hart's rear yard.

From School Lane, the entrance is signalled by a circular brick fire stair, a play on local vernacular complete with vertical slit windows. The brick makes the stair tower read as part of the yard, distinct from the elegant clipstone of the music centre exterior (and memorial hall), though its form is clearly modern.

The recital hall, as close to a cube in volume as possible for acoustic reasons, has a large north-facing window and a small clerestory in one corner which washes light onto the wall behind the stage. A timber oor adds luxuriousness - it survived value engineering due to the insistence of acoustic engineer Robert Essert of Soundspace Design, who wanted musicians to be able to feel music resonating in the oor. Practice and teaching rooms on the upper two oors are organised along well-proportioned corridors that have big windows at either end and, in one case, a view into the recital hall. Richards intended these rooms to have a monastic simplicity. Each has a narrow vertical window providing a glimpse outside, and most have an angled wall which improves room acoustics by evening out resonance at particular frequencies.

The building includes three studios of prefabricated panel construction, supplied by Black Cat, that are a cost-effective way of providing highly insulated rooms for rock music and percussion.

The defining exterior features are the mono-pitched slate roofs, the asymmetrical pattern of vertical window openings, and the contrast between heavy stone walls and glazed connections.

Toovey notes: 'Once we had decided to go vernacular, it was 10 times more important to get the details right.' The roofs were inspired by a nearby row of 17th-century 'studies'; in days gone by, each boy had 'a room of his own' for study. The eaves are detailed with an integrated gutter which makes the roofs appear to hover lightly over the solid stone walls. Toovey explains that because the building exterior 'needed' more windows than seemed appropriate inside, some of the windows are located within recessed stone panels to make them appear bigger. To maintain the crispness of the elevations, window frames are minimised.

It's just the type of architecture one would hope to see from a brief calling for a new building in a historic setting.

The school now has a new director of music, so building uses will evolve. Also, the foyer recently hosted a non-music-related function - a sign that the space may fill a need the school didn't know it had. It remains to be seen how the building will settle into the life of the school. The real success will be if it can engage and inspire the staff and students to make music in the foyer space as well the recital hall and practice rooms. In this subdued, elegant building, the more music and activity there is, the merrier it will be.

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