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Performance art

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Burton Borough Studios in Shropshire by McMorran and Gatehouse Architects was designed around the need for acoustic separation between various music rooms By Eleanor Young. Photographs by Paul Ratigan

The name Burton Borough Studios has a warm ring to it, giving the impression of a gently provincial creative enclave. And McMorran and Gatehouse Architects' new music centre near Telford lives up to its name. Part of the comprehensive Burton Borough School, the studios create a calm environment - despite catering for rock bands and novice violinists alike.

The need to isolate the sound of the school's budding musicians has dictated the form of the studios. Each volume is separately expressed for acoustic separation and they are arranged around a space incorporated from an existing caretaker's garden. The garden has been turned into an enclosed performance space and around this runs what McMorran and Gatehouse describe as a 'cloister'. The glass sides of the cloister are interrupted by two small practice rooms.

The studios are insular - deliberately cut off from the rest of the school and the outside world. The rehearsal hall which adjoins the playground has only two narrow slit windows, insisted on by the teachers. Other practice rooms are allocated one small window each - any more and the hard surface would have affected the acoustics.

From the entrance the studios look conventional. From the low wall of the converted bungalow rises a gently pitched roof of red and black concrete pantiles and you enter through folding electric doors into an 'anywhere' entrance foyer. The office reception and tiny visiting artists' flat (as yet uninhabited) are hardly noticeable as the immediate view is of the corridor ahead; but stepping further inside, the narrow gallery space, full of light, reveals itself.

In the individual practice rooms and classrooms there is the pleasant sense that the eye is playing tricks on you. Where you expect right angles, corners are offset and ceilings slope from side to side as well as from back to front. This attempt to reduce flutter reverberation extends to the fibrous ceiling tiles that have a dual purpose. The tiles are porous, a soft surface with good acoustic properties, and are an integral part of the air-conditioning system. They allow air from the corridor supply duct to be infiltrated into the practice rooms. Air is returned through vents in a bench, which acts as both a return air duct and an attenuator, in each room. Air is cooled by two deep wells rather than the expensive refrigeration unit which most air-conditioning systems use. All the air between the rooms is attenuated to retain the acoustic integrity of each space. This system can lead to some awkwardness. The 1.8m high return duct and attenuator in the rehearsal hall cuts into the volume of what could have been a satisfying, if unusually-shaped room, and the top of the windows in the two teaching rooms are unnaturally cropped by the ceiling.

Two sides of the cloister have slopes that lead down to the rehearsal hall - which is slightly sunk in the ground so that it doesn't upset the exterior composition with its height and allows the benches for outside performances to be raked. The end-of-lesson-bell spurts of children mean that despite its plan and outlook the corridor is anything but cloister- like in atmosphere.

McMorran and Gatehouse has succeeded in designing a building with amazing facilities - how many secondary schools have recording studios? - on a strict Lottery budget and the cacophony of excitable students is handled with technical competency.

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