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St Paul's School is a collection of undistinguished buildings in a spectacular location.By commissioning a masterplan, Nick Chambers hopes to make the future brighter

As architecture, St Paul's School in Barnes, London, is one of the country's great missed opportunities. Occupying a generous sweep of the south bank of the Thames, it owns some of the most desirable real estate in London. But it is easy to forget it once you are there. A collection of 1960s buildings, interspersed with a few ambitious recent additions, huddle together in a composition which has little coherence, no real heart and, remarkably, no relationship with the Thames. It is not what you would expect from one of our oldest, and most distinguished, public schools.

But it is not the lack of gravitas which concerns St Paul's director of development Nick Chambers. Commissioning a signature building is the last thing on his mind. 'We might need a building. I don't know.' What he does know is that the way such decisions are made is every bit as important as the decisions themselves. Hence St Paul's has commissioned a masterplan to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the campus and to set out parameters for development during the next 30 or 40 years. It is a practice routinely undertaken by universities and commercial institutions, but a rarity in the schools sector, where lack of long-term vision, pressure to show a tangible return on investment and, often, the desperate need for space, mean that buildings tend to be designed in isolation and hurriedly built.

St Paul's can afford to, and has had the vision to, take a rather more considered view. The masterplan is just one of a range of initiatives to come out of a general review of every aspect of school life. Lee Polisano, one of the St Paul's parents invited to join the working party concerned with the school's buildings and, as it happens, president of KPF, first convinced Chambers of the importance of a masterplan. 'I didn't know what a masterplan was, ' Chambers recalls.

Polisano encouraged Chambers to put the job out to competition, putting him in touch with Debbi Baron, a freelance consultant who provided invaluable expertise in putting together the brief and running the competition. 'I wanted to do it properly, ' says Chambers. And so he did. Parents, pupils, governors, teaching and non-teaching staff were asked for their input, resulting in several thick files full of type-written reports.

Historical material was collated along with information about the ethos and workings of the school, and a comprehensive architectural analysis of the site put together, free of charge, by KPF.

By consulting the school contacts and trawling through books and magazines at the RIBA, Chambers arrived at a long list of 40 practices, which were asked to submit brochures. 'They all looked very impressive, ' Chambers recalls, 'but they didn't really tell you anything.' Determined not to be sidetracked by stylistic or aesthetic concerns, Chambers was looking for 'analytical ability and working style'. Glossy photographs were never going to help. In the end, Chambers and Baron simply established the essential areas of expertise (education, masterplanning and phased development) and interviewed those which complied.

'We weren't necessarily looking for anybody very impressive, ' Chambers insists. 'We were looking for somebody we felt would be able to understand the school and to be creative. We wanted a partnership.' They did, however, want to meet the individuals who would actually be working on the job - Chambers is particularly wary of senior partners who fade into the background once a commission is secured.

The interview process whittled 18 practices down to four - Terry Farrell, Derek Lovejoy and Partners, Patel Taylor and HOK (Andrew Wright was initially on the shortlist but pulled out), each of which was given £4,000 to work up a proposal.

With Patel Taylor, which eventually landed the job, Chambers feels the school has found a kindred spirit. He likes the fact that Pankaj Patel and Andrew Taylor tend to share jobs ('two people are better than one - you get the interaction') and that they share his own enthusiasm. Having worked on various speculative developments, Patel Taylor is relishing the challenge of devising a masterplan in collaboration with the end user.

Most of all, though, Chambers likes the fact that their rather theoretical approach resonates with the academic ethos of St Paul's.

Dialogue is everything. He is particularly keen on a Patel Taylor diagram which shows a series of jumbled lines which gradually converge, representing the process by which the consultation process will, hopefully, channel the interests of the entire school community into a single coherent aim.

He predicts that 'we will find that we get about 90 per cent consensus and that about 10 per cent of the decisions will have to be made by the governors and the high master'.

But not by Chambers, who feels that his role in the process has come to an end.When and if St Paul's decides to commission any major new buildings, he hopes to run an international competition where practices of all sizes can compete on a level playing field.

But the challenge now is to persuade sponsors to come on board, and he is confident it can be done. 'I arrived at St Paul's as a fundraiser, but I said 'if you're going to raise money you need to have a very clear vision with very clear objectives and very clear deliverables'.' Clear, but not simplistic.

Potential sponsors, he argues, are sophisticated professionals who don't need to see pictures of finished buildings before they pledge support, but 'want to be reassured that we have been as thorough in our processes as a business would be'.

As he says, Chambers likes to do things properly. 'This is a wonderful site and a wonderful school, ' he says. 'I would like to see St Paul's' performance in delivering education matched by its performance as an architectural client.'

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