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Interview with AHMM: 'We were starting to think it might never be our day'

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Paul Monaghan and Simon Allford of AHMM alongside headteacher Helen Dorfman talk about their Stirling Prize victory for the highly accomplished Burntwood School in Wandsworth

You had been shortlisted three times before. Did you think you would ever win?

Paul Monaghan: To be honest getting on to the shortlist is hard, so it feels very special just to get there. But yes, we were starting to think it might never be our day.

Some of our other shortlisted projects have been more of a favourite [with the bookies] than Burntwood.

Did you put a bet on yourselves?

Simon Allford: No. We didn’t want to tempt fate.

PM: Actually we should have put a bet on it. But it is such a huge achievement to get on the list, and when you see the quality of all the other schemes you can’t think about [winning]. We are completely surprised and staggered.

The practice has been together for 25 years so this is an incredibly special day for us.

SA: We thought if we failed for another year we would get the Gold Medal [instead].

Is this your best building?

SA: The world seems to think that. There are certain projects that have a magic – client, place, time. It has clearly caught a spirit.

PM: Some buildings have a resonance that you don’t know until you see them. We always look forwards rather than backwards.

Describe the dialogue and relationship with your client.

PM: We had a lot of exchanges including about how we didn’t disturb the students [on the rest of the site]. It was quite rational. I often say it designed itself. We had the hit team on it – Lend Lease, Studio Myerscough and Kinnear Landscape Architects.

The school told us they’d been to see a David Chipperfield exhibition

The stars aligned for this. When we first met the school they told us how they had been to see a David Chipperfield exhibition at the Design Museum. Well, you could have knocked us sideways. We knew we could work with them and we knew we could create an ambitious building. The school already had a love of modern architecture.

The scheme is among the last of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) projects. Does Burntwood’s victory send out an important message?

PM: It is not an expensive building. The £1,500/m² [of the Priority School Building Programme] is virtually impossible to achieve without building a tin shed.

Burntwood is built to last. If we can’t see today that it is important to invest in buildings that last, then we don’t know what we are doing.

This school could not be built today and that is a pity.

Do you think BSF was finally getting into its stride when it was scrapped?

PM: Absolutely. Architects and contractors had to learn to work together. And just as that was happening and getting really effective, BSF ended.

Does the prize matter, given what you have created?

PM: We had our office annual conference there. Everyone in the office couldn’t help but be moved by the confidence of the sixth formers. Some of them speak better about the architecture than us.

It’s a building that you walk around and see the serious learning but you also see the spaces for leisure, and they work. It is something incredible.

Using the building should take it to another level

SA: What is more it should look better in five years. If it is a good, clever building, the clients using it should take it to another level.

Helen, you have worked with other architects before. What was different about working with AHMM?

Helen Dorfman: Myself and my colleagues were part of the procurement process. We wanted AHMM and Lend Lease because through the early dialogue we knew we could share things and have a transparent partnership.

We sustained that through the whole five-year long process. We were about negotiation and solving problems rather than stamping our feet and being unhappy. We realised that there were difficult problems to be resolved, such as the canopy and the bridge [through the site].

PM: I never wanted the walkway across the whole building. I thought it would look cheap. But then we found the bus shelters, and they looked really elegant and they worked. 

HD:And we were always involved with the decisions around the school and the designs. When Lend Lease said we couldn’t afford the tiles [at the entrances] we decided to pay for them.

Are there any particular parts of the building which you are really proud of?

HD: The tiles are really important because they draw your eye around and allow you to experience the flow of the buildings. It is a huge site and we have hardly any signs, because we don’t need them due to the tiles.

PM: For me it is the [faceted] concrete tiles. Techrete were geniuses. They are craftsmen and they delivered it. The panels change as you move around them.

The judges came [to visit the school] in the rain and they all loved the water running down the concrete.

What will the win mean for the students?

HD: It means a great deal already. We like the [students] to have their own voice. They have said they love the building and it inspires them.

We wanted the buildings to have a quality to last through several generations so thousands will benefit from the joy that they bring. The fact that they have these fabulous facilities and the link with the outside urban environment is so important. In their own words, they say the same things.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Geoff Haslam

    There's nothing more honourable than building a good school. It is really great that AHMM's talent has been recognised in this way, at last...

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  • Congratulations to AHMM. Well Deserved. The top award to a beautifully designed school will draw attention to the need for of top quality school design as this is great benefit for the users - teachers, children and visitors to the school. The most telling testimony is from the best person to judge - the Head Mistress. I judge buildings as "Gee Wizz", So What and "Oh my Gawd". This is very much a Gee Wizz building. Hopefully the government will get the message Owen Luder CBE PRIBA

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