Can you justify spending a huge amount of money on an extraordinary new school building? In a time of severe austerity, you might easily argue – no. A great school does not need great architecture: it could be in any old building, so long as it has dedicated staff.
A fully formed building by Zaha Hadid is still something of a rarity in Britain. Her first school, the Evelyn Grace Academy in south London, is therefore doubly interesting, as it has opened at a time of controversy over school building in the UK. The previous Labour government spent lavishly, its ambitious aim to rebuild or renew every secondary school in the country. The economic climate since then has chilled dramatically and Hadid’s extravagant, sculptural school already looks like a utopian dream.
The overall vista is of the fast-rising south side of the city. Beside the school is a dust-cart depot and a tip. The vast block of social housing opposite banks down to twee 1980s brick-built boxes, no doubt erected in an effort to ameliorate the social utopianism of post-war modernism.
At £36m this is an expensive school. But it is also a strange, theatrical and wonderful building – wonderful, that is, in its notion that Brixton kids deserve a building by one of contemporary architecture’s superstars.
At the school’s heart is not the clichéd atrium of the modern school but a 100m sprint track, slotted through the building. It is a kind of futurist device, a muscular celebration of sport and speed, which is also at the centre of the school’s ethos (there is a huge sports hall too). The complex plan of interlocking volumes and curving blocks accentuates a kind of dynamism, an effect compounded by elements that seem to lean like runners in the blocks, ending in parallelogram corners straining to break free. It is the opposite of the fortified perimeter block around a central atrium which has become the default school solution; instead, Hadid proposes a series of sculptural forms existing within a landscape of sports and movement.
The sprint track takes you into the heart of the building. But the kids arrive instead via sculptural concrete stairs at the sides, which in turn lead to terraces where they assemble before entering: this avoids the flashpoints of corridors and confined, unobserved spaces. The whole thing is theatrical and grand, although the well-lit classrooms are modest by comparison, free of structural acrobatics. The circulation spaces are, in spite of the building’s complexity, clear and naturally bright, the classrooms always visible through glass panels, routes defined by lights zig-zagging across the ceilings. There are no corners, no nooks, everything is on show and public, in an effort to stamp out bullying.
Built of beautifully smooth concrete and clad in aluminium, the building – funded by hedge fund magnate Arpad Busson’s ARK charity (Absolute Return for Kids) – is perhaps a little grey, but it is also as ambitious, as serious and as committed as the education the school aims to provide.
The children seem to appreciate it, and are able to make thoughtful comments on it, but there are serious questions about the cost. This is an expensive way to build, and furthermore it does not establish a new architectural language – it is, like so much of Hadid’s work, a one-off.
There is, however, something wonderfully utopian about this experiment – and like all utopias it is riven with difficulties. But it is heartening to see Hadid’s eccentric talent being put to use in the service not of museums or corporations but of social ambition and cohesion in her adopted home city. Her building is a landmark in a landscape of neglect.