Kingsdale School is an enigma. A school full of kids bussed in from tough estates in Brixton and Peckham to study next door to one of Britain’s oldest and most respected schools, Dulwich College. It is a slab of system-built, radical modernist utopia in the midst of a leafy, supremely suburban and hugely conservative setting. And, with the completion of an extension earlier this year, it is now one of the most outstanding architectural ensembles in London, its constituent parts drawn from some of the most unpromising of typologies – that cipher for corporate ennui, the atrium, and that underdeveloped archetype, the school sports hall.

The original school was built between 1959 and 1962 by what was then the biggest architectural office in the world, the GLC (Greater London Council) Architects’ Department. It was conceived by its then head, Sir Leslie Martin (architect of the Royal Festival Hall, also currently being rejigged), as a new way of building schools. They were well-
designed but cheap, full of light and air and very different from the towering brick behemoths of the Victorian Board Schools that then dominated the city’s low-rise skyline. But, like so many modernist dreams, it cracked and faded and was designated a school in “special measures” during the 1990s, which is probably as grim as it sounds.

Against a background of a huge new schools building programme, most of which were commissioned under the government’s achingly bad Private Finance Initiative, Kingsdale attempted its own volte-face through a serious series of architectural interventions. Architects de Rijke Marsh Morgan were brought in and the first phase of their work, the school’s awesome covered central space enveloped with a canopy of ETFE (the super-lightweight transparent material that also makes up the domes of the Eden Project), dramatically revivified the institution. Results improved, satisfaction from staff and students increased and architecture was proved to have made a difference.

This bodes well for the government’s plans to spend £45bn on school buildings during the next 10-15 years. It may sound obvious, but the point that everyone performs better in well-conceived spaces is one that still seems to surprise bureaucrats. The atrium drew worldwide press coverage and its success led to the securing of funding for a further phase, the building of a new sports hall and music room at the rear of the site. I would not normally write about a school extension but, walking round these new buildings with Alex de Rijke, a partner at dRMM, I was blown away. They are radical, experimental, effective and, perhaps most important of all, enormous fun – as fine an architecture as you will see in the world’s exponentially expanding stock of self-consciously iconic cultural buildings.

The sports hall, a building type that is usually the dumbest of sub-industrial estate boxes, is a hugely theatrical volume, its roof twisting and straining off the walls above it. This is the kind of space the Dutch have excelled at, a kind of colourful, pragmatic modernism untainted by doubt or timidity: de Rijke’s Dutch background and experience are more blindingly obvious than ever here. It is built using a wonderful new timber product that is structure, cladding and insulation all in one. Great slabs of timber are cut to shape in the (Austrian) factory and erected and assembled on site like a chunky 3D jigsaw, the openings already cut into the depth of the material. It makes for a wonderfully chunky feel but one that nevertheless retains the warmth and grain of the natural wood. It is an awesomely enjoyable space.

The music room is smaller and calmer, defined by the curiously amoeboid shapes of its cut-out windows, which are like comic ink-splats spreading across its walls. The architects made tables from the cut-out sections and donated those to the school in a gesture that works beautifully to unite furniture and architecture in a way that is pure modernism, even if I’ve never seen it achieved before.

The linking spaces aim to bond the rather insulated school better into its surroundings and they are appropriately transparent but equally beautifully built. It is dRMM’s signature to use basic, cheap products in an unexpected manner to create striking images. Here they have employed a generic metal siding product rotated through 90 degrees to create a striated, exquisite cladding and have taken it through to the concrete, which is formed using the same product. It resembles a flattened-out paper fan, the memory of the creases emerging from the material. The level of attention to detail is mesmerising but unfussy: this remains a robust public building for a robust constituency, completely free of pretension.

It is an absolute delight to be able to write about a school building in these terms, a radical and wonderful set of spaces that cost only about £3m. There are signs that school architecture is beginning to be taken seriously as a subject, particularly in Kingsdale’s borough, Southwark. Future Systems and Zaha Hadid, both intelligently experimental architects who have built relatively little in this country, have been commissioned on other buildings in the borough. For the moment, though, the triumph is shared between dRMM and Kingsdale. It is in rare buildings such as these that architecture can be taken out of the arts ghetto and forced into where it should be, changing people’s prospects and everyday lives and illuminating their most impressionable and memorable years.

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