From the invitation to the opening of the latest building by Sir Norman Foster and Partners, you will gather that architecture and education are taken very seriously in France. It is difficult to imagine the opening of a new school in Britain being given such blue-chip treatment and even harder to imagine a local authority or the Department of Education commissioning a building of such calibre in a small seaside town. The idea of employing an inspired French architect would earn the educationist who dared suggest it bottom marks.
While British politicians dream of building on the cheap (and doing away with architects altogether), their French counterparts understand the connection between architecture and inspiration; if you do have to go to a new school, how much better to go to one like the Albert Camus Lycee, designed by one of the world's best architects, than a warehouse lookalike in Britain.
Those who commissioned the school (the architects were the winners of an international competition for its design) were also aware of the simple fact that for a given budget they can get a far superior building from a firm of sophisticated architects. The Albert Camus Lycee has been designed to be cheap to run and maintain. It is simple, fuss-free, ecologically sound and very elegant.
Frejus is a fast expanding town on the Cote d'Azur. The new Lycee has been designed to offer 900 places for secondary students, many of them taking vocational courses in their final three years. It stands high on the edge of town offering inspiring views of surrounding hills and the sea.
The school is an 800-ft long, linear two-storey concrete, steel and glass building based on a very simple plan. Classrooms are sited left and right of a double-height internal street that runs the length of the building. Floors and roofs are supported by rows of evenly spaced concrete columns. This crystal clear structure suits the needs of the school and, because of its simplicity, means that the Albert Camus Lycee has been relatively cheap ( pounds 9.4m; this was below budget) and very quick (11 months) to build and fit out.
The first pupils moved in at the beginning of the autumn term. Staff morale is high and there has been a significant movement of families into the new school's catchment area - its reputation goes before it.
To keep costs down without resorting to barbaric design, the architects have done away with virtually all conventional mechanical plant and machinery deemed necessary to power and heat a building of this scale and purpose. Except where legal requirements impinge, the building makes do without air-conditioning or any form of mechanical cooling. Hot air is drawn up naturally into the roof and away through louvres
The system used is a reworking of a medieval idea employed, for example, by the architects of ancient Cairo to cool the houses of wealthy city merchants. In addition, the concrete frame - exposed in much of the school - absorbs heat and perforated steel louvres ward off the most blinding effects of the Mediterranean sun.
'The design development,' says Spencer de Grey, architect in charge of the project, 'was the subject of rigorous financial analysis, which tested the potential future savings in energy costs against the capital costs for each component of the energy-saving design solution.'
Anyway, if it gets too hot, classes can be held outside the classrooms underneath the sun louvres. In winter - it is never very cold in Frejus - the school is heated by low-energy radiators.
What you see at the Albert Camus Lycee is dignified public architecture, designed elegantly, responsibly and with low costs in mind. It has aready attracted the eye of politicians and educationists across France and is seen as a possible prototype for a new generation of 'lycee polyvalent'.
Beyond this, it has put Frejus on the map and will - as Francois Leotard knows - draw further high quality investment into the town. British politicians could learn a lesson from the Albert Camus Lycee; it unlikely that they will.
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