Prefabs sprout in the landmark school

In 1954, the Hallfield School was acclaimed as a marvel of modern, child-friendly architecture. As Jonathan Glancey writes, it hasn't stood still
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The Independent Culture
"Britain's most modern school, which has already been inspected by architects from all parts of the world, opened in Paddington on Thursday. It is the pounds 134,085 Hallfield School for 720 primary and junior boys and girls, and forms part of the vast Hallfield Estate in Bishops Bridge Road. The new school is futuristic in design. Mr M W Williams, headmaster of the junior section, told a reporter this week: `It's a fantastic place. It takes your breath away doesn't it?'"

It still does. That report, and others like it, appeared in the national press in September 1954. Since then, Hallfield School has been listed as a building of architectural and historic interest. Its architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, now a youthful 82, is as much a national institution as his other, larger, buildings - the National Theatre principal among a cast of uncompromisingly modern treasures.

As for the children, generations have come and gone from Hallfield School, but it remains one of the most remarkable of all British schools. This is not simply because its building is world famous (a radical design that brought modern architecture to children, and vice versa, on a scale that they could enjoy and, in their own way, appreciate), nor even that today's teachers still enjoy working here and have little but praise for Lasdun's achievement. Mostly, it is because here, more than almost anywhere else in the world, one can see hope for our global future.

Crowded into the low-lying and curvaceous building during school hours are children of every creed and colour. When we were young we recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson in which we met little Indians, Hindoos, Chinese and Eskimos, in our dreams and safely tucked up in bed; the sentiment of the poem, "I bet you wish that you were me", was that while foreign children lived jolly interesting lives in exotic climes, they would really like to live at home (Great Britain) like us and be tucked up (by nurse or even mama) beneath a counterpane strewn with golliwogs and toy soldiers.

No need to dream at Hallfield; children here represent Nelson Mandela's dream of a "rainbow nation". If only adults could live in such harmony. There can be no doubt that Lasdun's architecture has helped in nurturing an atmosphere that is joyful rather than combative and threatening, as is the case in far too many schools. Now that the school needs to expand, it has brought Sir Denys back, along with Lord Rogers of Riverside (aka Richard Rogers, architect of Lloyds and the Pompidou Centre) to choose an architect to extend the Fifties original with new forms but with the same spirit of gentle radicalism.

I was privileged to join in the selection of the architect. Four firms were invited to enter a limited competition, and Future Systems (Amanda Levette and Jan Kaplicky) won. It was a choice as brave as the decision to employ Lasdun in the early Fifties, and the right one. Whereas the other architects, all of them with an intelligent contribution to make, were at pains to create new buildings that "fitted in" to the existing site (a grove of mature and rather lovely trees on one edge of the popular post-war Hallfield Estate, designed by Drake & Lasdun), Future Systems proposed something brand new. And quite delightful. Rogers, Lasdun, the school governors (including an architect and a documentary film maker) were immediately taken by the imaginative quality of Levette and Kaplicky's design and by their modest presentation.

What Future Systems proposes is a necklace of circular classroom pavilions strung from a translucent (and even transparent) corridor snaking across the site and no higher than Lasdun's low-set building. Each pavilion can be prefabricated off-site to a very high standard, transported to Hallfield and lowered quickly into place during the summer holidays.

Although some of the teachers and governors raised an eyebrow at the word "prefabrication" - so redolent in Britain of austerity, ration books and the solemn, bespectacled face of Sir Stafford Cripps announcing further belt-tightening measures in Pathe and Movietone newsreels - Future Systems has the ability to deliver pre-fab classrooms that will have more in common with the quality of finish of, say, a BMW car or a Boeing airliner.

Levette and Kaplicky are currently designing a magnificent press box for Lord's cricket ground, entirely prefabricated and made from aluminium. One of the most radical British buildings in years, it will also be one of the most beautiful. Lasdun, meanwhile, is no stranger to the virtues of prefabrication. During the Second World War, as a major in charge of a 500-man airfield construction outfit, he landed in the fifth hour of D-Day and built the first airfield of the Allied invasion: Spitfires touched down within 36 hours of Lasdun's arrival.

Back in Nineties' Paddington, the judges, encouraged by Lasdun and Rogers, were persuaded (and, ultimately, persuaded themselves) that Future Systems would create a form of likable and practical modern classroom that could set as much a precedent for the design of primary and junior school extensions up and down the country as the original Hallfield School did 40 years ago.

Future Systems' design was also, quite simply, the most delightful. Children have long been patronised by adults who feel they ought to be schooled in tweedy, beany, post-modern buildings that are more often childish (in the way they look) than childlike. Those children fortunate enough to have been taught in, say, Impington College School (Gropius and Fry), or one of the famous modern Hertfordshire county schools of the early Fifties, will remember how they did not scorn such radical modern architecture as children, but learned and played happily in these modest, bright, sunny and deeply intelligent buildings. If they cannot remember the architectural form of such schools, they can remember the ambience.

That good architecture can profoundly affect the workings of a school is borne out by a scan through newspaper cuttings relating to the early history of Hallfield School. "The remarkable average weekly attendance of at least 90 per cent of the pupils of Hallfield Junior School, Paddington, was given as the most outstanding feature of the year by the headmaster, Mr M W Williams, at the school's first annual prize-giving ... The architect of the school and the whole estate, Mr Denys Lasdun, who presented prizes to the girls, said he felt honoured to be there because he had found that after an architect had finished a building people were usually waiting for him with a broomstick: `This made a pleasant change'."

Interestingly, one of the children interviewed for this 1955 report in the News Chronicle said "once you get inside, you don't want to leave". This was, of course, in the days before children rushed off from school in search of burgers, computer games, videos and telly (they had none of these things - they played instead); and yet today, teachers report the same phenomenon. At the close of school for summer holidays, many of the children cry because they want to stay on. Those of us who used to propel ourselves out of the school gates in July like a nuclear-powered inter-galactic rocket can only meet such infant sentiment with something akin to awe.

Hallfield School is clearly a happy place, and, says Timothy Hatton, local architect, parent and school governor, "it's a dream school for children of professional parents living on the breadline and who cannot afford smart private education; in fact, in so many ways Hallfield is so much better for them - they get to mix and make friends with children from right across the social and racial barrier".

The fact that architecture has played a key role in Hallfield School's mythology as well as its success is reflected in its badge (once worn on school caps - no, not baseball caps - and berets): the badge displayed not a coat of arms, nor even a heraldic beast, but the plan of the building.

The governors and teachers of Hallfield School have made a brave and wise choice, just as their predecessors did nearly 45 years ago. The process of choosing an architect was a new one to all but one of them, and although there was, for a while, an evident temptation to plump for the most familiar- seeming scheme, they chose the one that will best see the school and its pupils into the 21st century.

It was fun to see teachers learning, a pleasure to see architects acting humbly and a delight to see Denys Lasdun so pleased with a scheme that, so very different from his own in form, is equally radical and as child- friendly.