Top of its class

Heartened by an innovatively designed new primary school in Tulse Hill, London, Jay Merrick wonders why it can't serve as a model of its type
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The Independent Online

Tulse Hill estate in Brixton is one of the largest concentrations of inner-city council housing in Britain. Yet right here, amid the medium-rise blocks of flats, Lambeth Council has pulled off something exceptional - something that may begin to make a seismic difference to the aspirations of more than 400 young lives.

It took an obsessed school buildings manager to trigger it, a man who wanted something not just new and better, but obviously special. But even Nitin Parshotam couldn't do it alone. And though the creation of Tulse Hill's Jubilee Primary School may be an architectural success story, an aesthetically bijou one-off, tailor-made for the cover of Architects' Journal, looks are deceiving. Here is an object lesson in just how difficult it is to achieve excellence.

Local authorities tend to stick to existing design-and-build formulae. Cost-control, rather than architectural aspiration, is the key factor. And then, of course, there's fear. What if a local authority risks putting on an architectural competition for the design of its new building project? Are its officers skilled enough to judge the results? No, because in most cases they don't possess enough in-house architectural and planning expertise. Let's not mince words: if planners can't even recognise a patently vile shopping centre when they see one, how can they possibly assess the merits and demerits of school design?

Lambeth is trying to break these restraints, and though its desire to escape lumpen educational architecture is not yet swingeing in scope, it has begun to point the way to significantly better teaching and learning conditions in parts of the borough. Quite apart from the Jubilee Primary School, designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, three other new schools by notable architects are "in process".

At Tulse Hill, Paul Monaghan and project architect Susie Le Good have created the borough's striking new benchmark. Bounded on two sides by council flats, two playgrounds step down to the core building, a strongly modernist form which has combined a series of rectilinear masses in a way that's both simple and visually satisfying. Jubilee Primary School looks the business - and in any good tale, its plans would have been set down in a few raffish strokes of a Pentel 0.8mm nib, followed by a longish, self-congratulatory lunch.

In their dreams. This was a sweat. And this kind of public architecture should, ideally, always be a sweat, a challenge to the norm. It certainly was in Tulse Hill, where local residents didn't, at first, like the idea of a new school at all. They didn't see why the existing Brockwell Primary School - built in the Fifties, wearing badly - and two other units on the site, needed to be replaced. Parents feared, in effect, that the council might short-change their children by building a lesser school, a money-saver.

But something quite different was afoot. Monaghan recalls the dozens of consultation meetings held to finalise the design, and the involvement of not only a school-design guru but also an artist and furniture designer - even a branding agency.

The guru is Colin Stansfield-Smith, a past head of Hampshire County Council's architecture and design services department. He's the man whose obstinate interest in innovative school design - he used timber materials particularly skilfully at a time when wood was considered de trop - yanked the subject into the public eye.

Stansfield-Smith was Lambeth's éminence grise on matters of site and design, though he didn't interfere significantly with the architects' ideas. In fact, there was little chance of a major disagreement: the architects' solutions to the problems posed by the peculiar demands of designing a school may look unexpected, perhaps even a little jazzy, but they are entirely logical.

The classrooms are layer-caked, so that their main glazed façades face south; the expansive split-level playgrounds, meanwhile, simply follow existing site contours. Look at the building from the south side and the key impressions are order, solidity, colour. "It was important that it had a civic quality, a maturity," notes Monaghan.

And so it does. But the architects' real achievement lies in the fact that, for £5m - within the Government's standard per-square-foot cost strictures - they built in a great many innovations and spatial extras. There is a superb crèche, and delightfully composed open spaces in the classrooms, containing Blueprint-worthy furniture designed for the school by Andrew Stafford. Environmental concerns have not been overlooked, either, as evidenced by the sedum-coated roof, recycled plastic counter-tops and balustrades, and glazed passive-ventilation stacks.

Even the deeply cantilevered roof has a purpose: it covers the balau hardwood decking that, on hot summer days, will allow dining tables to be trolleyed into the fresh air. The cantilever must have been tricky: if its scaling and detail had been bungled, the school's otherwise assured modern look would have been ruined.

Scale, though, is something that Allford Hall Monaghan Morris seem to have no problem with. Nor do they fear bright colour, which they allowed artist Martin Richman to apply - in paint, lighting and etched glass - more or less at will.

The designers of the Jubilee Primary School have taken precisely the kind of risks that the Government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) is trying so hard to foment. The key thing about this kind of inner-city project is that it fosters a new mindset, fuelled by the example of collaboration and open-mindedness. In Tulse Hill, at least, there is one new school where 420 mindsets are at risk of being changed during the most critically formative years of their education.

In 20 years' time, many of the Jubilee Primary School's ex-pupils will occasionally recall the magentas, pinks and purples that coloured their first serious brush with ideas. They will remember the roseate glow of the illuminated reception counters, the way that cool north light spilled into their classrooms and, most of all, the lusciously gleaming blues of the glazed brick walls and piers that underpinned the main block. Perhaps they will consider these memories to be extraordinary.

But need they be? Must excellent school design always be exceptional? A critical mass of new-wave schools is needed; only then will more local authorities - particularly those in the inner cities - begin to take the kind of school redevelopment risks that can revitalise well-worn physical and social fabrics. Already, in Tulse Hill, architecture has made an encouraging difference.