Showpiece school faces demolition

Architects are angry at Westminster's plans for a 'stunning' building.
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The Independent Online
When Pimlico School was built in 1970 it was, in the words of the prominent architect Sir Phillip Powell, "a stunning and delightful achievement". Now, he added, "it remains stunning and delightful ... It deserves to be cared for, protected and cherished". But on Friday, after weeks of deliberation, English Heritage decided that it would not recommend to the Department of National Heritage that the building should be preserved.

The decision will pave the way for Westminster council to demolish the building. If it does, it will be knocking down what was originally a proud monument of the comprehensive system and the now abolished Inner London Education Authority.

The school, a long, low-lying concrete-and-glass structure surrounded by stuccoed Victorian terraces a mile from the Houses of Parliament, was also a widely praised expression of English architectural progressiveness. News of English Heritage's decision was met with outrage by some of Britain's most prominent architects.

"I'm very angry about the whole thing," said Christopher Dean of Docomomo, the modernist conservation organisation. "We had tremendous support for the building from a whole galaxy of people." "I just can't understand them," said the school's architect, John Bancroft.

The school, with its board of governors chaired by the shadow home secretary, Jack Straw, continues to prosper, a rare example of a non-selective, multi- ethnic, inner-city school that works. It is heavily oversubscribed, exam results equal the national average, and its achievements, especially in art and music, are high. The building, however, has not fared so well: in fact it is probably the school's biggest problem.

The school was designed so that, although crammed on to a site of little more than four acres, only half the size recommended for a school like this with up to 1,700 pupils, every classroom received direct sunlight. Unfortunately the cooling system was soon vandalised and later removed, leaving pupils to swelter or freeze, depending on the season, in the greenhouse- like conditions.

"During last summer's heatwave, temperatures in every classroom were up in the 90s by lunchtime," says joint deputy head Nick Williams. "Even in the evening, the glass-roofed assembly hall is unbearably hot. When parents come in, they can't believe what we have to put up with."

Pimlico's problems have been aggravated by years of council and government penny-pinching and neglect, so that it would take pounds 7.4m just to restore the school to its original condition. To repair the building and add a new three-storey structure, the solution preferred by town hall officers, would cost around pounds 17.6m. The council has made it clear that such a large investment is beyond its means.

Instead, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the Department for Employment and Education, Westminster hopes to demolish and redevelop the school by means of a Private Finance Initiative, the Government's latest wheeze to get businesses to put up money for public projects.

Developers have been invited to submit bids for the site, with the stipulation that they provide all the facilities currently enjoyed by the school, adding anything else they can dream up which might fit the space (such as housing) to make it profitable. The developer would be responsible not only for designing, financing and building, but also for maintaining the new buildings. Westminster would then lease the school from the developer.

This is one of the first attempts to bring private finance to a local government scheme. In its eagerness to make it work, the department has indicated that it will do all it can to facilitate the project.

English Heritage's instruction from the Department of National Heritage, to consider the school for listing, cast a long shadow over Westminster's plan. Now that the shadow has been removed, the open day scheduled for Wednesday, when potential bidders will discuss the project with the council, will go ahead in a more positive climate. Yet great misgivings persist as to whether the PFI procedure can hope to produce a building of half as much distinction as the existing one.

"Everyone agrees that the school is over-glazed and under-insulated," said Rob Hughes, an architect who is also a parent-governor at the school, "but the problem is soluble by reducing the glazed area, and putting in double-glazing and a shading system. There are other problems in the school - rooms that are too small and so on - but as any architect knows, any scheme has to make compromises. If the PFI goes ahead, we won't see the developer's scheme for about two years, and you can be sure that that, too, will be riddled with compromises. And people at the school will have no say in the design: the architect will be the commercial choice of the developer."

Despite the glazing problem, there is much to be said for the present school's design. It occupies its site with tact and elegance, cohabiting easily with its Victorian neighbours despite its great size. Its huge population is neatly contained, and the building's main feature, its central walkway, makes access between different parts quick and simple. It should not be beyond the powers of a wealthy local authority to restore it to optimum condition.

But, although holed below the waterline by last week's report by the district auditor, Westminster remains the Government's local authority flagship, steaming on towards the fully privatised horizon. In the mean time, all that Pimlico's staff and students can do is sweat it out.