Hallfield Primary School
Drake and Lasdun
- Original design
- Sir Denys Lasdun, Drake and Lasdun, 1953
- Caruso St John, 2005
Hallfield Primary School is a Grade 2* listed building. The school was designed in 1954 by Denys Lasdun, well known as the architect of the National Theatre on London’s Southbank, and other public buildings. The school sits in the middle of a purpose built estate from the same period, also conceived by Lasdun.
The school caters for around 600 children between the ages of 3 and 11, and is a unique learning environment. All classrooms are linked by covered walkways but provide different year groups a place of their own, helping to create a strong sense of belonging.
The original Hallfield school buildings are considered a masterpiece of post war design, and have been described by many as their favourite school buildings in Britain. Scaled on the height and proportions of a child, the ‘organic’ layout of the original school was compared by Lasdun to that of an undulating plant, with ‘stems’, ‘leaves’ and ‘petals’. A cluster of single storey buildings for nursery and key stage one is enclosed by the two story linear building for key stage 2 classrooms, with the spaces between filled with trees and shrubs, creating an intimate atmosphere inside and out. Every classroom gives directly onto its own garden area and maximises the use of natural daylight.
The foyer of the building is decorated with a large mural, specially commissioned from Stefan Knapp, a Polish born artist who achieved international fame in the years after the war.
Following an increase in pupil numbers from the 1980’s onwards, nine additional classrooms were built with facilities for varied teaching methods: children in groups of 30, smaller groups and even one-to-one teaching.
The newer buildings were designed by Caruso St John and won a RIBA Award in 2006. The challenge for Caruso St John was to expand the school in ways that complemented the original design, contributing to the intimate atmosphere of courtyards and gardens at the centre of the site. The new design consists of two buildings on the east and west sides of the site close to and carefully scaled to the older structures.
The most recent addition to the site is a purpose-built nursery adventure playground designed to encourage imaginative outdoor play and hands-on learning. The playground was the work of Bartholomew Landscaping in 2012.
Both pupils and staff feel that they work in modern buildings that meet their teaching and learning needs. Wider corridors, for example, are sometimes used for group work as well as providing dedicated IT and reading areas. In a busy school day, movement around the building is uncongested and allows a feeling of space. The new buildings fit well into the existing landscaped gardens, while the choice of colours and materials enhances the learning environment.
Headteacher Aaron Sumner highlights the fact that ‘children feel special by being in these amazing buildings – they promote a strong sense of citizenship. Children are proud of their school and love showing people around. For the younger ones, having their own space provides security, for the older ones, it has become a halfway house to secondary school. Being part of the Hallfield community is rewarding and exciting’.
‘The new buildings fit in very well with the old ones. Governors are privileged to have a spacious boardroom for our meetings as well as to engage with the local community.’ – School governor
This project for 9 classrooms and related accommodation would be a very modest one were it not for the fact that it is an extension to a much-loved modernist icon, grade 2 star, and one of Denys Lasdun’s earliest works. At times the earnest concerns of architecture lovers and the heritage lobby were almost stifling, and it was difficult not to let this situation dominate the architectural endeavour. Quite understandably, the head teachers were incredulous that the permission procedure was so extended and eventful. How could architecture be so important that children were being taught in temporary cabins for yet more years while everyone agreed what the new buildings should look like? In parallel to all this there was the life of the school; teaching children, noise, unruly furniture. The icon is also very charming in how it makes a setting for these things. One would like to think that this was finally the benchmark with which to judge the success of our additions.
Hallfield School was built in 1951 as an integral part of the Hallfield Estate, designed by Lubetkin’s practice Tecton in 1947-50. The architects of the school, Drake and Lasdun, had previously worked for Tecton on the design of the estate. The thin housing slabs are widely spaced, and a park-like openness is the background for the low buildings of the school. The estate had been realised on this site because of severe bombing during the war, and the architects incorporated mature trees into their plan arrangement, that would once have stood in the gardens of Victorian terrace houses. The school’s frontage forms a protective screen towards the estate, beyond which is an Arcadian landscape of low buildings amongst trees and gardens for play. Lasdun used the analogy of branches, leaves and fruits to describe the pattern of circulation routes and clusterings of rooms.
Hallfield is an Infants and Junior school, with a two-form entry, and it has operated well beyond the capacity of its buildings for a long time. There have been temporary classrooms in the playground since the 1970s, with council funding for new buildings only becoming available in 2000. Six new junior classrooms and three infants classrooms were required. Our design for two compact buildings, one for the junior school and one for the infants, allows each to be next to its own part of the school and preserves the playground spaces. We have placed each building as close to its neighbour as possible, so that the spaces between have shape and intimacy, as is the case with Lasdun’s composition. The new buildings appear to have joined the group, carefully closing off views from the centre of the site as if they are the last pieces of a complicated jigsaw.
The new classrooms have an empathy with the look of the listed buildings, without quite copying them. Our first proposal was for dark buildings in the shadows of the trees, with elevations of black engineering brick, a material which Lasdun used in most of his projects, including at the school. In its original state, the school was two-tone, with black brick walls for the infants buildings, and all the metal window frames were painted black. All these were painted over with off-white in the 1970s. Our more intellectual reference for the choice of material was not supported in the planning process. Like a chameleon, the skin of the new buildings became lighter to match the overpainted version. The creamy white clay brick is equally as hard-edged. The new brick volumes are slightly skewed or tilted, with inflections that work visually on the site to make them interdependent with the formal arrangement of their neighbours.
Choosing how to build seemed an important issue here, in the sense that the circumstances demanded a utopian view. We looked enviously at the sophistication of construction of school buildings in Austria and Switzerland, where quite normally a shell of exposed concrete or prefabricated timber offers a tectonic character to the interior. In this country however, the economical way to build and achieve the acoustic separation required is with sticks and layers, and this became a theme. The structure of the building is a steel frame as thin as twigs, floors of precast concrete, and claddings and linings of brick and plasterboard. While the outside is monochrome, internally the exposed layers are colourful; red brick and black floors in the hallways, plasterboard walls and pinboards in the classrooms of light green, brown or blue, with floors of dark green and brown lino.
The plans of the new buildings form spiralling clusters of three major rooms, where each classroom is on a corner and thus has a wide aspect over the site. There are generous hallways, which make each building feel complete when you’re indoors, but also offers the possibility of extra space for smaller teaching groups outside the classroom, something that happens in the corners of circulation spaces of the existing school. The large windows to the hallways and generous glazing at the doors to the classrooms allow glimpses across the deep floors from room to hall to outside, such that the interior feels very open and full of the sum of everyone’s activity. This sociability, where everyone has a specific space but is unusually conscious of the wider whole, is finally the proposition of Lasdun’s school that we most wanted to emulate.
Caruso St John Architects