Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The School Making a Concrete Investment in Young People

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The School Making a Concrete Investment in Young People

Article excerpt

Secondary waits to hear if it has won this year's Stirling Prize

The official line is that Burntwood School affords a great sense of arrival, with an "immediate impression of quality, openness, confidence and solidity".

What that means in lay terms is that there are some glass walls, bits of retro concrete and lots of windows.

It also means that the South London girls' secondary has been named one of the best-designed buildings of the year by the judges of Britain's most prestigious architecture prize. The school is among six buildings shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects' Stirling Prize.

It is competing against two university buildings, a 13-home development in East London, a glass-fronted cancer-care centre in Lanarkshire and luxury housing towers on London's South Bank. The winner will be announced on Thursday.

Helen Dorfman, the school's principal, worked with architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris to develop the shortlisted building: a geometric concrete design.

The aim was to minimise the distinction between indoors and outdoors. The restaurant (that is "restaurant", rather than "dining room") is specifically designed so that pupils can easily take their food outside. Indoors, ceilings are high and corridors spacious, and there are large windows throughout.

"Wherever you are inside the building, you can see outside," Ms Dorfman says. "You're always locating yourself. You always know where you are in the building, in relation to outside."

Each classroom and staff workroom has a glass wall, looking on to the corridor. The architects took this approach in response to Ms Dorfman's call for transparency and light.

"People weren't sure about that initially," she says of the glass walls. "They wondered if what was going on in the corridor would intrude into the classroom. But, actually, it gives a sense of community. It means that passive supervision of what's going on in the classroom is much easier."

Burntwood, in the inner London borough of Wandsworth, serves a deprived catchment area. "Quite a lot of our young people don't necessarily have access to a garden," Ms Dorfman says. "Being able to use generous outside spaces that are safe is a really important thing."

The school boasts a swimming pool and sports facilities, as well as music rehearsal and performance spaces.

Ms Dorfman has been involved in the plans since 2003, when she was appointed with the brief to secure investment to update the school's 50-year-old premises. "We wanted the buildings to be modern and current," she says. "But we wanted them to reference the past."

Pupils were also consulted about the plans. …

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