Bedales is as much a cultural institution as a symbolic centre of a particular kind of progressive education that flowered in the first 40 years of the last century. Founded by John Haden Badley in 1893, Bedales was the first co-educational boarding school in Britain, and continues to be a strong voice at the liberal, child- and creative-centred – if private and expensive – end of today’s educational landscape.
Nestling under the western end of the South Downs near Petersfield in Hampshire, the school adopted a philosophy emphasising the arts, craft and drama from the outset. In the early twentieth century, its focus on the imagination and the child’s creative potential drew many artists, craftspeople and writers, including the Arts & Crafts furniture-makers and builders Sidney and Edward Barnsley and architect Ernest Gimson. They became closely linked with the school, designing and helping to build both Lupton Hall (1911) and the oak-framed Memorial Library (1919), regarded as one of the finest buildings of its time in the country. Bedales’ connections to the Arts & Crafts movement was further underlined by its ‘outdoor work’ approach, with a curriculum encompassing gardening, tree planting, livestock tending and barn building.
It is fitting, therefore, that FCB Studios – a practice imbued with sensitivity for the craft of construction – should have become involved at Bedales early on. As Feilden Clegg Architects, its first building there was the Olivier Theatre (1996), a timber-framed and -clad project where students participated in its carpentry and brickwork.
If the theatre pre-dated FCB Studios’ emergence as a leading school architect, there was a close fit between Bedales’ ethos and architect Peter Clegg’s lifelong interest in the arts and creativity in education. The mantle was perhaps passed from his father, Alec Clegg, chief education officer at West Riding from 1945-74, who was instrumental in founding Bretton Hall, an arts education-focused teacher training college that in turn spawned the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
FCB Studios’ second Bedales project, the Art & Design Building, arrives a century after the school’s now-listed Arts & Crafts buildings, and underscores the continued development of its arts focus. In the interim the school had continued to grow, the main architectural addition being Walters & Cohen’s Orchard Building (2006).
The £4m Art & Design Building signals continued investment in Bedales’ estate, but it can be interpreted also as a break with the school’s Arts & Crafts tradition. The architectural sensibility is much closer to that of Walters & Cohen’s block than FCB Studios’ own theatre. Sited immediately to the east of the school entrance, the building comprises five integrated timber-clad ‘sheds’, protectively surrounding a single oak tree, which was a leading generator for the design. The stripped-back restraint of the ridge-roofed forms, with the fifth ‘shed’ extending outwards, suggests an allegiance to the restrained, ‘rough-hewn’ aesthetic that has spread through English architecture. Partner and project leader Tom Jarman acknowledges David Chipperfield’s King’s Cross studio for Antony Gormley as a precedent, but notes that the Bedales building is more an “art barn” than an “industrial art shed”.
The ground floor accommodates the ‘design’ curriculum. The pleasant surprise of seeing woodwork benches was met with the response that the school has always fostered ‘making’ – mainly in wood, but also jewellery, metalwork and, more recently, fashion. A CNC router sits in an ante-room. The upper level, with open-plan art, ceramics and printmaking studios plus a gallery, is reached on the west side by an external staircase which extends as an open corridor, winding around the building and acting as an outdoor ‘classroom’.
The staircase and corridor sit within a latticed screen that provides the building’s principal visual trope, a sympathetic counter-balance to the symbolic oak tree in the foreground. “We wouldn’t have done the same building if the tree hadn’t been there”, says Jarman, adding that the timber lattice shares the structural and roofing load with the primary steel frame, and alludes to Cullinan Studio’s Downland Gridshell (2002) just across the county border in West Sussex.
The layered lattice and dappled textures it creates make an appealing frontage, even if the decision to use a steel frame for the main structure could be read as severing Bedales’ umbilical tie to its Arts & Crafts heritage.
At an early stage in the project there was considerable discussion about using a timber frame, Jarman acknowledges, but the limited budget precluded taking the idea further. The requirement for open-plan studio spaces, and delivering the passive solar strategy in terms of ventilation, daylight and acoustics all fed into the rationale for a steel barn. While no particular BREEAM level was targeted, the design strategy included air-to-water heat pumps that lessen energy consumption by 23 per cent, and high standards of fabric insulation, airtightness and ventilation that save another 9 per cent, so overall energy use should be nearly one third below the norm.
These are twenty-first century technologies that have gone into the building’s making – or rather, construction. They are efficient and smart for sure, though they are also reminders of the slow-motion disappearance of Bedales’ low-tech, mixed agricultural and Arts & Crafts identity. An ‘art barn’ this may be, but it bears a clear post-industrial imprint.