Tony McGuirk commends Dixon Jones’ mid-rise Marlborough Primary School

Buildings.

Words
Tony McGuirk

Photos
Paul Riddle

I came away from the new Marlborough Primary School with just one regret – that there aren’t more vertical schools like this in our cities. Dixon Jones’ design exemplifies the qualities that can emanate from the type, both in terms of pedagogical potential and urban design. The school is conceived as an educational organism in terms of its arrangement, its social life and the experiences it offers children and teachers, while also forming a potent structure that enjoys its presence in the city.

The key challenges in designing a vertical school on a constrained urban site are twofold. First, the architect needs to translate into vertical form a prescribed spatial brief born out of the DFE Building Bulletins intended for campus (horizontal) schools. Second, the mid-rise form has to fill out to the street edges, demanding a novel urban and architectural response. In replacing an existing urban school, moreover, there is rarely sufficient space to construct a new building while keeping the old one in operation with a meaningful play area. And because new play spaces will need to be a part of the vertical organisation, both structure and envelope costs will be proportionately higher, making it extremely difficult for a local authority alone to afford. In my experience of building several vertical schools in London, there has always needed to be some serendipity at play in order to clear these hurdles.

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The serendipity at Marlborough Primary School began with its architect. Dixon Jones has pedigree, a serious practice with grand projects in its portfolio, though surprisingly it had not previously designed a primary school. The commission folded out of a residential project it was planning for the adjacent site of The Clearings, a pair of warehouse buildings owned by retailer John Lewis. At the same time the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea was keen to replace Marlborough’s outmoded Victorian Board School building. Discussions led to an arrangement to roll the new school, funded by John Lewis in a S106 planning agreement, into the overall project, with the school temporarily occupying The Clearings, half of which was demolished to provide play space. In the event, Dixon Jones has completed the school but lost its commission for The Clearings when John Lewis sold the site.

The wider deal, however, implied an urban approach that suited Dixon Jones’ strengths, with street frontages and the requirement for a new pedestrian lane between the school and a contributing commercial block grafted to the end of the five-storey Harrods Depository Building, to connect busy Sloane Avenue with the residential neighbourhoods beyond Draycott Avenue.

The school layout, its axis parallel to the avenues, brings to mind a grand house plan, a mini-palazzo perhaps, but this formality and the rich mix of learning spaces has been effectively dovetailed together. There’s a sense that Dixon Jones lacked preconceptions about what a school should be, drawing instead on its experience with the interplay of urban formality and the multi-faceted activities of city life.

The formal plan places learning rooms around three sides of a central hall, maximising daylight and ventilation to the rooms and condensing the circulation to an open horseshoe around the hall. This clear format runs vertically through the levels, with reception and nursery years at ground level, and culminating with years five and six at the top. The plan is then released of any forced classical room strictures by bumping out the floor plates in a series of play terraces for each year group.

This modernist sectional grafting onto the ‘palazzo’ plan turns the east side into a terraced hillside, opening up the previous canyon-like space to the sky. This interplay seems to cross-fertilise Herman Hertzberger’s notion that “a school is like a small city” with Alberti’s maxim (from whom it was derived) that “a house is but a small city and a city is but a large house”.

Studying the plans prior to my visit, I wondered whether the formal arrangement might impinge on the experience of the children, but in reality the interior is elegant and dignified. The design’s generosity – undoubtedly enhanced by the augmented budget and the architect’s assured hand – is very pleasing. The frame of compact circulation around the central hall is like a modern cloister, dispensing with the corridor environment that can kill the spirit of learning buildings.

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Cleverly the vertical circulation – which on plan appears simply like fire-escape stairs – reinforces this open, easy character. All-round glazing to the staircases increases daylight and provides views north to Draycott Avenue and south to Sloane Avenue, so the children don’t feel closed-in and always have a sense of their place in the city.

The hall is a complex two-part space with layers of spatial intrigue. To the west, daylit by a wall of cast glass, is the double-height school hall which accommodates assemblies and operates as a dining hall, served from the adjacent kitchen. Moveable screens open theatrically into the central multi-use space at the heart of the building, surrounded by an open ambulatory with seating steps, and overlooked and daylit from above.

Other dedicated spaces are layered above, including an autism centre with a covered, all-weather outside area, special educational needs rooms, a library and media suite. Staff and group rooms are dispersed around the central hall at different levels, activating the plan beyond simple classrooms. A dance studio and art studio are set on the second-floor south-west and fourth-floor north-east corners respectively, marked by prominent horizontal windows. The former reminded me of Dixon Jones’ ballet studio at the Royal Opera House – lucky children – while the latter is a literal highpoint in the spiral of internal activities. Reaching it, I was struck by the thought that this primary school could easily be read as a secondary school; the lack of condescending gestures to its young users is again symptomatic of the architect’s lack of preconceptions with the type.

Externally the school is articulated in London stock brickwork with Portland stone banding relating it to the neighbours and evoking its predecessor. Most windows are cut into the facades, like a Victorian building, with only those to the dance and art studios set proud and accented with metal surrounds. Dixon Jones has often enjoyed mannerist touches that embed its buildings in their context, and here the south and north flanks feature large circular windows to two classrooms, nicely relieving the otherwise prosaic elevations. These windows are edged in turquoise glazed brick, corresponding to the ground-level banding along the street elevations, and referring to the glazed terracotta facades of the joyous 1911 Michelin House nearby.

The upper play levels feature a rustic timber screen as a high balustrade. This characteristic Dixon Jones motif works well in the more contained areas, but its use to enclose the uppermost MUGA pitch leaves the Sloane Avenue corner feeling visually weak. Facing the new lane the brickwork is broken by a blaze of translucent cast glass to the hall and the play floor above. To my mind transparency would have better revealed activity along the lane, with internal privacy simply achieved with a curtain, but child protection concerns ruled this out.

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The school entrance is perfectly located on the north corner, next to the lane, in a protected, quiet position that can be seen from a long way down the perpendicular Denyer Street. The location also allows morning sun to warm the arrival point – all important for the pre-school experience and for parents’ pavement discussions.

Marlborough Primary School’s fine new building has come about in a fortuitous, opportunistic manner unusual in the state sector. It provides a serious yet enjoyable learning environment for the children and the teachers. My visit concluded as the children were leaving at the end of the day, and I waited to see how many were being picked up by car, but none were apparent. They were all setting off on foot down local streets or chatting away at the bus stop: Marlborough Primary School is a proper city school with a proper city architecture.

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Credits

Architect
Dixon Jones
Structural engineer
Waterman Structures
Services engineer
Arup
Quantity surveyor
Gleeds