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Hackney New School

Panel debates future school building vision

Education experts debate school design at Hackney New School during London Festival of Architecture

Posted by Stephanie Broad | June 19, 2016 | Events

As part of the London Festival of Architecture, Architects Henley Halebrown Rorrison (HHbR) hosted a debate on the role of school design.  The event took place on the 8th June and was held at the recently completed Hackney New School building designed by HHbR.  Speakers included Toby Young, a pioneer of the free school movement; Ty Goddard, a long-standing advocate of intelligent investment in education architecture; the head of Hackney New School, Lesley Falconer and architect Simon Henley, founder of HHbR. The panel was chaired by curator and architectural historian Jeremy Melvin.

Many topics were touched on from the necessity of good design to tackle the purely functional aspects of providing a safe environment where pupils have sufficient space for their activities and a roof over their heads that does not leak. Everyone agreed that this made common sense, although Toby Young was critical of a number of highly regarded architects whose buildings were not quite waterproof. 

The panel also discussed the credibility of evidence-based studies on the significance of design making a good school. Adequate light and air quality were cited as key factors in keeping children alert and able to take in new information and retain concentration during lessons. Other practical concerns included the energy efficiency of buildings to keep running costs down that, yet again, seems like something any thoughtful architect would embrace as part of a design strategy, although not all do.   

Ty Goddard deplored the vapid jargon-fuelled claims made in the glossy literature of bodies like the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment, saying these encourage easy ways to discredit the architecture profession’s true ability to achieve something valid.  

Claims for “inspiring young minds through buildings that heightened children’s imaginations” did not go unchallenged by Toby Young. He asked whether the spatial qualities really matter except perhaps in terms of improving circulation and making a building generally operational. This made one ask whether the architecture profession has really gone about getting its message across the wrong way: citing somewhat dull empirical common sense data about light and air quality one minute and making claims about improving creativity the next.  

Lesley Falconer, speaking as a Head, observed that although her pupils are excited and positive about having a new school building in Hackney, it is the newness that attracts them the most and not so much the particular design. She did, however, think that it is important for young people to play music or display their work in an environment that feels valued and special.   

In his response to the discussion, architect Simon Henley echoed this sentiment of place being important as something that gives us a sense of shared experience. This, to him, is why buildings are meaningful beacons within a community and why people become fond of them and even identify with them.  Institutions in particular, he noted, should at the very best transcend function. Perhaps it is the very task of doing more than the purely functional that makes buildings less about just “construction with decent services engineering” and more about what is, in fact: Architecture. And, after all, architecture has served civilisations over thousands of years in terms of expressing our cultural values. 

The London Festival of Architecture is on until 30 June.

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