‘No one in this room is here to make architects richer’, came British Education Secretary Michael Gove’s swipe at architects during the 2011 Free School Movement conference.
Richard Rogers may yet design your school, but in the meantime the homogeneous ‘Baseline Design’ blueprints and their Spartan rules are what we in the UK have to live with.
Standardisation in schools – as Oscar Niemeyer has proven – should not be a dirty word, and yet the notion of the ill-designed flat-pack shed is one the British government has driven firmly home.
Neil Michels’ project in the heart of Sheffield proudly breaks Gove’s rules in presenting a solution that, rather than sidelining architects, uses spatial organisation to create the ties between school and community.
The project takes the slashed school-building budget and cleverly combines it with money earmarked for regeneration. The super-block in which to cram thousands of students is thus subverted and fragmented, and instead approached as a series of tailored blocks, five of which become ‘city rooms’ open to the public throughout the day.
This permeability is further emphasised by the pilasters that encase the complex, encouraging the spilling of the school’s activities into the urban and vice versa. As privacy grows on the upper floors, generous openings ensure this connection is not lost.
The pared back aesthetic – with wooden walls that appear as though they would be quick to build and easy to rearrange – wrests back the idea of a flat-pack shed and presents it anew, and with it creates a modifiable kit of spaces that make plain the desperate need to reconsider pedagogy’s interaction with the urban realm.
This project ably demonstrates that ‘real life’ constraints need not fetter the ambitions of the aspiring architect, but instead can feed creativity and promote agency as a key tool for the designer. Here, the architect acts as agent by questioning the extent to which action and design can be combined to unlock truly innovative architectural ideas. By not accepting the status quo and reaching out to the city as a potential site for education rather than a fixed plot, Michels convinced the jury that organisations can collaborate inventively to make new spatial configurations that can meet today’s social demands.