The Westminster Academy is a new secondary school in West London, housing 1175 pupils and 128 staff members. The sponsor, Exilarch Foundation and the Academy principals Alison Banks and Smita Bora, had a powerful vision of learning for the school that embraces the latest thinking in education and the ideals of the RSA Curriculum of the 21st century.
The core values of the Academy are Enterprise, Global Citizenship and Communication delivered through a flexible and responsive learning framework that gives pupils individual responsibility for their education and encourages team working by both staff and pupils.
In response to this clear and progressive brief, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) have created a building that draws upon the extensive and varied experience of their practice in a range of sectors. The driving idea was to create a learning environment that inspired creativity and enabled connectivity and flexibility. This approach seeks to create a completely different learning environment – one that raises expectations in terms of what this might mean in the 21st century.
The Academy is located in a gritty urban context, dominated by the Westway flyover, surrounding 1960s tower blocks and the Harrow Road. The site is also crossed by a public right of way and houses several public sports pitches. The physical complexities of the site are matched by the cultural and social challenges of working in one of the poorest areas in the capital with a secondary school population of whom a high proportion are bilingual.
The school is located along one edge of the site lining the Harrow Road in the form of a 5-storey building housing all facilities except the sports facilities. These are housed in a separate building to allow for all year round community use.
In response to the powerful sculptural nature of the surrounding architecture and civil engineering and the need for a fully sealed building, the Academy façade is boldly stratified into large panels of glazing, vibrantly coloured terracotta tiles in green and yellow and a series of illuminated screens. These layers, relating to the functions inside, create a highly reflective building by day that transforms into a colourfully glowing beacon at night.
The rear elevation to the south continues this stratification with deep cantilevered balconies overlooking the terraced outdoor spaces. These balconies act as the primary means of escape for the classrooms and therefore allowing the central atrium to be totally open.
Sustainability was a core theme of the project approached through the design of all elements and the selection of materials and services. Within the glazed atrium, which provides significant amounts of natural light within the building, the system for shading has been designed as a sculptural feature running north/south. The system of baffles, coloured green and yellow in one direction and painted white on the reverse to maximise reflected light provide effective shading but are made from simple door blanks.
Due to the requirement to keep out noise from the Westway and Harrow Road the building is sealed and so mechanically ventilated, which provides greater flexibility in use to spaces internally.
The in-situ, exposed concrete frame, projecting balconies on the rear elevation and the sedum roof are all sustainable features that have been designed to add drama to the school whilst delivering a range of environmental advantages – now and during the life of the building.
Security & Stimulation
For Alison Banks, the recipe for effective learning is ‘security + stimulation’ and so the plan was driven by ideas of flexibility and connectivity. A ‘market place’ on the ground floor physically connects to all the key communal spaces at this level and visually connects to the whole school via the full height atrium with a highly-coloured sculptural roof. This dramatic central space embodies the needs of the new learning framework by operating as the hub of the school. Pupils are encouraged to plan their own working schedule and are free to move between the café and informal working spaces, a multi-functional “Long Room’, the library and the Green Room (lecture theatre) that can hold an entire year group.
Using Space Syntax to predict people flow around the school, AHMM designed a large central staircase as the main circulation for the school. Scissor Stairs, inspired by Escher, at each end of the building act as fire escapes only. On each floor, wide corridors allow ease of flow and are terminated by floor-to-ceiling glazing with views to the mature trees around the site. These long views and internally glazed teaching and break-out spaces create an open feel whilst providing acoustically insulated spaces and a highly efficient and clearly understood plan.
The ideas of passive surveillance and connectivity also dictated the central location of the toilets that also have two entrances to reduce the risk of bullying. These areas are designed to a high specification with individual cubicles complete with basin, dryers and full height walls for privacy and communal areas dominated by long mirrors. Another unusual feature is the location of the dining room, ‘Sky Dining’, found at the top of the building, providing diners with views south across the Westway. Both the dining room and social spaces on this floor have access to large terraces front and back.
The landscape around the two main buildings is one large open space but terraced to maximise uses through changes in levels leading to seven sport pitches located under the Westway for weather protection. The large concrete terraces provide robust in-situ steps and benches within an orchard of new trees with different surfaces marking areas that can be used for outdoor teaching, quiet socialising, or team games.
A long strata of timber clad wall at ground level ties the main building, the landscape and the Academy Sport together. Slicing through the site is a raised bridge that maintains the public right of way.
The Academy Sport building is constructed from concrete to ground floor and steel frame above. The ground floor consists of a bank of seven pairs of locker rooms, one for each sports pitch. The dance studio and sports hall are on the first floor with sprung rubber and timber floors respectively. Diffused light will enter the end of the sports hall through ‘Reglit’ glass, with the remainder of the building clad entirely in an untreated larch rainscreen. The building and sports pitches will be shared by community and students with managed access throughout the day.
Materials & Graphics
In contrast to the bold colourful exterior, a more austere approach to materials has been employed internally where raw concrete, painted blockwork, timber and acoustic baffles intentionally foreground the teaching environment. The building in this case is seen as a backdrop to learning and aims to encourage exhibition and display. An important aspect of the commission from the early days was to ensure that the team was able to select all the furniture for the school. In the break out areas specially designed Academy tables were designed by Andrew Stafford.
The extensive use of graphics with long time AHMM collaborator Morag Myerscough also draws on our experience in commercial and civic environments. Bold branding for the school and the spaces within, a rich colour palette and large graphic elements relate to the vibrant reality of urban life beyond the school walls and to an international community – both on the doorstep and beyond.
RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist 2008
RIBA National Award for Architecture 2008
RIBA London Building of the Year 2008
RIBA Sorrell Foundation Schools Award shortlist 2008
Design Week Wayfinding and Environmental Graphics 2008
Best Incorporation of Daylight Award, Light & Architecture Design Awards 2008
Future Vision Award 2007
BCSE Award Inspiring Design - Secondary School 2008
Project details and credits:
Contract Value: £25M
Completion Date: September 2007
Total Area: Main Building (11,100 sq.m/120,000 sq.ft.), Sports Hall (2,000sq.m/21,500 sq.ft.)
Client: Westminster Academy, Westminster City Council, DCSF and Exilarch Foundation
Sponsor: Exilarch Foundation, David Dangoor
Architect: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
Lead Consultant: Building Design Partnership
Project Manager: Capita Symonds
Main Contractor: Galliford Try
FF&E Consultant: Building Design Partnership
Graphic Designer: Studio Myerscough
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris: Team Members
Simon Allford, Sarah Baccin, Sonia Browse, Robert Burton, Ming Chung, Julie Franklin, Mark Foster, Alexis Germanos, Ben Gibson, Susan Le Good, Jonathan Hall, Lee Higson, Stuart Hill, Gareth Jones, Victor Kite, Paul Monaghan, Peter Morris, Steve Morton, Gabriel Musat, Mira Porstmann, Goh Ong, Anna Radcliffe, Alexa Ratcliffe, Debby Ray, Demetra Lindsay, Heidrun Schuhmann, Laura Stephenson, Matt Thornley & James White.