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Grace Academy is everything a school should be
Kieran Long Kieran Long

Within sight of the brutalist style of the notorious Southwyck House, possibly the most forbidding of the many architectural visions imposed on Brixton since the war, a new curiosity has sprung up. Zaha Hadid's Evelyn Grace Academy is a school in a livery of zig-zag glass and steel that has as little to do with Brixton as the social housing of the Sixties and Seventies in which it is embedded. Where new buildings strive to complement their environment, this one intends to stand out as an inspiring place where generosity and ambition go hand-in-hand with an educational vision that promises something tangible and valuable for young people with hard lives.

Its architect, Hadid, is one of the pre-eminent architectural superstars in the world. Last month she won British architecture's highest honour, the Stirling Prize, for the MAXXI art gallery in Rome, and her London-based office is working on projects across the globe.

Evelyn Grace, opened this month, is Hadid's first building in England; the Olympics Aquatic Centre will be her second. The £35 million budget for a secondary school that will eventually accommodate 1,200 11-19 year olds is not at the cheap end of the scale for recent school projects.

Evelyn Grace is intricate and provides a range of social spaces, inside and outside the building, that are designed to create a world of social interaction within the safe and nurturing environment of the academy site. It costs a lot less than a museum per square metre, and somewhat more than an average office building.

That doesn't sound like profligacy to me, when the future of thousands of Brixton children is in the balance. There are 540 students in attendance now, and by 2014 the school will reach its full capacity. The academy's sponsor is the charity ARK (Absolute Return for Kids), which was founded by hedge-fund banker Arki Busson.

This country has always spent money on decent civic buildings, though some have had more luxurious budgets than others. Considering the private firms Barratt and Wimpey build most of our urban environment, it is up to public buildings to give our cities quality and identity, to prove that this generation cares about the urban environment more than the people who built Southwyck House. Evelyn Grace is that kind of statement and, yes, that matters very much. Cuts or no cuts, London is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and if we can't afford schools that make a contribution to poorer parts of the city while banks and lawyers continue to build monuments to their egos in the Square Mile, then our priorities have become terribly skewed.

It is undeniable, though, that the particular look of Evelyn Grace has more to do with Hadid than with Brixton. But for the colourful tarmac of the football pitches and running track, the building could pass as an embassy (a comparison that is further evoked, unfortunately, by the necessary six-foot-high perimeter fence) or a fancy office building. It is a place that doesn't jolly itself up but is serious and straight-faced. It manages to be a special, out-of-the-ordinary environment without hyperventilation.

The overall arrangement divides the school into two wings at either end of a zigzag plan. These accommodate what headmaster Peter Walker calls “small schools”, or subdivisions of the student body. These two small schools, Walker believes, are more intimate and allow teachers to know the names of every child in each. This helps discipline and, the hope is, attainment.

The two small schools share some things: the library, a beautiful and rugged sports hall and dance studio, and the music and technology department. Most of these facilities are on the ground floor, and students process in orderly lines to and from these departments. The rest of their teaching is done in classrooms in the small schools (called, respectively, Evelyn and Grace), and they eat in separate dining rooms on tables of 15 children from various age groups. These family-sized groups are conceived as the foundation of the children's lives in the school.

The classrooms themselves are by and large straightforward. Barring the odd pointlessly sloping wall, they are square, naturally lit, with decent sound insulation and acoustics. Those parts are not rocket science. But on my recent visit they certainly seemed to help the teachers keep things quiet. In every classroom that I looked at, the students were beautifully behaved.
The effort of the planning of the school has been made in providing clear boundaries, between classrooms, between small schools, and so on. The students at Evelyn Grace are helped by the educational ethos, and the architecture, to behave well and feel safe. The school puts emphasis on literacy and numeracy, and particularly on discipline (promoting “self-control” as a core value).

Are there any criticisms? The landscape around the building is designed for minimum maintenance and is terribly hard (although the garden in one corner of the site hasn't yet been planted). The building is also carefully choreographed around the current headmaster's educational ideas, which could risk a certain lack of flexibility. I've already mentioned the sloping walls in some classrooms, as daft as the concrete balustrades around stairwells. These uncomfortable details, which the budget wasn't big enough to resolve, just look like the builder is doing a cover version of Hadid.

I suppose it's beyond Zaha Hadid Architects to abandon these stylistic tics now. But look beyond those and you find an architectural intelligence that has made an intimate and studious atmosphere, combined with social spaces that have been thought about and tuned as well as any museum. The quality of Evelyn Grace Academy is that it is bespoke, not simply dumped on the site for the people of Brixton to work out what to do with it. There is a plan here and, when you're there, it feels very exciting indeed.


Far East London
7,619 Posts
You wait ages for a Stirling Prize then two come along at once!

Evelyn Grace Academy wins Stirling Prize

The Evelyn Grace Academy was praised for its "imaginative" design

A secondary school in south London has won the UK's most prestigious architecture award.

The Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, has been given the Royal Institute of British Architects' Stirling Prize.

It beat the favourite, the London 2012 Olympic velodrome. Hadid has now won the Stirling for two years in a row.

The prize is awarded to the best new European building that has been built or designed in Britain.

The other nominated buildings included the renovated Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) described the £37.5m academy as a "highly stylized zig-zag of steel and glass".

Riba president Angela Brady, who chaired the judging panel, praised the way the "imaginative" design was "expertly inserted into an extremely tight site".

Stirling Prize 2011 shortlist

Evelyn Grace Academy, London, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects
An Gaelaras, Derry, by O'Donnell and Tuomey
The Angel Building, London, by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM)
Folkwang Museum, Essen, Germany by David Chipperfield Architects
Olympic Velodrome (pictured), London, by Hopkins Architects
Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres, Stratford-upon-Avon, by Bennetts Associates
The architects had to accommodate four schools under a single academy umbrella.

With a relatively small location and sport as one of the academy's "special subjects", they put a 100-metre running track through the middle of the site, under a bridge between two school blocks.

"The Evelyn Grace Academy is an exceptional example of what can be achieved when we invest carefully in a well-designed new school building," Ms Brady said.

The annual award is given to the architects of the building that has "made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year".

Zaha Hadid's London-based practice won for the Maxxi contemporary art museum in Rome last year.

Hadid was born in Iraq and set up her own practice in London in 1980. The academy was its first major project in the city. Her other projects include the London 2012 Aquatics Centre, Glasgow's Riverside Museum and Cardiff Bay Opera House.

"Schools are among the first examples of architecture that everyone experiences and have a profound impact on all children as they grow up," Hadid said.

"I am delighted that the Evelyn Grace Academy has been so well received by all its students and staff."

Hadid picked up a £20,000 prize at a ceremony at the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, which won the prize in 2001.

The other shortlisted buildings were An Gaelaras, a cultural centre in Derry, and The Angel Building, a renovated 1980s office block in Islington, London.

The prize was set up in 1996 and is named after the late British architect Sir James Stirling.

The ceremony will be broadcast on The Culture Show on BBC Two on Sunday.

CEO, Dingly Dell Corp.
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Reaction to Hadid's Stirling Prize win: 'there was a collective groan'

-- Link to Architects Journal article --

The decision to give this year’s Stirling Prize to Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy is met by shock, surprise and even anger

George Ferguson, former president of the RIBA:
‘This is an appalling result and the worst decision since the Magna Centre beat Girmshaw’s Eden Project to win the Stirling Prize in 2001. It’s a great big own goal. It is also the worst possible message to send to [education secretary] Michael Gove. In fact it reinforces his case. A good school is one that can be replicated. But this can’t. It’s a one-off. The prize [has become] an award from architects for architects. It makes me angry.’

Russell Brown of Hawkins Brown:
‘Zaha’s scheme is an icon and seems less about place. It is not the message that the RIBA should be sending out about educational buildings. There is a political agenda in the judges nominating a school. It is a sad state of affairs that user-driven architecture is worth commenting on by the judges. A scheme is only architecture when it satisfies it’s occupants

Rab Bennetts of shortlisted practice Bennetts Associates:
‘When the Stirling winner was announced there was a palpable sense of shock across the room. We hadn’t expected to beat the velodrome, but I had Zaha’s school down as the least likely to win. However overall a great night and we’re really pleased for RSC [the winner of the RIBA client of the year award]. And the theatre came across well in the film.’

Stephen Hodder, a previous Stirling Prize winner and the RIBA Vice-President Nations + Regions:
‘The Stirling Prize is about the building which has made the greatest contribution to architecture not about making a political statement. There has already been a well-made rebuttal of Michael Gove’s stance on architecture and it was not necessary to use the Stirling Prize to reiterate the same message. This year the Stirling Prize did not go to the best building.’

Flora Samuels, the head of the University of Sheffield’s School of Architecture:
‘There was a collective groan at the announcement of the Zaha school as winner. However it does warrant visiting in person and following the comments of the users and judges, it appears there is more to the icon than meets the eye.
‘It’s a shame that the Sarah Wigglesworth’s Sandal Magma building wan’t nominated - it is just a damn good building. Although there has been a good winner this year, the shortlist is actually rather narrow, with the North remaining significantly underrepresented. Interesting also that despite female architects, it remains notably masculine architecture which prevails. Is that really what we want the architecture of today to be? Where are the maternal counterpoints to a paternal architectural dialogue?’

Robert Kennett of Eric Parry Architects:
‘I was not expecting Zaha to win and the decision by the judges to select Zaha two years in a row marks a return to showy iconic designs. The choice of the project seems to go against the media representation of the prize this year, being about user and client. Having said that the building is ‘heroic’ and a masterful architectural vision. It would be interesting to see how much consultation the design team actually did with the users.’

Paul Finch, deputy chair of the Design Council:
‘It was the biggest surprise since Magna beat the Eden Project, but the jury was obviously impressed by the lifting of the spirits the school brings about, and the ingenuity of a diagram that combines four schools onto a single tight site. It was an unusual brief, had the help of a generous budget, and would be better regarded as a high quality one-off than a repeatable model. One must accept that the jury are the only group that saw all the finalists and respect their judgement. The three finalists I have seen, Hopkins’ Velodrome, AHMM’s Angel Building and Benett’s RSC, are hugely sophisticated and I imagine will have an effect as great as the school - but in their own unique ways.’

Holly Porter, founding director of Surface to Air Architects:
‘It is great to see Zaha win and ARK are a great client. This is a message to Michael Gove that design actually matters. Good clients understand that and see top-end architecture as an educational instrument.’

Simon Allford of shortlisted practice AHMM:
’We are gutted not to win and others are too. But to get on the shortlist, effectively for a third year in a row, is a mark of our consistent quality.
‘With tegard to Zaha, it is a great to a building in a tough part of London making a difference.’
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