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Saturday, 2 November, 2002, 00:17 GMT
Scaling the heights of school design
Hampden Gurney School
A big change for the school. Picture: Martine Hamilton Knight
Think of a primary school and the chances are you will visualise either a rambling Victorian building or a drab 1960's concrete box.

But ask the parents, teachers or pupils at Hampden Gurney, Church of England School in west London, what they think of their school and they will go into raptures.

For their school is, already, a 21st century architectural classic.

From the outside, it doesn't look like a school. For a start there is no conventional playground.

In fact the glass, steel and brick drum-like building is more like a swanky office building or smart block of flats.

Once inside, however, there is no doubt that this is a school - albeit a rather special one.

Hampden Gurney school
The outdoor playgrounds are covered. Picture: Martine Hamilton Knight
It is certainly a far cry from the 1940s pre-fabricated building it replaced.

"The old school was built very quickly after the war. It had a messy concrete playground, which could not always be used," said headmistress Evelyn Chua.

"And the design of the building did not consider what the children needed.

"It was either very hot or very cold. There was asbestos throughout the whole school."

Uncomfortable the old school may have been, but the primary's pupils and teachers faced less than ideal learning conditions in the 18-months when building work was carried out to replace it.

"We managed to keep open during the 18 months of building work. It was difficult because we had 30 children in each cabin and it was very hot in the summer," said Mrs Chua.


"The only thing that kept us going was when we saw our new school rising up."

The children got involved by seeing how the school was built and being taken on tours.

"It was built with such speed, every time we went away and came back we saw how much higher it had grown."

Complete, the building is designed to maximise natural light and space. It is built on six levels, with children literally moving up the school as they get older.

One of the delights of the new building is that it is covered, but has open air play decks, which mean that whatever the weather the children can still go outside to play.

There is a sense of pride, they want to come to school to learn

Evelyn Chua
The play decks are all made of rubber and each level has its own playing area, so teachers can ensure children of particular age groups play together. This has dramatically reduced the number of accidents.

The lowest play deck has a lower ceiling than the others so is used for hockey or netball and other hard ball games.

The school also has a central atrium giving a feeling of light and space.

Designed by Building Design Partnership, it was short-listed for the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Stirling Prize, but was piped at the post by Gateshead's, winking eye, Millennium Bridge.


The RIBA judges called Hampden Gurney "creative, bold and impressive".

In their citation the judges said: "We considered the design process to be bold and dynamic".

And Mrs Chua says the new school has transformed her working environment.

She said: "It has had a positive effect both on the staff and the children."

The only drawback for Mrs Chua is the lack of one very large playing area. They now have nowhere large enough to play football.

But she said that despite this, no one at the school wanted to go back to how things were.

And that if the children wanted to play football or other sports, which need large playing areas, they could always use Hyde Park, which is just across the road.

Click here to go to BBC London Online
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