Hackney New Primary School

Henley Halebrown

Hackney New Primary School is part of a mixed development in which a school is combined with a sixty-eight-unit affordable apartment block, on a tight corner plot fronting an Inner London high street. The school building was dependent on the private residential development for part of its funding, constructed economically and physically on the back of the housing. The Primary school also makes a loose enclave with its partner, Hackney New, the secondary school designed by Henley Halebrown (completed 2015). The latter responds to the collage of buildings between its Kingsland Road frontage and the canal basin behind, by making a group of four buildings, two existing, and two new: a wharf like building on the basin, and a tower on Kingsland Road. The framed form and the material of the red concret of the earlier project’s street frontage suggest a continuum along the street.

In the evolution of their project into a residential point block tower on the corner, with a three storey courtyard school behind, HH have addressed the nature of civic architecture as one of their ongoing formal preoccupations. The two typologies of the tower and the court, form an urban ensemble, the parts unified by the facade expression, and their relationship to the street. This forms an urban continuum of blocks with public faces which is significant in such a fragmented part of inner London.

Hackney’s morphology, and De Beauvoir Town’s, adjacent to the development, is dominated by low rise three to five storey 19th century terraced housing blocks, and semi-detached villas, with taller commercial and light industrial buildings at its peripheries. Pressured to increase housing, Hackney’s recent private developments have increased density with towers and formulaic mid-rise apartment blocks generally unresponsive to the street. HH’s design promotes a collective urban language, making the public facades hierarchical with base, body and top, in the classical tradition, reinterpreted by Louis Sullivan in the Chicago tower. Here the pragmatic structural frame was overclad, transforming universal towers into urban forms whose bases registered the street. In the New Primary school development, a larger order of a double storey frame and round columns is superimposed on the tower, with tall loggias carved from brick mass walls, its faces inflected like pinched clay. The tower is set on an arcade, the eponymous protective street device. It extends across the face of the school entrance and becomes a pilastered defensive wall to the double height hall, the school’s largest institutional civic space, as a shield from the street. It is reminiscent of the Renaissance city building base, as for example the Palazzo Rucellai Florence, with a bench formed in its plinth. Above the ground floor, a composition of large windows separated by precast concrete beams describe the trabeated frame. The exterior envelope of both parts is the brick red of a grander nineteenth century London, with red pigmented exposed concrete, standing in for terracotta.

Behind the street, where cream glazed brick courtyard facades reveal a contrasting brightness, the school is configured around the largest possible courtyard the architects could extrude from such a tight site, adapting the cloistered institution paradigm. One of the school’s main spatial characteristics is the replacement of internal corridors by covered exterior galleries circling the courtyard, linking the classrooms. The school canopy is equivalent to the exterior colonnade, a sheltering and social device, simultaneously pragmatic and accommodating informality. On the ground floor where the youngest children are housed, the underside of the first floor gallery delineates an external play area. Each classroom is identifiable to the children as an individual entity with its front door and windows. The school’s tight section generates a low first floor canopy, extruded from the zinc pitched roofs, shading on the north, with the same profile glazed on the south and east. The changing building depth and section heights result in the school rooms’ discernible variations.

Hackney New Primary is the product of a political initiative, from 2010, enabling private groups to establish independent free schools operating within the state education system. Derived from the early 20th century progressive New York model, this school’s notion of educational freedom is embedded in an alternative curriculum, in this case music. Its architectural methodology presents a response to the configurations derived from the UK government’s 1967 Plowden report, which in distinguishing primary education’s (up to 11) separate learning needs, connected physical form to pedagogy. From that era, new, typically freestanding buildings, with satellites of classrooms, replaced corridors with open plan or linking spaces for less programmed education. In Hackney New Primary School’s tight urban design, the compact classroom spaces embed early age self-learning into their fabric. Their thick-walled courtyard façades (up to 82.5 cm) group doors and windows to characterise each class, and simultaneously constitute the rooms in the school’s collective courtyard and galleries. They simulate urban communality from the earliest school years, embodying socialising characteristics of private and public activities with low cilled windows, pushed to the exterior to form inhabitable spaces, or inset windows with exterior cast stone benches, reminiscent of the street facade plinth bench. The window cills are higher for the older age classrooms deterring the distraction of the outside world.

The school’s architectural composition as a cluster of forms, a slim west end library range, different volumetric towers, one a tall chapel-like music room, is of an autonomous institution, seemingly a miniature town in the city. Here urbane forms describe a community, with expressive elements, an apse cut out around an external stair, a demonstratively hung covered staircase to the roof, as theatrical components of the ensemble.