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Brits Declare War on School Curves

By Christopher Turner
October 17, 2012
Photo © Nigel Young/Foster + Partners
Foster + Partners’ Langley Academy, with its curved facade, would not be sanctioned under new rules.

Michael Gove, Tory member of Parliament and the U.K.’s secretary of state for education since 2010, has declared a controversial war on “curves or ‘faceted’ curves” in school buildings—as well as “minimal indents, ‘dog legs,’ and notches in the plan shapes.” Folding partitions, glazed walls, roof terraces, and ETFE roofing are also banned.

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In a series of new Design Templates for prototype schools published at the beginning of October—a document intended to steer architects bidding for $4 billion in contracts for 261 state schools to be rebuilt over the next five years—the British government called for “simple rectilinear forms” and no-frills designs. Buildings such as Foster + Partners’ approximately $34 million Langley Academy (2009), which has a cylindrical wooden facade with vertical louvers, would not be sanctioned.

Gove wants schools to be architect-free and, according to the critic Rowan Moore, churned out “the way Tesco builds its supermarket or McDonald’s its outlets,” with little consideration of the realities of a particular site. With his prescriptions, which sit at odds with his party’s continual attack on the “nanny state,” Gove hopes to save over $9 million on each secondary and primary school, which will be 5 to 15 percent smaller than previous designs. In response, the Royal Institute of British Architects warned that these prescriptions herald the “flat-pack” school.

Peter Clegg, partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, which won Building Design’s Schools Architect of the Year in 2009 and has built a dozen schools, complained that the guidelines were “extraordinarily overprescriptive and [show] an extreme lack of trust in the architectural and construction professions to deliver schools to budget. Why are they not just telling us how much they want to pay per square meter? I can understand them wanting to turn the screw on the budget, but why do they not give architects who understand these things the ability to decide?”

Gove’s suspicion of architects has a (continued) long history. Soon after coming to power, he axed the previous Labour government’s $88 billion Building Schools for the Future program, which had the ambitious aim of rebuilding or renovating most secondary schools in the country. (Six local school authorities took him to court, claiming that he had unlawfully failed to consult them before imposing cuts, and a judge agreed that in five cases this failure was “so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power.”) While many agreed that the Labour government’s scheme had been poor value for the money, with construction companies, lawyers, and project managers getting rich at the taxpayers’ expense, Gove singled out architects for particular blame. He accused them of “creaming off” money that would have been better spent on teachers.

In January 2011, at the government’s first conference for “free” schools, Gove went so far as to declare: “We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school, we won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one in this room is here to make architects richer.” Rogers, a Labour peer, reminded him that Gove had been praising Hackney’s Mossbourne Community Academy, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, only the day before. Later that year, architects awarded the Stirling Prize to Zaha Hadid’s sinuous Evelyn Grace Academy. The $56 million London secondary school, which zigzags over and makes the most of its tight site, was the first and only school that has been awarded the prize, a move that many considered a political statement in the light of Gove’s demonization of the profession.

At this year’s Venice Biennale, Aberrant Architecture, whose very name seems designed to offend Gove, created an installation in the British Pavilion inspired by Oscar Niemeyer’s experimental 1980s school-building program in Brazil. In and around Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer and his collaborators built 508 precast concrete schools of standardized design. The architects proposed this radical scheme as a model for austerity in Britain, but Niemeyer’s Modernist designs would have failed Gove’s test. The undercrofts of these buildings are surrounded by arched loggias, and the facades are punctuated by lozenge-shaped windows. Even the Bauhaus had curves.

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