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March 06 2011

Architects do matter, Mr Gove

The education secretary claims architects have 'creamed off' money that could have gone to teachers. It's time he opened his eyes to the far-reaching benefits of a beautifully designed school

If Michael Gove were a building, he would leak. He would crack and crumble on faulty foundations. He would be windy, but also overheat. Behind a pretentious facade, he would be shoddy in design and execution.

So far, the secretary of state for education has had to apologise for the hasty and inaccurate way he announced the cancellation of school building projects, and been told by a judge that his failure to consult was "so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power". He keeps giving not-quite-true information to Parliament, for example that a college in Doncaster, a pilot project of the government, took an impressively short 10 weeks to procure. It actually took 22 weeks.

On 14 February he told the House of Commons that "it's a scandal… millions of pounds were spent on consultants" on the design of new schools. "One individual, in one year, made more than £1m as a result of his endeavours." This might be an impressive fact, were it not that he is referring to a case in Birmingham in which the sum was £700,000, was paid over four years and covered the work of five advisers at different times, as part of a programme of more than 80 schools, costing more than £1 billion.

Yet Gove presses on, seemingly untroubled by evidence, common sense or decency, with his campaign to lower the quality of the buildings in which the nation's children are taught. He has repeatedly attacked architects for "creaming off" money that could be better spent on teaching. He recently smirked to a conference that "we won't be getting any award-winning architects" to design new schools, "because no one in this room is here to make architects richer". The message is that a well-designed environment is an irrelevance: teaching is all that matters.

There has been talk that schools can be churned out in bulk, the way Tesco builds its supermarket or McDonald's its outlets. To dot the country with standardised McSchools is not obviously consistent with the government's localism agenda, or its interest in a "happiness index", but never mind. One contractor, Willmott Dixon, has punted some suggestions as to what such schools might look like. These look plausible, if drab, on unencumbered, level sites. But, like Daleks encountering a staircase, they need help when they hit a slope, or a constrained urban site, or the individual needs of particular schools. Standardisation has its uses, but it needs design to do well.

To Gove's rejection of design, Phil Blinston, executive head of the Minster School in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, says: "It's bizarre. I just don't get it. Why wouldn't we want to factor in everything architects have learned from other buildings? Youngsters are growing up visually articulate. Why would they not expect to see that in school? Why would you expect them to lower their standards?"

The Minster School has been using an award-winning building for four years, designed by architects Penoyre & Prasad. Blinston says: "Our results were good and continued to rise with the new building. Our behaviour has improved." It has good acoustics and natural light, which "have a profound effect on the emotional state of children, which helps their learning".

Its circulation works smoothly, without "one-way systems, keep left signs or massive numbers of rules". Hidden spaces "where vulnerable kids fear to tread" are designed out, so you don't need "people standing guard". It is designed so that locals can use the building in evenings and school holidays, so this public asset is used to the full.

"I'm not talking about fancy architecture," he says – and a limited budget means the school has a simple-going-on-basic look – "but it's about enabling people to feel good. Good design produces a relaxed community. If we say education is important, we can demonstrate that by putting children in decent environments." Buildings cannot do a teacher's job, in other words, but they can make good teaching better and bad teaching less so.

To which it might be added that, if environment were irrelevant to learning, then Eton College, the alma mater of many of the present government, would sell its agreeable slab of Berkshire real estate and move to low-cost units in a business park in Slough.

Gove is very much right about one thing, which is that the last government's £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme, which aimed to rebuild or renew nearly every secondary school in the country, was a monstrously wasteful and cumbersome process, which often led to very poorly designed schools. The "creaming off", however, was not being done by architects, who were, instead, among the first to point out the faults of the programme.

The main beneficiaries were the financial institutions and their advisers who funded the programme, who will earn handsome returns and bonuses for years to come at the taxpayers' expense. They are followed by the big construction companies, several of which were fined in 2008 by the Office of Fair Trading for breach of competition law – ie price-fixing – on a range of project types. They were, to coin a phrase, creaming off the funds of clients, including local authorities.

This unfortunate blemish has not impeded the same companies from securing huge education contracts, and it would be stretching credulity to think that price-fixing never now happens in school building. Yet there has been no ministerial slap. Rather, Gove's architect-free vision of the future places ever-greater reliance on the men with the hard hats, the handshakes and the plausible paperwork.

There are also the lawyers who expensively write and rewrite the byzantine contracts, at hourly rates several times greater than architects', and project managers, who do less, and less useful work than architects for a similar total cost. Worst of all was the waste inherent in BSF's processes: it cost contractors up to £3m to bid for a package of schools. They would expect to win one in three, meaning that they would want to recover £9m from successful bids just to cover their bidding costs.

Gove's department is unable to produce the figures on which he makes his assertions, saying that "detailed data on individual projects was held locally to minimise the regulatory burden on projects and project reporting". It is, however, possible to find out that architects' fees have been between 2.5% and 5% of construction cost. If capital costs other than construction are included, this can drop to well under 2% of the total. If, as happened under BSF, future running costs are included in the contract, architects' fees become a tiny proportion. Most architects working on schools will tell you that it pays less well than almost any other kind of work and is sometimes loss-making. One says that schools work "is threatening to put us out of business".

In other words, in the torrents of waste surrounding school building, good architects are value for money. If budgets get tighter, we will need their skills to make the most of them. If, as seems likely, future work is more about refurbishment rather than glamorous new buildings, architects' adaptability will help. If there is more standardisation of new buildings, it needs design intelligence to do it well. Gove seems to think that architects are all bow-tied ponces longing only to inflict their fantasies on the public. They could be his greatest allies.


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October 16 2010

Evelyn Grace Academy, Brixton

A Brixton school designed by Zaha Hadid contributes to the debate on education – mainly by being so excellent, writes Rowan Moore

Zaha Hadid is a celebrated architect. You have probably read the articles by now: most famous woman architect in history, Pritzker prize winner, forceful character, born in Iraq or possibly, if the journalist hasn't done their research properly, Iran. She has just completed her first school, a powerful, singular object in Brixton, south London, called the Evelyn Grace Academy, it serves Coldharbour Ward which, according to the school's principal, has the highest rate of violent crime in Europe.

As it happens, Hadid's office in Clerkenwell, central London, is in a former school building. It is one of hundreds built in a few years to the designs by Edward Robson, following the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which introduced universal free education. Robson created a basic standard design with simple architectural qualities – light, airiness, durability, good details and proportions – that could be varied and adapted to different sites. His schools became beacons of dignity in areas where there was little, and when some were eventually replaced, their innate qualities meant they converted easily into desirable flats, or design studios like Hadid's.

Both Hadid's work and her business premises are pertinent to the debate going on about the design of schools, prompted by the remarks of the education secretary Michael Gove and the waspish columnist-turned-education-reformer Toby Young. They claim that the last government's £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme was a monstrous waste of money, that architects "creamed off cash which should have been going out to the front line", that "the link between buildings and academic performance is practically zero", that "vainglorious architects" had inflated budgets with "extravagant fantasies."

Gove and Young make important points – that teachers matter more than buildings, and that Building Schools for the Future wasted much money – but spoil it with some gamma minus homework and a seeming delight in being boorish and ignorant. Young resembles a yapping attention-seeker in the back row of form IIIC.

They seem to be saying that it doesn't matter if children are educated in leaky sheds. They have also decided that architects are the main culprits of the failings of the Building Schools for the Future programme, when the main folly of BSF was the last government's grandiose decision to transform every secondary school building in the country, without much assessment whether this was the best way to improve education. It then created absurdly complicated and expensive contractual procedures, in which spending on architectural quality was cut to a minimum, with the result that very many truly terrible school designs were produced. The creaming off was done by contractors, financiers, lawyers and other consultants, not architects, and there was too little design, not too much. "A new loo seat is all very well," guffaws Young, "but does it have to be handcrafted by an Italian artisan? What's wrong with B&Q?", seemingly unaware that the chance of anything being handcrafted under BSF was remote.

Into the midst of this debate sails the stately form of the Evelyn Grace Academy. This is not part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, but is the result of different Labour policy – the creation of state-maintained but independently run schools called academies, whose construction costs would be partly sponsored by businesses and benefactors. If BSF schools were bought in bulk, academies were bespoke. The present government likes the idea of academies, if not their architecture, and wants to make more schools like them.

The academy is one of eight supported by ARK (Absolute Return for Kids), "whose purpose is to transform children's lives". This glamorous charity was set up by Arpad "Arki" Busson, hedge-fund multimillionaire and squire of Uma Thurman. Evelyn Grace is also individually sponsored by another hedge-fund manager, David Gorton. ARK's other schools include the Globe Academy in Southwark, south London, by Amanda Levete.

Peter Walker, principal of Evelyn Grace, stresses old-fashioned discipline and endeavour. Its ethos is to "achieve excellence" in "an industrious, orderly and respectful environment". It has a longer school day than most, from 8.30am to 5pm. It has uniforms – blazers, ties, V-necks – which pupils are expected to keep in good order. As we tour the school he calls children to order for standing in the wrong place or in the wrong way. But the strictness is also tempered: the academy, which will eventually have 1,200 pupils, is subdivided into four "small schools", so that children are not swamped by the vastness of the whole.

And then there is the building. On the breast pocket of the traditional-looking blazers is a traditional-looking shield within which a surprisingly constructivist crest appears, a leaning Z with a dot above it. This is based on the plan of the school which, with the dynamism for which Zaha Hadid Architects always strive, this thrusts diagonally from one side of the site to the other. Playgrounds and sports pitches occupy the spaces between the building and the streets on either side, with a bright red 100m running track stretching from one side to the other, the building bridging it at half way. As a proclamation of alertness to dozy morning arrivals, the track is hard to beat.

More oblique lines stride across the elevations, veering into curves where the building takes corner, and helping mark out the four "small schools". Inside, the building has a basically simple plan, with classrooms on either side of broad corridors, but rendered complex by the architects' irregular geometries and double-height halls serving the small schools at different levels.

The aims of the school and of the architects are not a perfect fit. Hadid's architecture communicates the seriousness and high ambition that Walker claims for his school, but it expresses the intimacy of the "small schools" less well. There's also a conflict between the flying angles and the rectangular shapes that classroom planning and economic construction tend to favour. In places it looks like a standard gridded building to which exotic geometries have been cosmetically applied.

What the building does best, says Walker, is communicate to pupils that "someone is valuing them". It is palpably exceptional, adult and unpatronising. You can tell that dedicated people have tried hard to do something out of the ordinary. It also creates moments of adventure and intrigue, such as the unexpected overlapping of spaces, which counter the potential boredom of big schools.

As to its contribution to the great schools debate, it can be taken as evidence for both sides, or neither. Young would count it among the "extravagant fantasies", as it was neither easy nor especially cheap to build (£36m, with a contractor pulling out in the process). Proponents of design would repeat Peter Walker's argument, that this is a piece of magnificence dedicated to children whose lives don't have much.

The truth is that the Evelyn Grace Academy is a one-off from an age that has already passed, when the City of London's firestorm of wealth threw off sparks of philanthropy to less lucky districts a few miles distant. It is not something that is repeatable for hundreds of new schools, and Young would be right not to hire Hadid or Norman Foster for the free school he is trying to establish.

But it is idiotic to conclude that spaces of learning are unimportant. Even if no connection can be proved between design and exam results, which is subject to debate, children should experience well-made spaces, just as they should experience art and music. The task is how to achieve this without extravagance. The search should be on for a new Edward Robson, an architect who could do this. The aim should be to find an updated version of the London Board Schools.

Gove, Young and the architectural profession should be on the same side. They should stop squabbling, find a bit of Evelyn Grace Academy discipline and work together. And if Arpad Busson wants to spend ARK's resources most effectively he should fund their efforts.


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June 07 2010

The best of the Hay festival 2010

In Hay-on-Wye this year Ian McEwan got friendly with a pig, Christopher Hitchens reviewed his brother's book and Pervez Musharraf hinted at a bid for power. We round up the best of the Hay festival 2010

At the Hay festival 2010 the sun shone and the rain fell as a veritable galaxy of stellar names from literature, art and politics descended on the village of Hay-on-Wye: from Ian McEwan to James Lovelock, and from Roy Hattersley to Fatima Bhutto.

On our daily Haycast, we heard David Mitchell explain why formal experimentation is a young man's game, Nadine Gordimer claim her intimate life for herself and the people with whom it was lived, and Christopher Hitchens give his verdict on his brother Peter's latest book. While on stage, the environmental writer Fred Pearce said fears of overpopulation were nonsense, Helen Dunmore warned of the dangers of fictionalising history, the education secretary Michael Gove offered the historian Niall Ferguson a job, and Pervez Musharraf hinted at a possible bid for power.

We asked festivalgoers to send us their pictures of the Hay festival, and about the books they were actually reading. We also went in search of the festival beyond the canvas, setting authors Francesca Simon, Val McDermid, and Grayson Perry the challenge of finding a secondhand gem for less than a tenner.

But with the festival coming to a close, we returned to fundamentals, following the visitors to Hay-on-Wye in the quest which underlies the entire event – the search for used books, new books, half-forgotten books ... the search for that perfect book: the one you will be reading next.


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May 19 2010

RIBA gold stars for education buildings

Fifth of RIBA's annual architecture plaudits go to education projects – but now cuts will bite

In what may be the last hurrah for public buildings before government spending cuts bite, prizes for architectural quality were awarded to 17 new school and university buildings by the Royal Institute of British Architects today.

From a £27m art and design academy at Liverpool John Moores University to a multicoloured glass extension at Clapham Manor primary school, education buildings won almost a fifth of the RIBA's 93 awards in a feat that may not be repeated for a generation after the government ordered a moratorium on new plans for school buildings.

The new education secretary, Michael Gove, recently clashed with architects when he accused them of "creaming off cash" that should have been going to the frontline.

The RIBA roll of honour also reveals the damaging effect of recession on architectural opportunity: instead of the stadium, airport and museum projects of previous years, the 2010 list features more modest projects, including a bus drivers' toilet in Dagenham and a black-clad electricity sub-station on a 2012 Olympic site in east London. And, with house building falling to an 87-year low, just three housing schemes were granted awards.

Many of the country's leading designers, including Zaha Hadid, David Chipperfield and Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, won accolades for buildings elsewhere in the EU rather than at home. Hadid's expressionist angles and curves were reserved for Rome's museum of 21st-century art, MAXXI, while Lord Rogers, widely regarded as one of the world's leading modernists, designed a new headquarters campus for a Spanish technology company in Seville.

"The RIBA awards reflect not only the state of British architecture but also that of its economy," said Ruth Reed, the institute's president. "In the midst of the deepest recession in the awards' 45-year history, this year demonstrates that, although times might be hard for architects, there are still great buildings being built throughout the country and overseas. The RIBA awards always give an opportunity for gem-like small projects and less established practices to shine through, and this year is no exception. Far from being a size prize, the RIBA awards are for buildings that offer value to people's lives."

The memorial in Hyde Park to the victims of the 7 July 2005 bomb attacks on the London transport network, by Carmody Groarke, also won and is considered by some as a possible contender for the shortlist for the £20,000 Stirling prize for building of the year, which is drawn from the RIBA award winners.

Ellis Woodman, architecture critic at the newspaper Building Design, said that other strong Stirling prize contenders included the Nottingham contemporary arts centre, the new British embassy in Warsaw, the Neues Museum in Berlin, Christ's College school in Guildford and Hadid's MAXXI museum.

The Oregon-born architect Rick Mather won most awards, gaining four. Other winning buildings included a new home in Bristol for Wallace and Gromit's creators, Aardman Animations, and a cluster of foil-clad small-business units, which look like cybermen helmets, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, in Wales.


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