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Hadid's dynamic but disciplined school provides a lesson for Gove

The Evelyn Grace Academy in south London is a worthy winner of the Stirling prize, says Rowan Moore

The choice of Evelyn Grace academy has a political ring to it. At a time when Michael Gove, and his cheerleader Toby Young, are denouncing architects for robbing the public, and denying that good design has anything to do with good education, here is a prize for a school of extreme architectural ambition.

Confusingly for Gove and Young, the school's principal, Peter Walker, has established a regime of discipline and order – neat uniforms, long school days, mobile phone bans – of the kind that they might be expected to like. It is also partly funded by Ark, the charity founded by hedge fund manager Arpad Busson. In other words, its money comes from the same sort of place as much of the Tory party's funding.

The main contribution of Zaha Hadid's architecture to the school ethos is to create an energetic, if sometimes forbidding, atmosphere. It announces that the school is a serious place, not somewhere to slouch into. The design also responds to Walker's requirements for its internal arrangements.

It is not a completely perfect fit: Hadid's dynamic style is in theory more about freedom than order, and there are some crunching details where her demanding geometry encounters the budgetary and technical constraints of state school building. Nor, in straitened times, is it a model of school building that can be repeated too often. Sarah Wigglesworth's Sandal Magna school in Wakefield, which should have been shortlisted but wasn't, is a better example of how to do a lot with a little.

The Olympic velodrome was the bookmakers' favourite and, apart from the fact that it is not yet in full use, I would have agreed with them. The velodrome achieves a better match of concept, detail and purpose. But the academy is an extraordinary achievement, and there have been far dumber choices in the history of the prize.

Rowan Moore is the Observer's architecture critic © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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