Zaha Hadid’s first permanent building in the UK opened quietly for business last week. Or rather term. While all eyes have been monitoring the progress of her controversial Aquatics Centre at the Olympic village in east London, the practice has simultaneously knocked up a 10,000 sq m school in a former refuse truck depot, south of the river, between Brixton and Herne Hill.
Evelyn Grace Academy is an unmistakeably Zaha building – a signature, concrete Z shape that manages to look graceful and brutal at the same time. It’s a statement building that jars unusually with the local residential urban fabric in which it sits. As with all Zaha’s architecture it’s intriguing and jolie laide.
“People always remark on the strength of the aesthetic with Zaha’s buildings,” says the project architect, Matthew Hardcastle. “This doesn’t mean the serious aspects like limitation and function are ignored. This building is entirely about the very particular way it will be used. It’s every bit as interesting as any major public building.”
It’s definitely not like any conventional school building but then Evelyn Grace Academy is not a very conventional school. One of Britain’s much feted new academy schools, which were introduced by the Labour government in 2000 as a way of transforming schools that were considered to be failing, it opened its doors (in temporary accommodation) in 2008. Its uncompromising mission is to foster excellence, endeavour and self-discipline in its students, encouraging them to become tomorrow’s leaders in every walk of life.
“We need to reappraise what schools are for,” says Principal Peter Walker. “The basic school structure hasn’t changed since industrial times. But society has changed dramatically. The way we interact has changed. It’s time for schools to change too. At Evelyn Grace the code of conduct is extremely strict but we find the children like the structure. It helps them to develop their self-discipline, which encourages self-belief and motivation.” Depth before breadth of learning is a key focus and the school hours are from 8:30am to 5pm, compared to the more traditional 9am to 3.30pm.
The model is based on the American Charter School movement, which Walker cites as the key influence for the school’s structure and mission. After two years it’s still early days but the response of parents and children has been overwhelmingly positive. The Academy is sponsored by children’s charity ARK (Absolute Return for Kids), which also funded its new £35m Zaha-designed home. It is the icing on the cake, but is it really necessary? “Our priority was to get a school that met our rigorous design brief,” says ARK communications director Lesley Smith, “and if you can work with the most imaginative and creative architect around, who wouldn’t?”