|The new Curriculum’s catchphrase – ‘Expect the Unexpected’ – is carried through with Bebop Brio.
Established in 2003, London-based AOC was selected as an AJ/Corus 40 Under 40 practice in 2005. The ﬁrm has just been announced as the winner of the competition to design the new South Bank ‘parliament’, a temporary structure which will be at the heart of London’s International Festival of Theatre in 2008. Other projects include housing, studios, follies and a book on pigeons.
At the 14th-century Winchester College in Hampshire, the scholars and commoners abide under the motto of Richard II’s great educationalist of a Chancellor, William of Wykeham: Manners Maykyth Man. At Friars Primary Foundation School in Webber Street, south London (established 1963) the new Early Years Unit offers a sort of post-Wykehamist architectural notion: Mannerism Makes Plan.
The unit, by AOC Architecture, is impelled by Mannerist instinct: colours, angles, the expressive modelling of internal volume, an extrovert ease with discrete components. The practice, which came a gold-clad third behind Zaha Hadid and a-Graft in last year’s Architecture Foundation headquarters competition, has produced a three-segment intervention, with quite distinct atmospheres. They hang together as comfortably as the school’s 236 pupils, who are drawn from a mix of ethnic backgrounds.
The early years unit arrives in the slipstream of the DfES’ Foundation Stage Curriculum which, in 2000, revised educational provisions for three to ﬁve-year-olds. The emphasis is on self- initiated learning, role play and the blurring of internal and external activities. The curriculum wants these units to ‘create a climate where curiosity is encouraged and where children can experience the unexpected… Provide an environment, materials and experiences that promote aesthetic awareness and an appreciation of things of beauty.’
We can only guess how many proto-Venturis and Scott Browns are racketing around under the canted pink canopy that covers much of the west-facing yard, or are hunkering down – amidst a mulch of open umbrellas on the day of my visit – in the ‘cave’ of the role-play room. AOC had 10 weeks to deliver an inﬁll extension proposal that would connect the classrooms on either side of it, and create a canopied external classroom that could be used in most weathers. The extension’s roof doubles as a terrace linking two classrooms on the ﬁrst ﬂoor.
The design suggests a reversed gestalt process; a morphing of the pre-existing and familiarly ordered functional plan into a dynamic collage whose programmatic effects are not so much a curriculum-friendly blurring of function, as a series of spatially and graphically atonal architectural block chords; if considered in musical metaphorical terms, we’re in the realm of the pianistic asymmetries and eccentric tonal colorations of Thelonius Monk.
No surprise, then, to hear AOC refer to the early learning unit’s narrative overlaps as ‘suggestive spaces’. The volumetric afﬁliations, rational in plan but much less deﬁnable in terms of presence and ambience, give the architecture its essential character. AOC has taken the new curriculum’s suitably Monkish catchphrase – ‘expect the unexpected’ – and carried it through with something like bebop brio.
Precedent, though, had crucial effects, notably in AOC’s dutiful reference to the primary school’s classroom range, an overwrought single-storey brick building whose compressed saw-toothed roof sits on a continuous, Brutalists-R-us lintel which surmounts the brick facade. Its crudity is highly evocative of its period. It could have been agitprop scenography in one of Ken Loach’s early ﬁlms, perhaps – a reproach to prime minister Harold Wilson’s hubristic vision of the culturally transforming ‘white heat of technology’. The building also invokes the cliché of a society (before Mrs Thatcher told Woman’s Own magazine in 1987 that ‘there is no such thing as society’) composed of insouciant toffs and aspirational, Brut-drenched plebs heading for their joint meltdowns into the demographic Play-Doh that is the third millennium’s fulminating middle class.
The original roof line was certainly architecturally aspirational. Its slightly dropped transverse concrete mid-point structural beam, and the darkly varnished wood sofﬁts, have been reiterated in the ceiling of the new unit’s role-play room and its roof extension. There aren’t any jagged pitches here, but AOC has treated the sofﬁts as if there were. No mordant varnish, fortunately: the cedar cladding’s surface is untouched.
In the most potent part of this segment, the new sensory room, the back wall and ceiling features a ‘hanging’ house-shaped extrusion, which is actually a turn in the concrete stairs on the other side of the wall. It produces a compressed space which echoes the concrete mid-point beam in the school’s main range. It’s a gear-change of scale, architectural intent, and atmospherics: we move from faux-Modernist ceiling to a boldly cantilevered, 3D Mannerist object reminiscent of FAT’s stagey subversions of the formal. It’s a secret place – a Heidegger’s Hut for kids.
This movement across thresholds and spatial modes reveals that AOC’s Mannerism has been subservient to plan and ramifying functionality, developed through large-scale modelling. If we start at the ‘secret’ undercroft, the process of decompression and formal change reveals a rational narrative strategy. The undercroft opens to the ridging of the role-play room’s ceiling and its asymmetrically cut roof-lights; we step down, still under the cedar sofﬁts, onto the outdoor play area; and thence outwards under the gestural release of the up-tilted pink GRP canopy. The steel joists are in on the deal: rectilinear in the role-play room and its projecting roof, but zig-zagging playfully as soon as they support the pink canopy and its black-and-white striped bargeboards.
The narrative is loosened at the step-down, a nominal patio about two metres wide running across the front of the classrooms and the role-play room. By positioning angular wooden banquettes against the step-down, more small rooms are inferred; the long, low storage bunker opposite is yet another imagination- triggering space.
The outdoor tableau is completed by a stand-alone playhouse, painted tar-black, equipped with Lubetkin door handles and lined, like the walls of the role-play room, with pinboard.
The scene, as a whole, cannot have surprised children taught about the rituals and imagery of Sikhism, Judaic festivals and Hindu rangoli threshold patterns. Like rangoli patterns, the new architecture suggests a semiotic system; yet its signiﬁers – colour, form, graphic effect – signify nothing except the ‘generosity’ that AOC’s Geoff Shearcroft says is at the heart of the practice’s architectural ethos.
AOC’s Mannerism is not an academic demonstration. At the Friars school the fusion of collage and critique generates an architectural language which ignores architectural precedent one moment, then pays assiduous obeisance to it the next. There is also the spongier question of style. Shearcroft talks of using style as an ‘appropriate device. This conversation is not ﬁnished. It’s a lifetime’s pursuit.’ He also cites Declan Kiberd’s 1993 introduction to Ulysses: ‘It has often been remarked that, within this play of modes, there is no identiﬁably Joycean style… What seemed like a personal style in a writer was often no more than the discovery of a new convention… Ulysses is, therefore, constructed on the understanding that styles, like persons, are interchangeable. The method, though not quite Dadaist, intermittently justiﬁes Joyce’s account of himself as “a scissors and paste man”.’
AOC’s architectural cut-ups are the fruits of desired accident – ‘letting go, and letting other parameters deﬁne it.’ But there are precise references, too. The idea to project the timber-sofﬁted extension outwards was informed by a striking photograph of the cantilever and courtyard of Breuer’s 1956 Bantam Elementary School in Connecticut, USA: ‘Breuer’s Modernist sensibility; combined with spatial ﬂuidity, and a layer of softness.’
Shearcroft’s copy of the 1938 Architectural Press book, The Design of Nursery and Elementary Schools, by Myles-Wright and Gardner-Medwin was another source. And its single monochrome image of a private pre-war nursery school in Dulwich, by Samuel and Harding, surely ignited AOC’s concept. Two quotations were inspirational. ‘The treatment of the outdoors,’ says the ﬁrst, ‘calls for imagination, particularly when space is conﬁned… It should be conceived as a garden rather than a playground in the too-familiar meaning of the word. It should be full of suggestions, places to explore, mounds and hollows, steps and trees.’ The second quotation is implicated in the creation of the mini-Heidegger’s Hut: ‘A recess is always useful… In Franz Singer’s school at Vienna, temporary recesses are made with moveable cupboards and tables turned on their sides.’
Shearcroft and his co-principals – Tom Coward, Daisy Froud and Vincent Lacovara – are cutting and pasting their way into a Mannerism whose messages, however thoughtfully mixed, may eventually be caught in the headlights of the architectural conventions that they will invariably create. For the moment, though, AOC’s repertoire smells of fresh paint.