A giant urban monolith, situated at the junction between Kingsland Road and Downham Road, commands an immediate presence. Its intentions, however, are noble. Henley Halebrown‘s scheme, completed in August 2020, effortlessly brings together a primary school and an apartment building. Conceived as a joint venture project between the Benyon Estate, Thornsett and the Department of Education, the mixed-use complex sets an example of what other combined typologies architects can envision.
The Guardian’s architecture critic, Oliver Wainwright, states how cities aren’t just for working professionals and foreign investors but for children too. Nowhere is this more important than in educational facilities that nurture the minds of young people. My own experiences indicate that it does lead to a more productive studying environment. In 2010, my secondary school moved from Stratford to Canning Town into a modern state-of-the-art building. A clear need was identified for students and teachers to have better access to spacious classrooms, ample ventilation and improved transport links. The immediate impact this had on us all was hard to miss.
Back to Henley Halebrown’s scheme which, I must add, you can’t enter unless you’re a resident or affiliated to the school. My observations are purely as a passer-by at street level.
333 Kingsland Road
Brick and precast concrete mixed with red sandstone aggregate give the entire structure a robust sturdiness and a uniform quality. As you walk under the 11 storey tower’s colonnaded arcade, you quickly notice the coarse finish of the columns. The architects mention that they’ve been heavily ‘acid-etched’ to ‘reveal the texture of the aggregate’. It’s a raw and honest representation of the material: one that eschews excessive embellishments and focuses on the functional.
The tower holds the school reception and commercial units on the ground floor. The rest of the ten storeys house 68 flats that are a mix of affordable and high-end accommodation. Squint and you’ll see loggias supported by beams and columns along with, what look like, fully recessed balconies giving the impression that these features have been carved into the stonework.
The materials used display delicate changes in colour depending on light conditions, as seen below. The tower radiates in warm sunlight, while managing to turn into a deep pinkish brown when clouds rule the sky.
Hackney New Primary School
Once you leave the sheltered comfort of the arcade, cross the street and take in the view of the school from the opposite side. The three storey building features south-facing clerestory windows that draw in natural light; it’s a centuries-old building technique that has stood the test of time. The wall facing the street includes a low bench that allows some communal space where parents can mingle while waiting to pick their children up. If the weather isn’t right, the sheltered arcade is always an option. Although the public realm we have come to enjoy (and expect) in London isn’t here, this small gesture is just enough.
The perforated bronze gate at the entrance of the school, designed in collaboration with the artist Paul Morrison, features a spider web design and provides a definite separation between the school and the tower. It’s here that you notice how the apartment building looks over the school like an older sibling; a concrete version of big brother, little brother. As if that wasn’t obvious enough, the curved facade of the tower adds further reassurance by shielding the school from the busy thoroughfare of Kingsland Road. Crowds, smog and noise may only be a few yards away but a momentary focus on learning is possible through thoughtful design.