In March 2000, British Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett introduced a new program of City Academies, intended to revive underperforming schools in disadvantaged inner-city settings. Academies would be independently managed schools, funded primarily by the state, with an initial voluntary investment from private parties within the nearby community. Each of these schools would identify a specialist focus in one subject area, but must admit students without regard to demonstrated skills or aptitudes.
Blunkett explained the goal of the new program, saying,
The City Academies will be part of a wider programme to extend diversity within the state sector and raise standards where existing provision is inadequate. They will offer a real change and improvements in pupil performance, for example by innovative approaches to management, governance, teaching and learning from other local schools, including a specialist focus in at least one curriculum area. (Press Notice 2000/0106)
By placing a real emphasis on local involvement, the program seeks to empower local authorities to promote educational reform on the scale of the neighborhood.
Though the program has been controversial from its inception, former Prime Minister Tony Blair champions privatization as the appropriate direction for education in Britain. This May, he announced a doubled target of 400 Academies throughout the country (Press Notice 2007/0076); Prime Minister Gordon Brownâ€™s Cabinet is equally committed to the program (Press Notice 2007/0120). By September this year, more than 80 Academies will have opened, and 50 more are scheduled to open next fall. The governmentâ€™s overall aim is to provide transparency throughout the educational system and to give parents more choice and control over how their children are schooled. Policymakers believe that community membersâ€™ active involvement will play a significant role in improving urban education (Press Notice 2007/0076).
Mossbourne Community Academy, currently the only up-and-running City Academy in Hackney, carries this ideal of local reform into its architecture. Designed by Richard Rogers Partnership from 2002 to 2004, the building manages to distance itself from the neighborhood without disrespecting the neighborhood. In the way it stands out from its surroundings (most notably in its use of color and materials), the Academy seems a clear attempt at â€˜urban regeneration.â€™ But, thanks to its limited scale and somewhat concealed site, the building also remains sensitive to its environment, as if not wanting to overshadow or insult the existing framework. In this project, Rogers defines a limited scope for the agenda of renewal. The building takes as its focus those individuals who actually make use of the facility as educators and as students. Yet because admission to the Academy is not dependent upon test scores, it will largely be Hackney residents who occupy this welcoming building. The result is a state-of-the-art school that truly belongs to its community, symbolically and actually contributing to the growth and renewal of its deprived surroundings.
The London Borough of Hackney was formed in 1965 by the unification of three distinct metropolitan boroughs: Shoreditch, Hackney and Stoke Newington. This amalgamation lies to the northeast of the City, where it is bordered by Islington to the west and Tower Hamlets to the south. While each of the three original districts still retains its own identity, all three share similar histories. Mossbourne Academy is situated within central Hackney, just a few blocks west of bustling Kingsland High Street. Walking around this neighborhood, one encounters an architectural palimpsest that offers a narration of the boroughâ€™s development.
Originally settled as farming communities and organized into parishes, Shoreditch was first recorded in 1148, Hackney in 1198 and Stoke Newington in 1274. The area remained predominantly agricultural for the next 400 years (Hackney History). From the 16th through the 18th centuries, the small hamlets that comprised the area attracted London noblemen; Daniel Defoe called Hackney â€œâ€˜remarkable for the retreat of wealthy citizensâ€™â€? (qtd. in Cherry and Pevsner 475).
Fahey, Fin. â€œSutton House.â€? [Online Image] 15 Aug 2007. <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/63/Sutton_house_hackney_2.jpg>.
Sutton House, built in 1535, is both the oldest building and the sole remaining courtier house in Hackney. Sutton House, along with a nearby parish church, serves as a reminder of Hackneyâ€™s medieval origins (Cherry and Pevsner 475, 491). During this time period, street grids emerged, and markets drew crowds. It was not until the 1800s, however, that the area truly burgeoned.
In 1801, Hackneyâ€™s population was near 13,000; by 1891, it was nearly 200,000. To accommodate this growth, new churches and respectable middle-class houses were built throughout the early 1800s. Only a few blocks from the Hackney Town Hall and the commercial center of Hackney, Victorian terrace houses, shown below, still line the streets and form the backbone of the residential neighborhood.
By the second half of the 19th century, industrialization had caused a significant shift in the development of this suburb, and it had ceased to be a fashionable neighborhood. When the railway was extended to Hackney in 1850, workers were more able to commute daily to and from the City. Simultaneously, factories were expanding north from London. Shoreditch became the center of furniture and clothing manufacturing, while Hackney hosted the chemical, paint and toy industries. Both the extension of the railway and the expansion of factories contributed to an influx of working-class residents, including immigrants from continental Europe who sought industrial jobs. The resulting population growth outpaced the construction of adequate facilities. In the early 1900s, all three metropolitan boroughs implemented policies of â€œslum clearanceâ€? and undertook projects to house residents in improved conditions (Cherry and Pevsner 475-8, Hackney History). Over the past century, even as the makeup of Hackneyâ€™s population has changed, the borough has been engaged in a constant struggle to provide its residents with adequate housing and services.
In the years following the First World War, the London County Council (LCC) and local authorities pursued building projects to address continued overcrowding in Shoreditch, Hackney and Stoke Newington. The Pembury Estate, a part of which opened in 1938, exemplifies the LCCâ€™s common formula (â€œHackney: Dalston and Kingsland Roadâ€?). The images below depict the clusters of low-rise apartment buildings, organized on a fenced-off grassy city block. This particular estate is located directly across the street from the eastern branch of Mossbourne Academy.
The second half of the 1900s witnessed a decline in Hackneyâ€™s industrial importance. Marred by bombings in World War Two, the borough sought to rebuild its infrastructure, replacing many residential areas with more LCC housing developments. But as industrial activity slowed, workers left, and the region became even less well-off than it had been during the late 19th century. From a population of around 265,000 in 1951, Hackney had dropped to fewer than 195,000 residents in 1995.
Concurrent with this economic decline, Hackney was the recipient of successive waves of immigration since the 1950s (Cherry and Pevsner 476, 478). Today, much of the borough is dominated by its West Indian, African, and Turkish communities. Over the past 10 years, the population has grown gradually, to an estimated 207,700 in 2005 (Hackneyâ€™s Population).
Still, Hackneyâ€™s lingering reputation as one of the poorest areas in London is supported by the statistics. In June 2004, Britainâ€™s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published its latest findings on deprivation throughout the country. Called â€œIndices of Deprivation 2004,â€? the study and the report focused on seven â€œdomainsâ€?: Income, Employment, Health deprivation and disability, Education, skills and training, Barriers to housing and services, Crime and disorder, and The living environment. The Borough of Hackney ranked as the most deprived local authority in England (Deprivation in Hackney).
The current condition of new and existing buildings in Hackney points to the underlying tension between the boroughâ€™s poverty and its growth. Just off of Kingsland High Street (the principle commercial road in this area), entire blocks of Hackney are run-down. The image below shows several shops at street levelâ€”some occupied, some vacant and boarded upâ€”with a completely decrepit building above.
Elsewhere in Hackney, developers have co-opted existing space for new uses. This next photograph shows a former factory, which has been remodeled as an apartment building:
Finally, newly-built apartments have begun to diversify the housing options available for Hackney Residents. The Antony House, located just around the corner from Mossbourne Academy, opened earlier this year:
The Peabody Trust, which owns and manages this new facility, is a housing trust that also describes itself as â€œa charity and community regeneration agency.â€? In a press release, the Peabody claimed that the Antony House â€œis an excellent example of how modern and exciting design can be incorporated to build affordable homesâ€? (â€œA new buildâ€¦â€?).
New buildings in Hackney have begun to alter the boroughâ€™s composition as â€œa patchwork of Victorian housing and council estatesâ€? (â€œHackney: Dalston and Kingsland Roadâ€?). But the goal of renewal in this area may be most clearly suggested by the banners hanging on the posts of streetlamps, shown below. While the advertisements seem somewhat gimmicky, they communicate a serious sentiment of optimism for the future of Hackney.
It was within this urban contextâ€”a sincere hope for renewal despite the prevailing povertyâ€”that successful Hackney businessman Clive Bourne stepped forward to fund a City Academy. In 2002, Bourne proposed to build a new school on the site of the former Hackney Downs School, which had been shut down in 1995 because of its derelict facilities and failing educational track record. Richard Rogers was hired as the architect, and the project of renewal began.
In designing Mossbourne Community Academy, Richard Rogers turned the difficulties of the site to his advantage. The Academy sits between two branching railroad tracks just north of Hackney Downs Station. Rogersâ€™ building takes the v-shaped form of the railway, wedging itself into the far corner to maximize use of the land. Where another architect might have built along the north side of the triangle, creating an enclosed courtyard, Rogers leaves the yard open as an inviting space for the students. Just as the nearby housing estates contain common yards, the Academy wraps around its own semi-public, semi-private space.
In the drawing below, Rogers illustrates his vision of the central court as the heart of the school, with â€œopen armsâ€? toward Hackney Downs, the expansive park immediately across the street. Rogers had intended for the courtyard to be open to the public, extending an actual benefit to nearby residents (Mossbourne Community Academy: Design), but security concerns necessitated the construction of a fence along Downs Park Road. Although the fence isolates the school by making it physically inaccessible, this barrier also helps the school claim the yard as belonging to its students. In a way, this seems a much more appropriate move for an independent institution.
Trains present a notorious challenge for architects, due primarily to the noise they cause. To address this issue, Rogers distanced the classrooms as much as possible from the tracks while still utilizing the full site. The classrooms line the inside of the vee; their north-facing glazed facades address the central court. Other aspects of the schoolâ€™s programming, including an auditorium and a performing arts center, fill the outer portion of the building (Mossbourne Community Academy: Design). On the exterior, a road wraps around the building, providing on-site parking for faculty and access for deliveries to the cafeteria. Finally, as a sound barrier, a bright blue wall of concrete masonry units (CMUs) traces the perimeter of the site parallel to the train tracks. (In the image below, the eastern portion of this barrier is visible over a smaller brick wall, which prevents access to the train tracks.) All of these features contribute to the buildingâ€™s overall goal of creating a stable, comfortable environment for education.
Within the courtyard, the Academyâ€™s architectural playfulness helps to create a welcoming atmosphere conducive to learning. One example of the buildingâ€™s playful quality is its structure. Most obvious on this point is Rogersâ€™ decision to leave the structure exposed. As can be seen in the image below, tall columns extend from the ground to the roof; the columns support horizontal rafters, which in turn support the floor beams. The metal staircases are suspended from the roof beams.
Placing the columns outside does allow for more floor space within the building. But beyond this practical purpose, several peculiarities seem to reveal an apparent intent to evoke childrenâ€™s toys. First, the predominant use of wood products is very unusual for Rogers, especially in a building of this size. The visible way in which each wooden component transfers its load to the next recalls Lincoln Logs, a common toy where â€œcabinsâ€? can be built by stacking individual pieces. Additionally, note the beams that run along the plane of the building (not those that support the floor). Within each bay, a shorter, narrower beam is supported by two beams with more depth. The resulting notches make the entire surface of the building appear as an assembly of puzzle pieces.
A second form of playfulness arises in Rogersâ€™ use of color. Below, the two-story gymnasium is painted a primary yellow; the door to the cafeteria is green; the aforementioned sound wall is blue. These solid colors are unique within this neighborhood, except in the playground across the street in Hackney Downs. Though the exposed structure and use of primary colors are not new to Rogers, here they form a vocabulary of youthful games.
The above image is also useful for describing the organization of rooms within the school. Rather than providing access to classrooms by hallways, Rogers follows a terrace house model, adopting a system akin to Yale Collegeâ€™s use of â€œentrywaysâ€? in Residential Colleges. He makes this innovative choice explicit on the buildingâ€™s exterior by labeling each doorway with the appropriate subject matter or purpose. Here, the word â€˜DININGâ€™ in yellow block letters serves as an example of the way each section of the building is signposted. Inside each classroom, however, moveable partitions allow for flexibility according to the needs of each teacher or circumstance.
Given the boldness of the Mossbourne Academyâ€™s departure from its surroundings, the building manages to be a surprisingly â€œgood neighbor.â€? The three-story building fits neatly onto its site and is only fully visible from its immediate surroundings. From a few blocks away, one might catch a brief glimpse of the blue wall. Even to the north, two rows of trees nearly conceal the Academy from Hackney Downs.
The presence of the school is announced through its colors. The bright primaries seem a conscious decision on the part of Rogers to extend the schoolâ€™s influence beyond its confined walls: the glimpses of color serve as a reminder of Hackneyâ€™s potential.
Also in Hackney, Petchey Academy (still under construction) demonstrates an opposite relationship to its neighborhood. Perched on a hill, the school towers over its surroundings. In the image below, modest residences can be seen reflected in the Academyâ€™s glass faÃ§ade. It is hard to picture this building ever belonging here, and it is hard to imagine the teachers or students ever taking ownership of this oversized facility.
Mossbourneâ€™s success lies in its limited scope. This low-profile building by a renowned British architect will not draw tourists or spur the economy. But it was never intended to achieve either of these results. The Academy should be admired for its sensitivity to its surroundings in creating a positive environment for its students and faculty. As one piece of an ongoing scheme for regenerating Hackney, Mossbourne Community Academy sends a powerful message that a good education may be the means of a more widespread revitalization.
LIST OF WORKS CITED
Cherry, Bridget and Nikolaus Pevsner. London 4: North. Vol. 4 of The Buildings of England. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
Deprivation in Hackney. 2007. Hackney Council. 15 Aug 2007. <http://www.hackney.gov.uk/xp-factsandfigures-deprivation.htm>.
â€œHackney: Dalston and Kingsland Road.â€? Hackney. Vol. 10 of A History of the County of Middlesex: Pgs. 28-33. Accessed online. 15 Aug 2007. <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=22698>.
Hackney History. Hackney Archives Department. 9 Aug 2007. <http://www.hackney.gov.uk/servapps/history/index.html>.
Hackneyâ€™s Population. 2007. Hackney Council. 15 Aug 2007. <http://www.hackney.gov.uk/xp-factsandfigures-mye.htm>.
Mossbourne Community Academy: Design. 2007. Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners. 15 Aug 2007. <http://www.rsh-p.com/render.aspx?siteID=1&navIDs=1,4,24,112,117>.
â€œA new build development opens its doors exclusively for first time buyers.â€? 2007. Peabody Trust. 15 Aug 2007. <http://www.peabody.org.uk/pages/pressroom/Default.aspx?releaseNo=48>.
Press Notice 2000/0106. 2000. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 8 Aug 2007. <http://www.dfes.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2000_0106>.
Press Notice 2007/0076. 2007. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 8 Aug 2007. <http://www.dfes.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2007_0076>.
Press Notice 2007/0120. 2007. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 8 Aug 2007. <http://www.dfes.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2007_0120>.