The Independent

ARCHITECTURE - 30 March 2005

Thanks to D Hedley for permission to reproduce the text of this article, which appeared as a double-page spread in the The Independent, 30 March 2005.

A low-resolution photograph of this double-page appears below.

 

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A few minutes' drive west of the infernal circle of the M25 is a small landscape, a carefully contained past. There are cedars with boles humped like scoliotic dowagers; across the playing fields float the cries of a rugby master; indoors, ladies in pearls appear and disappear. We are at a prep school near Slough - a fustian fusion, we might assume, of Chariots of Fire and Groundhog Day. But no: something quietly momentous has happened here. The Sirs have committed an act of modernity.

Caldicott School's £1.5m Performing Arts Centre and quad, designed by Buschow Henley architects, is modest in general and extreme in particular. It borrows from the school's essay of late Victorian, Edwardian and post-war buildings, and injects a new lingo to deliver architecture that's as coolly composed as an old Blue Note album cover. The perpetrators, Ken Rorrison and Simon Henley, have grafted a decisive formal idea onto an existing architectural conglomeration that is more corpse than corpus.

No offence intended. The institution feeds Eton and Radley, among other public schools, and it's obvious that sound teaching aimed at passing through the eye of the needle known as the Common Entrance exam hardly requires Palladian circumstances, or an imposing Xanadu designed by Lutyens, to deliver the academic goods. Nevertheless, Caldicott's later buildings are a hugger-mugger of brick thingies; the word "architecture" is inoperative.

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How, then, to restyle the physical expression of an institution's ethos so that it embodies both the past and the present, without creating a metaphorical fracas between a blazered old gent in an Alvis and a gelled geezer in a 6 Series Beamer? At Caldicott, the past is hard to ignore. Driving through Slough before turning onto the A355 towards Farnham Royal, John Betjeman's put-down duly comes to mind: "Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough." A better; and less sentimentally mendacious, prologue for what Buschow Henley has created can be found in the Poet Laureate's "An Edwardian Sunday, Brooinhill, Sheffield": "The vision can travel/ From gable to gable,/ Italianate mansion/ And turreted stable,/ A sylvan expansion/ So varied and jolly/ Where laurel and holly/ Commingle their greens."

The same architecturally ad hoc England awaits as you turn, finally, into Crown Lane. Clones of the ruthless property developer described in Betjeman's poem "Executive" must have motored along this very byway during the Fifties looking for the sort of seedy country town the poem satirises, where a little savoir-faire and a grimly fatuous luncheon with the might sweep aside the concern; "Preservationists", and prove the modern style, sir, with respect, has really come to stay."

And so it has at Caldicott School. The new architectural vision does indeed travel; commingling occurs. There is also something about the performing arts building that is as ruthlessly ambitious as Betjeman's executive - but in a covert way that speaks of an eclectic English sensibility, a longing for a new vernacular to challenge the hi-tech architectural zeitgeist. There are, incidentally, two interesting exhibitions at the Royal Institute of British Architects’ current Scottish Season – Fieldtrip and Landforms - that also touch on this.

The form of Buschow Henley's building, its connective spaces, the small but engaging details applied to ostensibly mundane external elements, signal a youngish practice in pursuit of an architecture that is notable, but not in an obvious fashion: no suave ironies here, no opportunities. Buschow Henley's recalls work recalls the very architectural brutalism that our poet so loathed.

The performing arts centre is brutal, in a sense. Its structure and elements are distinctly contrived; and, once or twice, we pass beyond the distinct into a realm of tough, powerfully drawn physical gestures that ensure that Betjeman's developer could never apply his ghastly phrase, "modern style", here. The architectural modernity at Caldicott is also polemical: it objects to the making of easily glorifiable objects. The new building embodies earthy, humane aesthetic that is architecturally personable, yet slightly withholding. The sharply drawn physical form produces an ambience that's harder to read.

The rectangular quad divides an existing range of unremarkable classrooms from new brick hall, which has been sunk so the facade facing the quad is quite low, while the elevation facing the landscape presents a high, fully glazed face to the south. At the eastern end of the quad, a strange tower jabs upward like an oast house vent, or a pyramidal ring-pull. And what about the big wooden frame - several frames, actually, overlaid like the blades of a potato slicer that juts into the alley between the centre and the study block at the west of the quad? What is going on?

It's architecture as collage-cum-pan shot; architecture as the creation setting, a stealthy drama stripped of obvious excitations and tied, instead, to an aesthetic methodism that nudges us into liking this tough-but-tender architectural stuff. The peculiar tower? It's an echo of the steep gables of the existing school buildings – wry, stand-offish, a spooky visitation. And the beautifully proportioned canopy that floats along the southern edge of the quad? It’s a practical and graphic velcro that ties the new building to the original house. As for the jutting wooden frame, we’ll come to that crucial coup de foudre in a moment.

Basics first. The new arts building was buried more than a metre into the ground, and the land behind it raised by 1.2m, so that the quad is at the same level as the house to the west and the classrooms to the north. Thus, the quad stands 2.5m above the floor of the hall. Which means that, for the first time, this part of the school had been coherently grounded in its landscape.

From the classroom block one gazes across the quad - and straight through the new hall's colonnaded glazing to the landscape beyond. The line between between the contained and the unbounded is largely erased in what Henley describes as a 'Journey into the landscape that situates the viewer before the frame, within the frame and beyond the frame."

The new building brings the landscape into the quad, cueing the use of very ordinary materials in a strongly stated way. Nothing is hidden. Structure, particularly in the rack of 22 heavy laminated wooden beams that hold up the hall's copper-clad roof, is exposed. Junctions between timber, brick, glass and steel are plainly revealed, rather than glamorised or fidgeted away out of sight. The materials, the feel of the space, are reminiscent of a certain type of rugged Sixties architecture. Henley cites Sir Basil Spence as an influence, but also notes that the design "embodies three theatres. The quad, the civic place for performance; the hall, the conventional model for theatre; and the landscape itself."

Buschow Henley's architectural performance at Caldicott, in the most striking work since its Talkback Productions headquarters in London, concludes with the building's extraordinary southern elevation, dominated by what looks like a giant,bolted-on piece of furniture by Lars Rosenberg: an asymmetric wooden cowl that frames the facade. Presto! The strict order of the architecture is flipped into fugitive otherness.

From the quad, we encounter a building that frames the landscape with great care. From the lawns to the south, we see the architecture through a very different kind of frame - a modern frame, the abstraction of an English architectural past that has little to do with spivvy developers smelling of cheap aftershave and Senior Service fags; and no connection at all with "sylvan expansion so varied and jolly".

Caldicott School Trust gets an A+ for this bold foray into an architecture whose modernity, Henley says, "is of here, of England, not displaced from somewhere else". Ah, but Henley's England, his architectural here, is perhaps another place after all. In Crown Lane, just beyond unbombed Slough, we find the architecture of a utopia manifesting Cecil Day-Lewis's abhorrence, in his poem "Landscapes", of "men who imposed on Nature a private elegance... a landscape, now, with no remorse or symmetry."

 

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Looking from the south towards the tower. This is now an additional paved play area.