Building schools for the past

What a bittersweet triumph the success of Burntwood School at this year’s Stirling Prize was.

What a bittersweet triumph the success of Burntwood School at this year’s Stirling Prize was. As Paul Monaghan of AHMM acknowledged, it couldn’t be built now. It was the last hurrah of the Building Schools for the Future programme, in fact allowed through as an exception after it had been wound up.

And what a vindication of that programme it was. Not a swirly line or indulgent space in sight. Rectilinear blocks carefully arranged to create a sense of space and place, and homage paid to the best of the retained buildings. This school looks back to its roots and to the best of 20th Century architecture as well as looking forward. So what exquisite irony that nothing as good is likely to be built in the public sector in the forseeable future. 

It’s great to see a winner that so intelligently tackles a hard problem. The Maggie’s Centre and the Whitworth Gallery look great – but a good architect should be able to do something impressive with such wonderful briefs. A school, though, can so easily go wrong. And even more impressive, I thought, was Niall McLaughlin’s housing for Peabody. Creating a great exterior for flats is good, but what I thought was really impressive was that he came up with a novel way to tackle what too often is a standard plan.

I’d have really liked that to win. But Burntwood School (which is just down the road from me) is also a more than worthy winner. What a shame that we won’t see any more like it.

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