‘Designing for Real’ case studies

Carlton School, Kentish Town, London

Carlton school was built in 1883 to accommodate 1800 pupils who were previously being taught in cellars and under railway arches. Originally there was an infants school, together with separate entrances to a junior school for girls and boys. By 1986, all had been combined into one primary school teaching 420 pupils.

The building consists of three tall halls stacked on top of one another facing south west. Classrooms make up the remainder of this and the whole of the opposing north east facades. Projecting slightly into the playground, this tower of three halls is flanked on either side by six half­height floors of stairs, toilets, offices and store rooms.

Access to the school was seen as confused by both staff and pupils. Set back from the road the school had minimal presence on the street. Reception and administration needed relocation adjacent to a new entrance and foyer space. The pupils lamented a lack of green areas within the playground and longed for a more colourful and natural play environment.

Pupils’ proposals for change

Pupils were asked to draw and paint snapshots of their school, chosen by looking through a framing device or viewfinder. They were also asked to trace their routes through the school using coloured string, later marking these routes on a plan. Using collage and modelling they then made proposals for changing the playground and entrance spaces.

On the street frontage a new colourful entrance wall was proposed leading to a garden full of trees, ponds, race tracks, slides, swings,‘movement tubes’ and a swimming pool. The ponds would be home to a family of frogs, fully supplied with lily pads and toys to jump off, together with fountains from which the pupils could drink and in which they could refresh themselves. Trees would both support dens out of the reach of teachers and troublesome peers, and frame the new building entrance with luxuriant foliage. Snacks and hot food were available from a garden kiosk and coin­operated vending machines. A large neon sign of the figure 2000 was featured in several drawings either in the garden or fixed to the facade of the school, perhaps to emphasize a new start or to suggest that the school was not so old after all.

The framed snapshot approach highlighted the ambiguous message presented to the visitor by the existing facade. For example, there were several entrances but these were marked confusingly: ‘fire exit’ and ‘office’. Their true function was actually indicated by the presence of bicycles chained to railings. Using the framing device, pupils picked out two pairs of doors set symmetrically at the foot of the lower hall which they all agreed should be the location of the new school entrance, but confusion remained over which pair of doors this should be.

Just inside the new entrance pupils sensibly located the administration and head teacher’s offices and toilets. Here, most importance was given to a ‘place to be’ with ‘a little quiet’ where pupils and visitors might wait and anticipate what was in store. These drawings were amongst the most severe and subdued, suggesting control (remotely-operated sliding doors, CCTV, touch screen information booth) with just a chink of openness (glass block wall, helper’s room).

The weaving of thread from each individual entrance to the various classrooms provoked a study of the multitude of doors which had to be negotiated on the way, their direction of swing, their scale (compared to the child) and the part these doors played in providing thresholds between each domain of the school.58 All this was circumvented by proposals for passenger lifts. Lifts would not only shuttle pupils rapidly from entrance to classroom but also provide an alternative map of the school. A separate button in the lift car would identify each class and teacher. Pupils only had to press the appropriate button to be transported rapidly and unambiguously to their destination. The lobby outside each lift stop would be a friendly and optimistic space with a colourful mat on the floor, a tea-making device and lots more buttons to press to other destinations.

The most expressive proposal for vertical movement was for a bulbous, tubular shoot fixed to the outside of the building taking rubbish for recycling from each classroom and hall of the building, rapidly and noisily, to an enormous cylindrical dustbin marked with the school’s new logo: a tree.