St Benedict’s school, west London

David Littlefield explains how Buschow Henley Architects’ new building for St Benedict’s School in Ealing, west London, addresses the Catholic foundation’s needs – both secular and religious. A circulation core provides much needed adhesion and connection among a veritable mishmash of existing buildings, while the new assembly hall and chapel supplies the body with a new heart and soul.

Buschow Henley Architects have a reputation for delivering fine-tuned buildings. Their projects are multilayered, in the sense that meaning, reference or plain old association is considered at the front end of design.

Director Simon Henley certainly enjoys talking about his work, and his presentations typically cover the deeper, narrative-based agenda of a building, letting the actual physical form (which can speak for itself) go somewhat undescribed. So what could the practice make of the jumble of uncoordinated spaces that made up St Benedict’s School in Ealing, west London? How could these architects salvage anything remotely meaningful from a context that was untidy at best – at worst, botched? The practice have done this sort of thing before, though – their project for TV company TalkBack (2002) is a good example of how to slip a certain reverence for space and ritual into a very practical building. They have now reprised this achievement at St Benedict’s.

The school, established by Benedictine monks a little over a century ago in the residential suburb of Ealing, needed help. Over its lifetime it had accumulated an eclectic range of buildings, dating from the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1960s and the 1990s; no new development had much of a relationship with what had preceded it (the brick monolith of a decade ago is ridiculously lumpen and faceless). The brief to the architects was merely a list of spatial requirements, but Henley saw what was really needed – a soul, a sense of purpose and institutional gravitas.

‘They asked us: can you build us two halls, one for exams, one for assemblies; a language lab; music rooms; a chapel; a new entrance; new loos; a sick bay … all sorts of stuff,’ remembers Henley, who saw two possible solutions. The first was an entirely new block, separate from the cluster of other buildings, which could provide everything asked for while being limited by its own terms of reference; option two was to drop something into the centre of the pre-existing buildings, tying them together and providing a certain critical mass to an otherwise dispersed and fragmented place. Henley chose this latter option, partly because the creation of a stand-alone building would have replicated the problems of the campus, and partly because it was ‘more interesting’.

The requirement for two halls was the key. Buschow Henley’s solution was to give the school just one. But they have been clever about it. The exam hall was to have been of around 225 square metres (2,422 square feet), while the assembly space needed to be much larger at 400 square metres (4,305 square feet). What the practice has done is to drop one into the other, a 15 x 15 metre (49 x 49 foot) square within a 20 x 20 metre (65 x 65 foot) square. Large doors ring the inner hall, allowing it to be sealed off, but when opened the generous circulation spaces beyond bleed into the centre to create that larger assembly hall. This is the new heart of the school. Placed in the centre of the older buildings, and nestling up against them, the new hybrid space is the fulcrum around which the ebb and flow of school life runs; it is, in effect, the circulation core, but one of such proportion, rhythm and generosity that staff and students are still learning how to use it. ‘It’s a pure, idealised space around which everything happens. It’s a void, but it’s a very useful void,’ says Henley.

The large space, with its coffered ceiling and regimented lines of doors, is reminiscent of a cloister surrounded by smaller spaces. In fact, the new entrance to the school is very small indeed – a single-storey box with projecting fins that seem to welcome visitors with outstretched arms, gathering them in. Through this little vestibule is a neat and sensible reception room, through which is discovered Henley’s ‘void’. These spaces are therefore deliberately graduated on a rising scale of small, bigger, biggest, much like that encountered in a carefully modulated church; Buschow Henley withhold their bold statement until you are well inside the building. This is not the private-sector Catholic equivalent of the government’s new city academies where visitors are greeted by office-like atria and glass

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