1993 - Primary school

Woodlea School at Bordon in Hampshire has become something of an architectural showpiece. It won the Royal Institute of British Architects' 'Building of the Year' award in 1993. The design strikes an admirable balance between open communal areas and more formal, enclosed classrooms. Apart from the brick-built assembly hall, the structure is largely timber, in keeping with its woodland setting. The design shows an equally sympathetic attention to detail - the windows, for instance, are at a child's eye level rather than an adult's. Compared with the formal structure of most schools, Woodlea Primary seems to spread out into the surrounding landscape as a living organism, A path leads through the woods to an open space used for games and other outdoor activities. Encouraging an atmosphere of freedom and openness, lessons can be held on the balconies in suitable weather. What kind of thinking lies behind the design concept of school buildings like these?

Woodlea is a primary school for 245 children aged between 5-11, designed by Hampshire County Council Architects' Department under Nev Churcher. It is not, despite the ingenious way it has been adapted to fit its site, a display of technical virtuosity. 'Any fool can design something complicated,' says Churcher, 'but it takes a lot of skill to design something simple that isn't crude.' The most striking aspect of the school is the way it harmonises with its setting - a natural bowl in a belt of thick woodland on the edge of a housing estate. The model he followed was of the medieval village clustered around its green, with the bowl as the focal point. The school buildings, of timber and masonry assembled in a simple way, follow its gently curving contours. The architects' aim was to position the school and its associated play areas with the minimum of disturbance to this natural landscape. At the same time, the way they took advantage of the lie of the land and its undeniable beauty had to square with the normal, safe running of any primary school - there are only two internal changes of level, for instance, totalling barely a metre. Inside, the building is inviting and appealing but far from unconventional - there is plenty of natural light and an abundance of natural materials. The careful mix of work/play zones, the clear distinction between 'noisy' and 'quiet' areas (music/ drama and classroom teaching respectively) and the blending of internal/ external space yields the maximum possible flexibility in terms of the learning environment available to Woodlea's pupils. In naming this school as their 1993 Building of the Year the RIBA jury found 'the level of invention and sheer exuberance of this building very compelling. It is a romantic and picturesque ideal that has been lovingly nurtured and crafted by a very dedicated team...The staff are delighted with a building that encourages children to make use of the landscape as a learning resource. This is a unique building tailored to a unique site.'

1989 - Craft school

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