When old meets new

How are independent schools combining historic architecture with modern facilities? Sally Jones finds out...

Aged 11, resplendent in slightly-too-large green and black uniform, I walked into my new school in leafy Edgbaston and gasped: gracious, airy 1930s buildings, an imposing façade, the intriguing motto ‘Trouthe Schal Delyvere’ carved in stone above one entrance and inside, highly polished wooden flooring beneath gilt honours boards. After a year at a joyless rural grammar school in an ugly ’60s glass and metal box, King Edward VI High School for Girls was the perfect antidote, like a highly academic Brummie version of Malory Towers. I shivered with pride, resolving to give it my best shot – and did, though mostly on the games field. Even the modern swimming pool looked an integral part of the immaculate campus. It was an early lesson in the importance of aesthetics and good design in inspiring impressionable young minds.

Britain’s top schools are architectural treasure-houses: take the grandeur of Marlborough, and Wellington, Stowe’s picturesque, folly-strewn park and Eton’s ancient courtyards. But the combination of historic architecture and crucial modern facilities can bring particular challenges. Shrewsbury School’s impressive main building dates back to 1758 and after earlier incarnations as a foundling hospital and a workhouse, the school arrived in 1882. Over the decades, it underwent successive architectural additions as Shrewsbury expanded and became co-ed. Two vital projects completed last summer have helped to transform the school’s library and convert the late-Victorian Moser’s Hall to a girls’ boarding house.

“Moser’s Hall was originally built as three separate towers and looked pretty ugly because of regulations which meant that fire escape stairs covered the rear of it,” explained Shrewsbury’s Estates Manager Jon Taylor. “We thought very hard about how we could make the buildings connect at every level, then, after consulting fire officers, built one sympathetically designed staircase tower in the middle of the building which allowed us to strip out all the unsightly stairs at the back.” 

“We’ve not tried to build pastiches. Our new buildings look modern but sympathetic to the original ones, usually in traditional materials, as we try to ensure they’re not going to date in 20 years’ time. Some ’60s buildings, for example, look shocking and we’re in a conservation area,” continued Jon. “Our library is in a lovely 1916 Arts and Crafts building but looked dated after multiple makeovers. It had a gallery of important watercolours locked away and not enough space for pupils to study. Our Head Librarian, Jo Elliott, visited other libraries and saw that the most effective were the ones offering spaces for different study styles, so our new-look library has four zoned areas providing silent, quiet, social and group study spaces. We kept the original Arts and Crafts detailing in the windows, doors and beams but commissioned bespoke joinery for adjustable oak bookcases and desks to be in keeping with the room, in a contemporary, linear design. There’s lots of extra seating for study and the watercolours are hung away from damaging natural light behind a glass wall where everyone can enjoy them. It lifts people’s spirits to work there and footfall in library has tripled since the refurbishment.”

Gordonstoun School’s main building is a fine Scottish baronial house, a former seat of the Gordon-Cummings family, with jaw-dropping views of the gardens, lake and romantically wild grounds. The school’s cricket pitch was even voted Britain’s most beautiful. The Italianate Round Square building was built in the 17th century by ‘The Warlock of Gordonstoun’ Sir Robert Gordon who had reputedly sold his soul to the devil and chose a circular construction to avoid being backed into a corner when Old Nick came to claim his own.

“It’s a building of world importance and where the Round Square Conference of International Schools was founded,” explained Gordonstoun’s Principal Lisa Kerr. “There’s a stone block in the centre of it and when it’s hit, the echo goes on for 20 seconds. Round Square is now a boarding house but like many old buildings has limited access and wasn’t planned for modern-day use or to comply with strict regulations over space, light and access. We want to get maximum benefit from it, so we’re planning to make it into a world centre for learning about our founder Kurt Hahn’s educational ideas.” 

“We recognise the passage of time. Each building on our campus occupies its own place in time and isn’t modelled on an earlier era. Our chapel is extraordinary: opened 50 years ago after an architectural design competition won by an Old Gordonstounian, Patrick Huggins. Outside it looks like a ship and inside like a book,” said Lisa. 

“We recently converted an old single-storey wooden WW2 building into our flagship boys’ boarding house, putting an extension on the back and refurbishing the wooden front, unobtrusively leaving the visuals of the campus unchanged. Moray Council is very supportive, recognising Gordonstoun’s vital role in the local community and we work collaboratively to breathe new life into old buildings.”

Flexibility is often the key, with modern techniques and materials used to give far greater choice in how a space is used. The two King Edward’s independent schools King Edward’s School, Birmingham, KES (Boys) and KEHS (Girls) on the Edgbaston campus share the splendid Ruddock Performing Arts Centre, grandly modern but designed to chime with the original buildings around it, intelligently continuing a pattern of wings and courtyards set by the original 1930s construction. Highlighting the contrast between new and old, large windows flanking the Ruddock Centre overlook the beautiful Grade-II* listed memorial chapel, which was rebuilt from an upper corridor at the school’s original New Street site in central Birmingham. The Centre includes drama and dance studios, practice and rehearsal rooms plus a 400-seater concert hall with fine acoustics, adaptable lighting, and seating which can be reconfigured for everything from a dramatic theatre space to orchestra pits for full-scale musicals or stage extensions for concerts by the schools’ renowned joint Symphony Orchestra. 

Malvern College too is currently undertaking a £5m project to transform its old black and white Elizabethan-style Victorian theatre, a former boxing gym, refurbishing it throughout, retaining its atmospheric balcony but adding retractable seating and a glass foyer as a flexible teaching and reception space.

“One problem was that Historic England wanted a glass area between the new build and old,” explained headmaster Antony Clark. “We had to install a frameless glass link, a tiny corridor of half a yard which delayed the project by a year. There are always many lobby groups you have to satisfy as everyone has an opinion on a special place like this. Two of our boarding houses which opened in 2009 won a design award, I think because of the traditional materials used and the gables which are modern but very much in keeping with other Victorian gables on the rest of our site. It all helps to generate pride in the College. I often interview potential staff who say ‘This a beautiful school’ and when you’re in competition with other schools for talented teachers and they’re inspired by the architecture and atmosphere, they’re far more likely to take the job. That increasingly helps you to attract top staff which in turn inspires the pupils.”

Gordonstoun’s Principal Lisa Kerr agrees whole-heartedly.

“We underestimate the impact of beauty on the mind at our peril,” she warned, “The beauty of our grounds and of our buildings. It’s important for schools like ours to invest in both and make sure we work in harmonious way with nature – and that whatever their style and era, our buildings work for everyone.”  

For more, please visit: shrewsbury.org.uk; malverncollege.org.ukgordonstoun.org.ukkes.org.ukkehs.org.uk