Published: 10 March 2011
by DAN CARRIER
A NEW school will open in September in the heart of Kentish Town for French-speaking pupils.
The Lycée Français, funded by the French Education Property Trust, has re-used a Victorian red-brick school in Holmes Road, more recently home to the Kingsway adult education college – that has been the focus of a multi-million-pound restoration and refit.
The 1874 building was part of a new wave of schools that went up in the 19th century. Since Kingsway closed in 2009, architects Sidell Gibson have been drawing up new plans to make the Grade II-listed building fit the for the 21st century.
Architect Richard Brearley was given the task of bringing it up to modern standards, but found the Victorian architect who created the original design had left him with plenty of interesting features to work with.
The school was built by E R Robson, who was responsible for many similar north London institutes which opened during the period in his role as Board School Architect for London.
Mr Brearley said: “The original school was designed to go right through from infants to teenagers. This means some aspects of the school are still fit for purpose. The stairs, for example, have low steps, perfect for little legs.
“Children of different ages, of course, have different needs, and we have organised the building to help with that. The ground-floor level throughout will be for younger kids, the five to 11-year-olds, and they have their own outdoor space and segregated play areas.”
The original building was designed in a way that would have appeared upside down to house builders of the Victorian period. The rooms have higher ceilings the further up you go, starting at three metres in height and then increasing – the opposite of Victorian houses.
Mr Brearley said: “Robson felt schools needed space and ventilation with tall windows. Upstairs will include some of the bigger areas such as the library, music rooms and art spaces, as well as a state-of-the-art IT suite.”
Another peculiar design aspect can be traced back to the aims and aspirations of the Victorians who funded the school.
“Robson also wanted tall buildings for his schools, as he wanted the school to be a beacon for the community of Kentish Town – taller than the terraced cottages for the workers,” said Mr Brearley.
“It would stand out and become a beacon for education and aspiration. It even has a spire like a church.”
But Mr Brearley and his colleagues have faced numerous obstacles.
“There are lots of things a Victorian building does not deliver,” he said.
“It is very uninsulated, and so we have had to add that to the existing fabric.”
They have also had to look at the acoustics of each classroom. In the Victorian period, a teacher would stand at the front of the class with their pupils facing them, not so nowadays, and Mr Brearley and his team have had to make the classrooms less echoey.
Then there are the modern touches all schools need.
“We have had to think about how to run services such as data and heating through the original building,” he said.
“We have also looked to provide more space on the walls for exhibitions and pin-up space.”
Disabled access has been improved, with a new lift installed, and outside space converted into adventurous play areas. Features such as the original woodblock floors have been restored.
Some smaller outbuildings, which do not date from the Victorian period, have been removed as have three interior staircases. Internally, the existing building has been subdivided by partitions.
The proposals include alterations that will restore the room layouts of the original school as far as possible – this will preserve and enhance the historic interest of the building which is supported by planning policy.