Failing in spirit

This is a school that ticks all the boxes, so why does it feel mean and oppressive?

King's Cross Academy and the Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children are located on the ground and first floor of a residential building
King's Cross Academy and the Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children are located on the ground and first floor of a residential building

King’s Cross Academy and Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children, by David Morley Architects, was definitely a building to go home and think about. The combined academy and special needs school has de facto separate entrances and classrooms but other shared facilities. The school constitutes a plinth at the base of a 46.8m-tall residential tower and is sponsored by the area’s developer Argent ‘for want of a decent alternative’; it sits on a crammed urban site which is still too noisy from surrounding construction to any of us hear each other. There was a lot going on.

It all seemed rosy enough – spacious classrooms with huge picture windows and views out onto gasometers, passing high-speed trains, cranes and diggers (any boy’s daydream), the ubiquitous must-have internal ‘street’, flexible-use halls, colourful walls, plenty of lightwells, an upstairs open library with comfy circular seats. Very nice, very generous. Interesting, surprisingly widely spaced, timber-clad upright balustrades. A nice nod to an amphitheatre in the playground. Oh yes, and the hanging greenery on the external fencing frame will be lovely. Haven’t you done well for such a tight urban site?

Wait a minute.

Playground? That’s not a playground – that’s a yard. And then came the shocking realisation, the subsequent thoughts initially drowned out by expert marketing speak and PR.

‘You said how many pupils?’


‘And you said what age?’

‘Three to eleven.’

‘And they have to share this?’

‘It will be very acutely timetabled.’

It is no wonder the teaching profession complains. 

  • Huge lightwells let light into the depth of the building.
    Huge lightwells let light into the depth of the building.
  • Deconstructed washrooms in the corridor.
    Deconstructed washrooms in the corridor.
  • Central shared staircase in the 'street'.
    Central shared staircase in the 'street'.
  • Reception classroom.
    Reception classroom.

Teaching is being made more complicated not just through a lack of resources and money, but simply by a lack of space. In trying to prevent – or deal with the consequences of – pupils’ frustrated energy, teachers are filling in for it. And the question is: who is fighting that corner?

Yes, I know, it’s an inner city school on a tight urban site, they’re all squashed, we have to get used to it. But that doesn’t make it right, or even OK.

It’s hard not to think of the children poked into tiny urban flats going to school and getting more of the same. In the future there will be an entire generation for whom ‘clear the table’ will always mean fold the table itself away as well – whether at home or school. Maybe it is already upon us. It’s also hard not to draw parallels with the social movement that had to rescue the overcrowded slums in the 1920s and 1930s in nearby Somers Town. Children there were saved by missionaries.

In this project it is difficult to see who is to blame. There is a certain collective responsibility – not just on the part of those directly involved. Nevertheless, the architect seems to suggest that it could have proposed alternate layouts – in height, etc – but that these had problems too. Maybe they could have done more. However, it seems to me these problems of space might stem substantially from having the developer as the sponsor. Something that was perhaps indicated by the slightly terse niggles between the director of Argent present and the two schools’ headteachers on the visit round. In jest of course…

Was it that Argent ‘couldn’t find anyone who understood the site’, or did no one else’s vision for a school agree with theirs? The dynamics of that relationship are a bit vague. There was some pleasant conversation about how the ebb and flow of schoolchildren will bring a new rhythm to King’s Cross, stop it from being just about cool millennials. And more about how to make the most of Google HQ, Waitrose HQ and University of the Arts London on the school’s doorstep. That’s true – I would have preferred Jamie Oliver teach me cooking for one hour than a year of my food technology matron.

But it all seems a bit too compromised, spatially and architecturally. The school is there because of a Section 106 agreement saying it had to be – and it feels like that. 

From the outside, there is no sense that there’s a school here – an important one at that, with an international reputation for teaching children without hearing and training others.

This is primarily a block of 255 flats with a cutaway corner to bring in light in the manner of BIG’s W57, New York. And unlike the St Pancras Housing Association (founded by the missionaries mentioned earlier to solve this crisis then) which put its nursery on the roof to give the children light and air – it is made clear that ‘the penthouses are prime resi’ and that even David Morley’s sky garden flourish for the building’s wealthy residents should have been made into a super pad.

The emphasis on profit literally towers over the school, offering it little privacy or freedom – the top of its 2-level slab forms the communal garden (which unlike the playground will have trees and flowers), its windows look into the school’s lightwells (the only source of daylight for the spaces), and the playground is there for any neighbouring building to look into too. But what’s worst about the layout is that the numbers stack up. Like any other school of its size it had to provide a minimum 1076m2 of external space and apparently it has – but to me this is not real outdoor space. It has been achieved by overshadowing much of the ground level with upper level walkways – also considered playground, and thereby making all of the ground level dark and around a third without access to sky. Sure it’s external, but it’s a trick too far.

It is also pretty clear that the flats will not be giving the school much of its intake – with only one resident child due to start in September’s cohort when it opens. With open market two beds starting from £1,110,000 according to the sales website, it’s perhaps no surprise. Yet it seems that having a school at ground level has been ‘so reassuring’ for prospective buyers worried that retail units might change over to unsavoury hands in time. How quaint.

Remind me again how old some of these children will be? Eleven. That’s right – no room even for an informal kick around at lunchtime let alone full-blown team sports. And they blame parents for Britain’s growing obesity problem?

  • Across the playground towards Gasholder Park.
    Across the playground towards Gasholder Park. · Credit: John Sturrock
  • The multi-level pergola around the playground.
    The multi-level pergola around the playground. · Credit: John Sturrock
  • The playground and playdecks.
    The playground and playdecks. · Credit: John Sturrock
  • Atrium of Frank Barnes School for the Deaf.
    Atrium of Frank Barnes School for the Deaf. · Credit: John Sturrock
  • The nursery.
    The nursery. · Credit: John Sturrock
  • Internal street showing staff bridge above.
    Internal street showing staff bridge above. · Credit: John Sturrock

Exercise here has to take place in a part-school, part-commercially run indoor multi-use games centre arena over the road (which I can only imagine is not finished yet as the rest of the building certainly isn’t and we weren’t shown it). Anyway, from what I could discover, it is one room with a lot of different markings on the floor and only about the size of a netball court. Sorry if I’m wrong.

The director from Argent insists that Gasholder No.8 Park and Camley Street Natural Park are just opposite. The headteachers appear to be smiling through their teeth.

Inside greater things have been achieved – classrooms for design technology and food technology lessons, for example, were only made possible by the economies of scale from joining two schools together; a cantilever on the whole of the north-west corner elevates the building off the particularly disturbing reverberations for deaf children from the new Thameslink tunnels below (built only a few years before); and there are wide, impressive (distracting) views from the classrooms. Nevertheless, some things are still pretty unsatisfactory – the plan operates around three huge piers for the building cores and structure above (see grey shaded areas on plans), making circulation into a confusing figure of eight, and many rooms have no external elevation so therefore no window. I for one would have been very uncomfortable to have a deconstructed bathroom in the middle of the library aged 10-11 too. ‘Anti-bullying’ allegedly, but also anti-privacy, and perhaps a bit terrifying given the statistics at the ever-decreasing age at which puberty is starting these days. ‘An extra wall closing it off would have taken so much space’.

Hmm – was none of it from the 187 private flats above available?

The only consolation might be that Argent (otherwise a champion of good architecture) did not demand to be an academy sponsor. The responsibility for that lies higher up. Under the original King’s Cross development plan, Camden Council was in charge. But since the government insisted that all new schools have to be either academies or free schools, the client sadly had to change.




Client King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership

Project manager Developing Projects

Architect David Morley Architects

Developer Argent Kings Cross

Quantity surveyor Sweett Group

Structural engineer Ramboll UK

M&E Waterman Building Services

CDM co-ordinator Davis Langdon

Acoustic engineer Waterman Energy, Environment & Design

Fire engineer Waterman Building Services

Accessibility consultant Chris Harrowell

Building control Camden Building Control

Main contractor Carillion