Riley Centre, Bolton School

Rear elevation looking north from the arts block to the main body of the school.
Rear elevation looking north from the arts block to the main body of the school.

The first Viscount Leverhulme, Bolton’s most famous son, from humble beginnings as a grocer’s son, founded a soap brand, that begat the model town Port Sunlight, that begat the multinational Unilever. He also gave an endowment that led to the founding of Bolton School, which merged the Boy’s Grammar School and the High School for Girls. Designed by Charles Adshead in 1928 in neo-Tudor style, its red sandstone walls were built to emulate Oxbridge and, with two single sex blocks reflected beyond the gatehouse across an open space, to ensure never the twain shall meet.

Until now. Local conservation architect Cassidy Ashton, which has worked on the grade II school fabric for 25 years, had its commitment rewarded with the task of designing a new £7m, 1600m2 mixed sixth form block. After nearly a century, the Riley Centre finally unites the boys and the girls, and creates a third, ceremonial courtyard and new connectivity for the school.

The new Riley Centre looking south through the school’s main gatehouse.
The new Riley Centre looking south through the school’s main gatehouse.

The position of the new block is interesting. Lawrence McBurney, project architect, says the site was originally intended to accommodate the school chapel, but for lack of further funding it was never built. This left a windswept open area looking down the site, from where the boys and girls would fork to their respective entrances. 

An evocation of MacCormac Jamieson Prichard’s 1999 Ruskin Library at Lancaster University, Cassidy Ashton’s elliptical extension closes off the view and links the two schools in a social way that the chapel could never have done. A steel structure clad in the same red sandstone ashlar, its ground level reception on the north side meets multi-use spaces that face the open ground beyond. A first floor common room and café are surmounted by study spaces above. This is all connected back to the original entrances to the two schools by glazed corridors. The transparent  glazing counterpoints the darker tinted glass that was specified for the sixth form block. ‘The intention was that this be very much be an object of itself; isolated,’ says McBurney. Just like the planned chapel – but now a secular interpretation.