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Bell Phillips keeps red-brick discipline at Skinners’ School

Words:
Hugh Pearman

New library and sixth form block advances Victorian school’s visual evolution while working with the materials and finesse of existing buildings

A complex thing to build, the west elevation of the new centre takes its cue from the buttressed 19th century school hall nearby.
A complex thing to build, the west elevation of the new centre takes its cue from the buttressed 19th century school hall nearby. Credit: Kilian O'Sullivan

It’s a strange business, going back to a place you last walked out of 46 years ago expecting never to return. Especially when it is your old school: the Skinners’ School, Tunbridge Wells, a state all-boys grammar then and now. I become uncomfortably aware that I am carrying a leather satchel, something that we growing-up boys felt was very much beneath us at the time. Satchels were a primary school thing. The idea of an adult carrying one would have struck us as bizarre. 

Nonetheless, despite all the ad-hoc changes over the years, once through the gates I know pretty much just where all the important places are to be found. But for one big change, the thing I had come to see. A large new block by Bell Phillips Architects, containing a sixth form study centre, library and English department classrooms. It’s the first properly planned and designed addition the school has made since its modernist ‘new wing’ (neither new nor a wing, but not bad) of 1960. There have been several other buildings since then as the school has expanded and no doubt they work fine but there has been a lack of architectural quality, consistency and clarity. Unlike that muddle of buildings occupying the lower centre of the site, the new three-storey block is perched high, visible from the street, right alongside the original buildings. Something much better was required there.

This is the first built educational foray by a practice that is known especially for its residential work. It turns out that partner Tim Bell is another, younger old boy: the commission arose after he’d done a chunk of pro-bono work for the school establishing the siting and feasibility of the desired new building. It was a direct appointment and the work was done on a traditional contract, which was pretty much the way they did things when the school was first built. Better still, it was left to the school itself to oversee, rather than being handled remotely at county level. The Skinners’ Company still owns it.

To understand the new building with its steep-pitched roof and deeply-modelled brickwork, all you need to do is glance at the original buildings of 1886–1899, set back from St John’s Road, the main route into town from the north. From the street outside, reading from north to south, you get the first two buildings by architect E H Burnell: the large freestanding headmaster’s house (also for many years a boarding house); and the main original red-brick-and stone-dressings school building complete with clock tower and buttressed hall with central flèche, in a tudor/gothic manner. 

 

The school yard now has a visual end-stop in the form of the new building with its entrance arcade. Original 1880s buildings in the foreground.
The school yard now has a visual end-stop in the form of the new building with its entrance arcade. Original 1880s buildings in the foreground. Credit: Kilian O'Sullivan

Grafted onto the southern end of that a decade later, the Science School in a more arts and crafts style is by W Campbell Jones (his firm still existed half a century and two world wars later and was called back to design the ‘new wing’ in urbane bricky-modern manner, a remarkable act of slow-burn repeat patronage). To the right of the original Science School and back a bit used to be the school’s old gym of 1900: this and some ancillary structures were demolished to make way for the Bell Phillips building. Finally the southernmost structure, also from around 1900, is Byng Hall, a former church institute acquired in 2003 to become Skinners’ music and drama department, with auditorium. By a different hand, it’s in turn-of-the-20th century gothic. Taken as a group, these make up a handsome range of complementary late Victorian buildings that I was surprised to find is not yet listed. 

Bell anyway treats this context as if it was, carefully designing his new addition in a way that draws upon the form, massing, orientation and materials of the originals. In particular, the hand-laid brickwork of his vertically-striated street elevation nods to the brick buttresses of the original school hall. Just as the Campbell Jones Science School moved the architecture on a notch while staying broadly sympathetic to the original, so the intention with the latest building is plainly to bring that visual evolution forward 120 years while keeping some of the finesse of the originals. It’s no copy though. Mortar is coloured to match the brick. No stone dressings. Artificial slate roofing makes a contrast with the clay tiles of the old buildings, I note, probably a function of cost. 

  • The library is open right up to its pointy roof.
    The library is open right up to its pointy roof. Credit: Kilian O'Sullivan
  • English department classrooms on the first floor borrow extra daylight via a corridor.
    English department classrooms on the first floor borrow extra daylight via a corridor. Credit: Kilian O'Sullivan
  • English department classrooms on the first floor borrow extra daylight via a corridor.
    English department classrooms on the first floor borrow extra daylight via a corridor. Credit: Kilian O'Sullivan
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At a glance it might seem a somewhat conservative response, but then this is a conservative school in a generally conservative town. Its ethos probably suits the spirit of the times right now rather better than it did the hippyish zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was being sporadically anti-establishment there.

Despite its links to a medieval City livery company and its inherited public-school way of going about things (all-boys, house system, a cadet force, big emphasis on sport and competition, uniform little changed since long before I was there), Skinners has been part of the state system since 1948, a choice made following the Education Act of 1944. Later Kent stubbornly kept its selective grammar schools going, along with the 11-plus exam that you have to pass to get in there, when most of the rest of the country went comprehensive. With local authority control and relative lack of cash came piecemeal development over time plus the lack of a guiding masterplan. Compare, for instance, the similarly-sized nearby affluent fee-paying Sevenoaks School: there, under the direction of architect Tim Ronalds, a well-funded masterplan is being built out (RIBAJ, December 2018). State schools seldom get to build such lavish facilities. Of course private donors were needed here as well. I was cheered to find that the main donor gave the money on the strict proviso that it must in no way be spent on anything to do with sport. I would like to meet him and shake his hand, once such a gesture becomes safe again.

On a very tight site, Bell Phillips is attempting to re-establish order from the front. Given that the school is much enlarged – five-form entry compared with the three-form set-up I knew, total pupil numbers 1,119, some 325 of whom are in the sixth forms – the need for a better library, more classrooms and improved sixth form centre was clear enough. So was the need for a higher quality new building. The result is a lot of presence as well as accommodation for the money, working out at £2,738/m2. Each day 800 pupils use the new English classrooms and the sixth form centre will take 175-225, while the library takes 80 students for private study at any given time.

  • Main staircase is lined with Eucalyptus wood.
    Main staircase is lined with Eucalyptus wood. Credit: Kilian O'Sullivan
  • Ground floor entrance with stair on the left, school crest to the right and exposed services behind ceiling acoustic panels.
    Ground floor entrance with stair on the left, school crest to the right and exposed services behind ceiling acoustic panels. Credit: Kilian O'Sullivan
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The new centre is effectively a gateway building, given that most pupils enter at this end of the school. From there you walk down between it and the old Science School to find yourself in the main yard, a dispersal point across what is now a very busy campus. The new block has a short return wing onto this yard with the same gable-end elevational treatment of 45° brick piers and deep lintels, providing a formal and active enclosure to the space that was lacking previously, and including a short entrance arcade giving protection against the weather. 

Inside it’s about making the maximum usable spaces, with the money for superior finishes concentrated in two areas – the eucalyptus-lined stairs and the top-floor library which goes right up into the pointy roof. That is lined in acoustically-backed timber slats. The height befits a library: it’s a good space to be. A top-floor classroom and seminar room also benefit from the extra height. Elsewhere, the rooms are more functional, well daylit, many dual-aspect, with exposed services. Strategically-placed large windows give new views of the distant hills. 

Remembering the packed classrooms, many in freezing ‘temporary’ wooden huts with coke stoves, others more than a little dungeon-like; and the tiny library with its electric fire I got to use in the old school house half a century ago, naturally I see a huge improvement. Who wouldn’t, over that timespan? The key difference apart from personal comfort is the provision of good space for private study which was not something we had much of at all. But overall, this is a new building that feels properly school-like. One that communicates something of the architectural history of the place. I’m glad they invited me back. Perhaps this was a kind of closure. 


IN NUMBERS

£3.25m construction cost
£2737 cost per m2
1187m2 GIA
13.6 kg CO2/m2 annual carbon emissions anticipated
10.0 kg CO2/m2 annual carbon emissions in use

 

Credits

Client The Skinners’ School
Architect Bell Phillips Architects
Structural engineer Built Engineers
M&E/Fire consultant Hilson Moran
QS Gleeds
Contractor BBS Construction

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