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Still serving society well

Eleanor Young

Hampshire County Council Architects is one of a rare breed, but its commitment to quality design in the public sector keeps it more than busy, says head Bob Wallbridge

The top team at Winchester Discovery Centre: From left, Bob Wallbridge, John Cantwell, Colin Jackson and Steve Clow.
The top team at Winchester Discovery Centre: From left, Bob Wallbridge, John Cantwell, Colin Jackson and Steve Clow. Credit: David Vintiner

‘Public architecture for the public good has been our theme for 40 years,’ says Bob Wallbridge, head of architecture and design at Hampshire County Council. His black polo neck is a softer and thicker knit – altogether warmer – than it might be in London or Bath and his tone is relaxed. This is not a battle but a statement of fact since Hampshire County Architects came to national prominence under Professor Sir Colin Stansfield Smith. But nor is it earnest or resting on its laurels. There is a smile playing and in his direct answers there is no doubt that the public good includes not only spaces for the people but also delight.

Mid 20th century public architecture was the work that mattered, from the Royal Festival Hall to such ground breaking housing as Neave Brown designed for Camden. Local authorities attracted great architects and fascinating projects. The dismantling of public sector architects’ departments left quite a different landscape of private practice as, in recent decades, has the growth of conglomerate providers taking on local authority staff – for example Capita and NPS.

But Wallbridge’s office survived, as a local and thriving part of Winchester-based Hampshire’s Property Services. This is in no small part down to its reputation and credibility built up among council members and the architectural profession over 40 years.

Wallbridge grew up in Hampshire County Council Architects in its heyday under Royal Gold Medallist Stansfield Smith. Inheriting an estate mushrooming with systems-built Scola schools, he started asking what might be inherently ‘Hampshire’ about a design. Big roofs and the warm materials of the county – timber, brick and clay tiles – stamped many exteriors with a barn like quality, and light, airy volumes enclosing play spaces more fundamentally marked out the work of the local authority architects – along with occasional remarkably complex plans like that at RIBA Award winning Woodlea School in Borden. Ted Cullinan, a collaborator, described the county’s architects as: ‘A great gang of optimistic, inventive, logical humanists.’

The architecture & design leadership team.
The architecture & design leadership team. Credit: David Vintiner

Quality counts

That was all a quarter of a century ago but the commitment to avoiding the standard bland box continues: ‘Lego buildings’ are not welcome. Wallbridge and his top team work closely with councillors, whose trust give the department the political capital to keep building in the face of government cuts to many of the services they design for. And the architects are in demand when discussions turn to where the threshold of money versus quality now sits, says Wallbridge.

Being alongside the client at both political and colleague level, with other officers, has quite a different dynamic to private practice. Wallbridge and his team play with the idea of exchanging bureaucratic job titles for more heavyweight private practice ones (‘senior design manager’ to partner: yes please, jokes one) and compare themselves to practices beyond the public sector (Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios for social purpose, thinks Wallbridge). But he can’t imagine constantly enjoying the ‘hit and run’ projects of private practice. All that relationship building, then the void after completion. Wallbridge likes going back to extend old projects, to see friendly faces still there, as he is doing now at Great Binfield School. It helps when you’re piecing together projects too. A discussion about unlocking the Homes and Community Agency’s stalled Daedalus site at Lee-on-Solent involved putting together ideas for a skills college on its edge and drawing up a scheme to make its funding bids more tangible.

  • A foray into craft sustainability: Winchester Cathedral Learning Centre.
    A foray into craft sustainability: Winchester Cathedral Learning Centre. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Park Community School, Havant.
    Park Community School, Havant. Credit: Jim Stephenson
  • Westgate primary school: The latest addition to a long line of work at this all-through school in Winchester.
    Westgate primary school: The latest addition to a long line of work at this all-through school in Winchester. Credit: Nick Kane

End to end involvement

‘There is a reciprocity, we can afford to be generous so the architect is invited in by the client,’ explains Wallbridge. The designers are involved from vision to feasibility and handover, they even contribute to the maintenance programme that replaces roofs or boilers, for example. This programme meant Hampshire was only in the cancelled last waves of Building Schools for the Future and couldn’t bid for the Priority Schools Building Programme but its high number of Scola buildings is a time bomb for the county, which estimates its liability at £350 million.

So there is work to be done. Hampshire County Council Architects is in a privileged position of needing to turn down work. This is an acute concern at the moment as three secondary schools projects are kicking off, all with similar programmes. Alongside it there is an attempt to develop a replicable classroom block to reap some benefits from an intelligent level of standardisation.

Wallbridge’s 120-person multi-disciplinary design team is split into studios and covers landscape, structures and M&E as well as architecture with 60 architects. And he is looking to recruit new leaders, some of whom he expects to have to entice from London. The department has grown by a third over the last three years, driven by the national bulge in school populations, by expanding communities in the county and, ironically, local government cuts. Every ‘transformation programme’ needs buildings reconfigured.

One major national transformation Hampshire can take credit for is ‘One Public Estate’. This is what is says on the tin, and might be just what the public expect, but is nothing like the siloed reality. How to achieve it was researched by architect and senior design manager Colin Jackson for central government – he also came up with the moniker – and it has been taken up by the Cabinet Office. Sharing facilities and rationalising the estate en route sounds simpler than it is with estates bodies of each department and district working to their own priorities and often their own capital receipts targets too. It could be better.

‘At worst it is a car boot sale of what’s left from each estate. At its best people know enough about others’ strategies to understand what each need and how they can work together,’ Jackson explains. As well as research Jackson tried to get this to work in Hampshire but with a minimum of 18 people round the table they eventually decided the ground was not yet fertile enough.

Wallbridge can’t imagine enjoying the ‘hit and run’ projects of private practice. He likes going back to extend old projects, see friendly faces

Beyond the boundaries

As a public body, HCC’s designers can’t work for the private sector for gain. But that hasn’t stopped collaborations further afield and beyond standard local authority architecture: with Marks Barfield it has worked on a school for the University of Cambridge Primary School; and, nearer home, a handsome new green oak-framed learning centre at Winchester Cathedral has reignited an enthusiasm for the big roof, super-sensitive, sustainable building. Meanwhile at Stowe in Buckinghamshire it has drawn up a strategy for how the house could accommodate visitors. Jackson says that the latter, with its links to the private Stowe School, caused some resistance. ‘Many of our staff have chosen to work in public architecture, and in Hampshire. So I had to explain Stowe as a charity.’ But for years Hampshire has worked beyond its boundary on suburban Reading schools – a rather different setting.

Despite a huge variety, most of the work remains in education. As Wallbridge and I walk around the county’s first all-through school, Westgate (longlisted for the Mac­Ewen Award), he points to buildings of all ages – designed, added, relandscaped – until we reach the final piece, the primary school: HCC Architects’ tightest yet in internal area yet still very open and airy. It seems remarkable in this era of Priority Schools. According to metrics from the government’s Education Funding Agency, the cost of Hampshire schools is just above average on net costs. Wallbridge, who has visited enough of the cheaper schools to hear the despair in teachers’ voices, is keeping a careful eye on this, trying to ensure that the figures reflect the lifelong value that Hampshire expects from its schools are built into analysis, along with elements that may be missing from projects at the other end of the cost scale, such as landscaping. And delight.