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Department 4 Education retail conversions are underpinned by an essence of fun

This year's SterlingOSB Zero competition called on entrants to redevelop a department store into a mid-sized secondary school

Pick Everard’s Roy Lichtenstein-inspired illustration highlighting their Commended ReStorED House of Fraser department store conversion proposal in Manchester.
Pick Everard’s Roy Lichtenstein-inspired illustration highlighting their Commended ReStorED House of Fraser department store conversion proposal in Manchester.

When Cedric Price and theatre director Joan Littlewood conceived of their ‘Fun Palace’ in 1960, a scheme that was never realised, they envisaged a ‘university of the streets’ where the flexible framework of the building could accommodate the changing programmatic needs of its users. It could be a place, they said, where people would ‘choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune ... or just lie back and stare at the sky.’

Something of this essence of fun and learning is found in all of the winning, commended and longlisted entries to RIBAJ and West Fraser’s Department 4 Education ideas competition, which called on entrants to redevelop a department store, redundant or not, into a mid-sized secondary school. 

From Darling Associates’ commended entry The Hive, with its hexagonal insertions enlivening the atrium, to Pick Everard’s ReStore-ED (vaguely reminiscent of the Grange Hill title sequence) which flips the pedagogical model on its head to encourage students to ‘shop’ for the lessons that interest them, each of the entries attempted to make sense of and reconfigure what is meant by the school experience –  what judge Chithra Marsh described as ‘challenging the construct of education’. 

As Pick Everard said in its entry description, its aim was to ‘restore the purpose of school as an inclusive, fun, safe place for learning, while also benefiting the community and generating revenue’. 

The entries were diverse and interesting, with many choosing to focus on the civic aspects that the school and department store typologies share

The competition itself attempted to engage with two challenges facing today’s society: a need for more secondary schools to accommodate a growing population at a time of limited money and resources; and the demise of the department store – once a feature of our town centres but now a victim of the diminution of our high streets and the shift to online retailing/shopping. Grand, historic, buildings, some listed, are now vacant, dilapidating and wasting precious space and resource. Is there anything we can learn from these historic store buildings to re-evaluate our understanding of schools?

The brief asked respondents to choose any UK department store and reconceptualise it as a secondary school for around 750 pupils. Using SterlingOSB Zero as a key component in the materials palette, the designs had to consider the challenges of introducing the complex programming of a school (laboratories, classrooms, sports facilities, dining areas) into a former dedicated retail space with a deep plan. While creative thinking was encouraged (this is a schools competition!) it was equally important that the material properties of SterlingOSB Zero should be respected and not misapplied (such as untreated as external cladding or bent implausibly).

The entries were diverse and interesting, with many focusing on the civic aspects that the school and department store typologies share, as well as the contextual backgrounds to the transformations. Allan Joyce Architects’ longlisted New School Street conducted substantial research into the historic urban context of Nottingham, to ingrate ‘jitties’ (alleyways) into the heart of the school. BDP’s commended Learning Oasis in the City, meanwhile, used its designs to enter into dialogue with the historic landmark of Exeter Cathedral.

The winning entry, Edwin Jones Academy, by Paul Cashin Architects & Keith Evans Architects, succeeded in achieving all of this by connecting the new school with surrounding pedestrian retail streets, parks and a historic route in Southampton. It also restored a historic building and introduced vernacular details which reference Southampton’s docks – a level of detail and consideration that stood out. 

The judges praised the winners for their thorough considerations. ‘Architecturally it is bold, it is resolved, it is compelling and I like the urban consideration,’ said judge Holly Lewis. ’It feels like the real thing.’

As ever, the best examples, those that were commended or longlisted, were those that successfully challenged and questioned what is understood by the school typology, marrying their designs with a celebration of SterlingOSB Zero for a sustainable, affordable, flexible and future-proofed school of the future in a retail space of the past.

Department 4 Education was produced in association with West Fraser

From left to right: Stephen Proctor, Chithra Marsh, Claire Ironside, Jan-Carlos Kucharek, Holly Lewis
From left to right: Stephen Proctor, Chithra Marsh, Claire Ironside, Jan-Carlos Kucharek, Holly Lewis

Judges
Holly Lewis
, co-founding partner, We Made That
Claire Ironside, marketing executive, West Fraser Europe
Stephen Proctor, founding director, Proctor & Matthews Architects
Chithra Marsh, director, Buttress Architects
Jan-Carlos Kucharek, deputy editor, RIBA Journal (chair)

Entries so varied in thinking

After sitting in on the judging of the 2022 West Fraser SterlingOSB Zero/RIBAJ competition (now in its ninth year) and finding it so interesting, I jumped at the offer to be part of the 2023 judging panel. The entries this year were so varied in thinking, and really made us question what it was we were looking for. 

At West Fraser, we are constantly striving to find out more about how we can assist architects in their work. With carbon neutrality being a target in all sectors by 2030, we hope that our carbon-negative UK-manufactured panel products can contribute to these efforts. 

Judging alongside industry professionals gave me a better understanding of the challenges that architects may come across between their designs and real-world application. I am also stronger now in my technical knowledge and questioning, so am looking forward to working with our team and looking at how we can inspire architects. 

I’d like to thank all of the judges for their time and input and for their reserves of knowledge of the processes that go into building a structure. But mostly, I’d like to thank not just our winners but all the practices and individuals that offered both their time and imagination to enter this year’s competition.

Claire Ironside, marketing executive, West Fraser Europe

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