From the moment you pass through the enormous stone archway signifying the entrance to Bryanston School, you sense that you have entered a different world. Winding through the 400-acre Dorset estate, the impression of grandeur culminates upon arrival at the imposing grade 1-listed brick edifice designed by Richard Norman Shaw for Viscount Portman and completed in 1897. Originally conceived and occupied as a vast stately home, it was sold in 1928 after a series of untimely deaths in the family. Bryanston School was established, and its founder embarked upon a pioneering approach to education which focused on nurturing individuality and allowing freedom of expression.
Now a leading co-educational independent school, it has invested in the facilities offered to its 670 students. Sensitive and intelligent additions result in a campus that is architecturally as rich and diverse as the school’s educational philosophy. This is a place of privilege, but it is also an environment in which the aim is to give every student the opportunity to flourish.
Hopkins Architects’ work with the school began nine years ago when it won an invited competition to design a new science block. Taking cues from established routes across the grounds, the architects proposed a new courtyard that set up a dialogue between the main Shaw building, the
CDT Building by CZWG (1998) and Hopkins’ new science block, the horseshoe-shaped Sanger Centre. Cunning ly, they suggested an additional building to complete and enclose the courtyard, whose use at that point was yet to be determined.
This final piece, the Tom Wheare Music school, makes sense of the whole arrangement and gives the school a new heart that quite literally sings.
The courtyard, while rather formal in its landscaping, is far from passive. It is the hub through which all the students process as part of their daily life. The Shaw building sits dominantly at the head, setting up the rules of engagement, while the Sanger Centre acts to contain the space and provide enclosure. The CDT Building is allowed to take centre stage, defining the paths through the courtyard that align with its entrance. The latest addition responds cleverly to all the cues already established, but through its sculpted playfulness establishes its own strong identity and lends a degree of welcome informality.
Built of the same red brick as the main school, the Music School references the Sanger Centre in both its materiality and the alignment of its key elements – two teaching wings and a recital hall. These elements are pulled apart to create three distinct volumes stitched together with circulation spaces, an assemblage of carefully crafted forms with an Aalto feel. These transitional in-between spaces – where external brick is brought inside to emphasise the separation and help with orientation – serve to reduce the scale of the whole and create a sense of intimacy.
Upon entering the triple-height reception space from the courtyard at first-floor level, the wooded view towards the south is revealed. The teasing apart of the elements allows sunlight and shadow to play upon the volumes and create a sense of peace and tranquility. The steeply sloped site created the opportunity to play in section, opening up the volume as one descends into the sunken ground floor towards the auditorium.
Designing an auditorium for music is an architectural challenge. To achieve a reverberation time of around 1.7 seconds requires a volume of between eight and ten cubic metres per person. This often results in the familiar shoebox. Designed to seat 300 people and house a full-scale symphony orchestra, this is no shoebox.
The rotated fan-shaped volume aligns with the Shaw building but its foyer also engages with the entrance to a 1950s theatre, the Coade Hall. This places the main mass in the centre of the music school, allowing a more human scale to the perimeter and entrance as the roof slopes down.
Both performers and audience enter under the belly of the rake at stage level, dissolving the hierarchical norms. As you climb up the gentle seating rake, the wrapping windows at the top of the gallery remind you of the world beyond.
The palette of materials is limited, and elegance is matched with crafted detailing: white oak flooring flows up to become seating; ceiling panels become acoustic wall panels that can be manually altered to vary the reverberation time; the staggered pitch of the roof allows shafts of evening sunlight to play on the ceiling, although there are no views outwards to distract the audience during the performance.
The auditorium may be the key player, but this building plays an active part in wider school life. Every first-year student plays an instrument, of whom three-quarters continue in subsequent years. Over 600 music lessons are held every week, which explains why such prominence is given to the provision of music practice rooms, spread over three floors.
Though compact, every teaching and practice room is unique as a result of the sinuous curving corridors first used by Hopkins in Evelina Children’s Hospital (2005) to add a sense of fun, and here employed to improve acoustics within the cellular rooms.
The timber windows, a key motif in Hopkins’ work, are set within larger brick openings creating shadow gaps that add depth and rhythm to the facades. Inside, the warmth of the Douglas fir provides a focal point within each practice room. Ventilation panels allow control of fresh air, but also critically enable sound to trickle out.
This is a building dedicated to music, something you never forget as you wander around. It is a building rooted in place, inspired by the past and present. Sculpted and crafted with sensitivity, it achieves a solidity and sense of elegant permanence and fits perfectly into its setting.
The above article was originally written by Wendy Perring (PAD studio) for Architecture Today.