The oft-quoted maxim of modern architecture that ‘form ever follows function’ does not always ring true when viewing some of the architectural marvels of recent times. Eclipsed, perhaps, by the desire to make a statement or simply soar above the neighbours, the consideration of the purpose to which the building will be put is often lost. With this in mind, I have been reflecting on how well our new building, which was completed last week and will be fully occupied after half term, stands up against this measure.
School buildings have traditionally troubled the energies of architects very little, being either adapted structures (such as OHS in its St Giles’ and Banbury Road days) or purpose-built utilitarian blocks filled with uniform boxes for classrooms (such as our soon-to-be-refurbished Sixth Form Block). More recently, however, a recognition of the benefits of providing exciting spaces in which young people can learn has prompted an increased focus on going beyond the bare necessities of function in school design into qualities to inspire and intrigue.
The function of the Ada Benson Building is to celebrate, inspire and empower girls, as the School has been doing since 1875. Already, I can see many compelling ways in which the building’s form follows that function, and enhances it. The very choice of name reflects the intention that our newest site of learning be consciously connected to the values on which OHS was founded, through the eponymous Headmistress, who was a pioneer for girls’ education in her own right.
This is a building that lends itself to celebration.
Inspiration for our girls comes at every turn in this building – from the spacious elegance of the Textiles Atelier and the suite of Art Studios to the cinema-quality sound and picture definition in the Dame Pippa Harris Auditorium. A particular highlight for me is the way the interior reacts with the external spaces, through the use of careful planting and the positioning of windows and sliding glass doors to create views to pause at as we move around.
Empowerment is written into the very core of the building, through the design of the Atrium as a sophisticated social hub (complete with café) and the generous provision of space and facilities in the Health and Wellbeing Centre. This is a structure with its internal workings in plain sight, offering an education in design and a subtle statement about demystification that treats all users with respect. The glass walls offer a metaphor of openness and transparency – here, then, we have glass walls but no glass ceilings. Equally, there are no clichéd markers of femininity, in colour schemes for example, but, rather, a series of thoughtfully-designed rooms and spaces for studying and socialising, learning and relaxing.
Finally, the building lends itself to celebration. The Design Street offers a blank canvas on which we can exhibit girls’ work and the Atrium and Auditorium are perfectly suited to performance. We look forward to celebrating this addition to our school in a series of opening events from early March and into June. I hope that you will be able to join us at one or more of these events and will hear with interest your views on how (well) the building promises to fulfil its function of inspiring, empowering and celebrating our girls.