City’s educational buildings lead the way when it comes to design

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The Sibson Building at the University of Kent's Canterbury campus

by Keith Bothwell

Educational institutions are now setting the bar for new architectural design in Canterbury.

The winners of both new buildings categories in the recent Canterbury Society Design Awards are educational establishments.

Worryingly, however, existing school buildings of real quality are under imminent threat of demolition.

The prize for the best new building outside a conservation area was won by the Sibson Building at the University of Kent.

Designed by architects Penoyre and Prasad, the building is the new home for the university’s Business School and School of Mathematics, Statistics and Actuarial Science.

The judges said: “This building works at so many levels that it is clearly deserving of an award. The stepped form of the building sits comfortably into the sloping site, whilst successfully disguising the building mass.

“A good deal of attention has been paid to bringing in natural light into all areas, including lecture theatres, which is to be greatly applauded. It is a very fine building and a pleasure to experience.”

Within the city conservation area, adjacent to the City Wall, lies the Kingsdown boarding house of the King’s School.

This won in the categories for best new building within a conservation area’, and ‘best refurbishment of a historic building.

And, designed by architects Walters and Cohen, it was declared the overall winner of the 2019 Design Awards.

The judges called it “an exemplary and intelligent project on all fronts”, referring to its “elegant and sensitive refurbishment of historic buildings”.

They added that “the project has been carefully considered from many different aspects: scale; position and massing; relationship to neighbours; and views through the site to the city wall and cathedral beyond. The elegant detailing of the dormer windows in particular is noteworthy. The landscaping is also excellent and well-integrated with the building design”.

The Canterbury Society Design Awards were launched in 2016 to recognise and celebrate buildings, spaces and places that are loved by our community and to encourage new high quality design in the city.

The awards are run every two years, with the next being scheduled for early 2021. Building projects can be submitted under the categories of new housing, new building in a conservation area, new building outside a conservation area, refurbishment, shopfronts & signage, and open space & public realm.

One possible contender for the next Canterbury Society Design Awards is the Daphne Oram building at Canterbury Christchurch University.

Designed by Nicholas Hare Architects, the new creative arts building makes a bold and attractive addition to university’s North Holmes Road campus. 

It is commendable that some educational institutions are leading the way in commissioning the best new architecture.

However, others are threatening to destroy buildings of notable architectural value.

The Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School is in Old Dover Road

Kent County Council has applied to demolish the Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School buildings, designed by Sir Hugh Wilson in the late 1940s, and to replace them with nondescript boxes. The original buildings are highly regarded and are of architectural interest at all levels, from their general arrangement on the site, to their individual composition, down to the construction details. 

Pevsner’s Buildings of England lists the buildings, where they are described as “Brick and glass elegantly handled. This is indeed true. As a whole, they emanate a confident, assured and elegant quality that is rare to find in any buildings.

Materials are selected and detailed with finesse, with some fine terrazzo features internally on the main staircase and elsewhere. Corridors and classrooms are spacious, with high ceilings and large windows, providing excellent natural light.

The composition of the facades and the windows, with their horizontal format, is very attractive, and characteristic of its historic period.

The massing of the buildings, and the scale of the hall and main entrance, contrasting with the single-storey staff room with its rounded apse-like end is all very carefully composed.

In the landscape, the entrance sequence, from the simple shelter and low walls – now unfortunately deprived of their beautiful original lettering – up to the main entrance, is understated but very thoughtfully considered.

These buildings are unique, and new buildings of this quality are rare. The architecture is not only of value in itself, but as a familiar landmark that guides us, triggers memories, and aids our understanding of this city’s history.

If familiar sights such as these disappear, our lives will become more impoverished and our sense of place will be lost.

Keith Bothwell is an architect, a member of the Canterbury Society committee and an Honorary Senior Lecturer at Kent School of Architecture

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