Nov 21, 2019 Last Updated 10:52 AM, Aug 14, 2019

‘Garden school’ opens in the heart of East London

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Architecture Initiative’s new school in east London has opened its doors to over 700 primary school pupils. Designed for Tower Hamlets School and London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Olga Primary School envisions a ‘garden oasis’ in the heart of the capital city.


The school’s vertical design consolidates 25 classrooms around a naturally-lit atrium with the age of pupils increasing as the building rises. The three-storey, glazed atrium creates a circulation core that separates the structure into two distinct volumes: one accommodates the teaching centre; the other contains the administrative and communal spaces, delivering the added benefit of opening the facility to the wider community outside of generic schooling hours.

Replacing a single-storey 1982 structure, Architecture Initiative’s design compacts the building’s footprint by building upwards to better serve the needs of the community. Positioned at the edge of the site boundary, the school provides a ‘buffer’ to separate the luscious landscaping from the neighbouring residential blocks. Green space is incredibly important to Olga Primary School and Architecture Initiative responded to this by incorporating a variety of terraced gardens and trees to create a rare ‘green oasis’ to inspire children within an exciting and unconventional environment.

While the school’s capacity has increased threefold, the quaint ‘village feel’ has been safeguarded by expanding the architecture vertically to avoid sprawling across the site plan and consequently affecting the landscape. Building upwards also means that all year groups have immediate access to outside space – the ground floor to the gardens; the first floor to terraces and the second floor to the roof – linking the pupils with the ecology of the surrounding area.

Architecture Initiative’s careful consideration of materiality corresponds with the surrounding environment to create a sensitive, contextual design. The teaching centre, built from London stock brick, features neatly-proportioned windows in response to the local vernacular. In contrast, the admin and communal building are clad in COR-TEN weathering steel inspired by the warm colours of the woodland trees in autumn.

Lee Mainwaring, Design Director at Architecture Initiative, said: “Our aim is to ensure that a new generation of schools inspires and nurtures learning. Olga Primary School has been designed to interact with nature in different ways at each level, creating a variety of experiences and teaching environments beyond the standard classroom. This vertical approach allows the school itself to encourage awareness of biodiversity, ecology and nature, which is often rare in an inner-city school.”

The practice collaborated on the interior fit-out, opting for a small palette of bright aquas and limes to complement the raw materiality of the pale concrete finishes and birch ply interior cladding – expressed in a contemporary, Scandinavian style. Large graphics ensure that the teals and greens of the site’s gardens are brought into the interior. The bold and bright graphics change for each year group up the course of the building.

Extending the capacity of the school creates extra places for pupils that are sorely needed in Tower Hamlets, where demand for places is expected to rise by as much as 38% by 2022. The £10m school has created 60 new jobs for the local area and is highly energy-efficient, with natural ventilation, heat recovery systems and a highly-insulated building fabric helping to achieve a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating.

Duncan Cameron, Building Development at London Borough of Tower Hamlets, said: “The project to expand Olga Primary School contributes to the council’s overall programme to meet the need for additional school places for the rising school population. The council’s partnership with Architecture Initiative has resulted in a learning environment that is stimulating, invigorating and engaging.

“The new design offers fantastic teaching space and terraces. Olga Primary School and the community are proud of the number of green spaces and mature trees which create a refreshing respite in a highly-developed residential area.”

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