Inspiration

Henley Halebrown in Hackney

At 333 Kingsland Road and Hackney New Primary School, the practice unites two very different typologies through big public gestures and bold red masonry

The busy Kingsland Road in north London seems an unlikely place for a primary school. Forming the southern end of the A10, it spews traffic to and from the City, while land is scarce and prices are high. And yet, here is Hackney New Primary School, tucked behind a similarly new colonnaded residential tower. The school accommodates 350 pupils in a series of dual-aspect classrooms arranged around a playground-courtyard, while the tower contains 68 affordable and market-rent apartments, from one to three bedrooms.

Designed by Henley Halebrown, the two buildings are inextricably linked – the flats were developed to help fund the school – but they could easily be awkward neighbours. The school is a low-lying building that faces in towards its courtyard-playground, cloistered from the traffic, while the tower looms over it, 11 storeys high, with loggia-like balconies framing views of the city. What they have in common, however, is a ruddy-faced palette of red brick, red precast concrete and fair-faced in-situ concrete, which stitches the development together into a coherent whole, each part adding something to the other.

In practical terms, the tower performs a key function for the school, holding the eastern road-facing side of the site, and shielding the classrooms from noise and fumes. But it also plays a more subtle role. The heavyweight masonry structure is a nod to the site’s civic past, notably as a Victorian fire station, and announces the development as a public space. Various aspects of the design accentuate this civic gesture. At ground level, a vaulted arcade shelters the shops and cafes on the street corner. Above, the facades are dominated by two-storey red-concrete columns, lending a formal presence to the patchwork streetscape. 

The tower has a seven-sided central core and an in-situ concrete frame. In front of this, the 6m-tall circular columns are part of a self-supporting precast concrete assembly that rises up the structural frame like a huge vertical jigsaw. The columns sit proud of balcony units and balustrades, and slot into a cornice of spandrel panels on every other storey, before culminating in a crown-like frame to the shared roof terrace. The framed precast facade is load-bearing with restraints back to the insitu frame.

The precast elements were lightly acid-etched to bring out the texture of the red granite aggregate, while the colour consistency is maintained through the addition of a small amount of pigment. On the elevations without balconies, the double-storey facade is expressed less conspicuously with brickwork piers and spandrels. The hand-laid bricks are slightly more orange in tone, but the mortar has been colour-matched to the concrete. “That was something we experimented with a lot,” says Noel Cash, associate director at Henley Halebrown, “and for me, it was one of the biggest successes. In the sunshine, the brick and concrete become almost homogeneous.”

At ground level, the acid-etching on the columns is deeper, to give a sense of the rawness of the material and the weight of the structure. The 3m x 3m units of the arcade’s vaulted soffit have been deliberately set inside these columns. “They’re part of the rhythm and structural order as you walk through, but they’re not acting like barrel vaults, so we expressed them more honestly, playfully extruding them from the soffit instead of landing directly on the columns.” The vaulted units aren’t purely superficial, however: during construction, they acted as permanent formwork for the slab above. 

The arcade leads around the corner onto a quieter side street, where a dark reflective metal gate, designed by artist Paul Morrison with a spider web motif, signals the entrance to the school. Here, the red concrete helps to bridge between the two buildings. A precast bench follows the outer wall of the school like a giant skirting, providing a sunny spot for those doing the school pick-up. And inside the gates, a cantilevered canopy shelters the external staircase, while circular columns support the first-floor deck.

Beyond this entrance space, lighter tones soon take over. The courtyard-facing walls are faced in ivory glazed bricks to brighten the shadier areas, and an exposed-concrete deck wraps around the first floor. The concrete structure is treated with more exuberance here than on the tower – there’s a semi-circular cut-out for the stairs to the first-floor classrooms; a sculptural wedge-shaped cantilever supporting the accessible toilet on the rooftop allotment; and deep, precast window reveals that children can use as “shopfronts”. 

The in-situ concrete was cast against paper-faced MDO board formwork, leaving a smooth finish, which has also been left exposed in the hall, and on the classroom soffits and upper walls. “We have quite a tolerant view of what concrete should look like, its natural finishes, and all the blemishes that go with it,” says Cash, “and thankfully our clients believed in that too, so we got to express nearly all of it.” Throughout the project, the poured concrete has 50% GGBS cement replacement – part of a detailed, nine-page concrete specification Henley Halebrown developed with concrete expert David Bennett.

In places, the exposed concrete is softened by other materials – but the structure is always legible. For example, where the double-height hall is lined with timber, vertical battens offer glimpses of the columns behind, anchoring them to the ground. “We could have concealed them completely but we wanted to express the weight of the structure, that it’s holding up the roof,” says Cash. Likewise, although acoustic baffles hang from the hall’s exposed soffit, they have the air of grey, concrete panels. “Part of its beauty is it’s a church-like volume. It’s important that they don’t take away from the presence of what’s up there.” 

So much exposed concrete has the added advantage of providing thermal mass to regulate the internal temperature. With the exception of the four roadside classes, the rooms are naturally ventilated, and the concrete draws the heat out of these spaces during the day. Vertical panels, positioned alongside the doors into the courtyard, can be opened at night to release the heat from the structure. 

The concrete frame also makes the building inherently adaptable. Each run of four classrooms is separated simply by partition walls, which means the whole space can be reconfigured if teaching requirements change. Or indeed if the building ceases to be a school at all. “Without the partitions, it is a nice, expressive space in its own right,” says Cash, “almost like a factory or workshop.”

This flexibility and in-built longevity is another unifying thread between the two halves of the development. Cash points out that the deep facade of the tower slightly conceals its residential function, which could help with future reinvention, while each floor can be converted to a single space. “We tend to build with concrete frames so they can become other things and last for say 100 years, and not be torn down after 25,” he says. “We have photos of the tower with no partitions, just structure, and it’s like this perfect pinwheel [around the octagonal core]. That could be an open-plan office – it would be amazing.” 

PROJECT TEAM

Architect Henley Halebrown
Structural engineer Techniker
Contractor Thornsett Structures
Precast concrete Creagh Concrete; Amber Precast

Photos Lorenzo Zandri, Nick Kane, Henley Halebrown