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Bell Phillips Architects, Skinners’ School, Tunbridge Wells

Good Neighbours: Skinners’ School by Bell Phillips Architects

Tradition is cherished at many British grammar schools. The same can be said of the Skinners’ School, which is situated southeast of London in the spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells. Nearly 1,100 pupils, all boys, prepare here for their A-levels; the uniform is strictly regimented down to the choice of footwear and the proper style of shirt collar to wear with a pullover. The school’s architecture is no exception: the complex stands on a compact arterial road just north of the town centre. Nearly all the buildings were erected at the end of the 19th century in the exposed brickwork of the neo-Gothic and Arts and Crafts styles. The flat-roofed New Wing from 1960 may not fit in with the rest, but it cannot be seen from the road.

This made it all the more important to Bell Phillips Architects of London that their addition, which is close to the access to the campus, should harmonize with the characteristic style of the pointed-gabled existing buildings. The three-storeyed edifice replaces a gymnasium from the beginning of the 20th century. The ground floor is home to a learning centre with a break room for boys in the higher grades. The level above accommodates classrooms for English classes arranged in rows along a central corridor, and the school library opens up beneath the saddle roof. Here, wood-clad soffits and the daylight that streams in from all sides make this area the highlight of the spatial program. Next door, a further classroom benefits from the unusual ceiling height created by the acute point of the gable roof.

Even the stairway, which features balustrades of reddish eucalyptus wood, exudes a certain noblesse. The architects were significantly more economical in their design of the corridors and classrooms on the lower levels, which have plasterboard walls and electrical cables running beneath acoustic panels suspended from the ceiling. As the Skinners’ School has been state-run for more than 70 years, the building budget was limited despite contributions from a private donor.

The two brick gables are the visible sides of the L-shaped structure. Between the windows and in the tympanum, brickwork columns turned 45⁰ to the axis give the façade an unmistakable profile. Ledges of vertically arranged bricks delimit the storeys. The brickwork is only single-layer, for the building is supported by a reinforced-concrete skeleton on the two lower levels and a steel one in the attic area. The interstitial wall surfaces are a lightweight frame construction filled with insulation. The roof surfaces are covered with grey fibre cement. On the south side of the roof, photovoltaic elements contribute to the energy supply for the building.

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