Zaha Hadid’s learning curve

Schools aren't what they used to be. At the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, south London, there's a glass-fronted, state-of-the-art recording studio next to the drum-filled music room. In every corridor, there is a screen attached to a wall that has a changing display of educational information ("Word of the week: bombastic!") and enlightening facts (your eyes remain roughly the same size throughout your life).

You know that the academy has ambition when you first see it round a dark corner on Shakespeare Road. After passing a council vehicle depot, run-down buildings and scrubby gardens, the sky opens out and set against the blue is a sleek, grey building that gives the impression - in the way that it leans to one side, the lines of windows and walls all slanting forward - of being on the move, sliding across London.

It was designed by Zaha Hadid, known for her dramatic, curving buildings - the London Aquatics Centre for the Olympics, the Guggenheim Museum in Taiwan, the Guangzhou Opera House in China. But a school in Brixton - Hadid's first school and the first secondary school in the area - is a very different proposition.

Our guide round the school on a blustery autumn afternoon is Bidisha Sinha, one of a team of 12 architects working for Hadid who were assigned to the project. The challenge of the building, she says, was to provide a design for public good on a low budget (£36m) and that was resilient enough to withstand the knocks and exuberance of 1,200 pupils, hence the concrete stairwells and wide corridors.

The school is divided into four sections to create an atmosphere of more intimate environments. Everywhere you look, there are large windows, giving the illusion of space in what is a relatively cramped site. The windows also allow pupils to see and be seen: safety was a key element of the brief. "There are no dead ends," says Sinha, pointing to the staffrooms at the end of each corridor and the windows that look in on every space,
“apart from the toilets, for obvious reasons."

Evelyn Grace, one of eight academies in London run by Ark (Absolute Return for Kids), opened a year ago. Last month, it was awarded the Stirling Prize, the most high-profile award for British architecture, and a victory that fits the aspirations that the school evidently has for its pupils. Its mission statement, displayed in the main lobby, says that the academy is "for students who will become leaders of tomorrow in every walk of life".

High hopes

Here, where over 50 per cent of the pupils are on free school meals, the culture is one of discipline and drive. The head teacher apparently likes to go out on to one of the school's four terraces to admire the view - north to the City's skyline of the Swiss Re Building, Tower 42 and the still-growing Shard - gleaning inspiration from the soaring buildings in the distance.

Sinha says that when she returned to the school after the pupils moved in, she was overwhelmed by their response. One told her that it was the "first time someone had given him something". She could see that they treated the space with respect. In every masterpiece, there's a flaw, though. Sinha points to the chairs - standard-issue, clunky plastic in bright colours (as far from Hadid's style as you can imagine): "When I first saw them, I freaked out."

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban