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Primary Space - Dalry Primary School, North Ayrshire, Scotland


Early Beginnings

In 1997, Bruce McLean, with regular collaborators architect Will McLean and writer Mel Gooding, made a proposal for an experimental school and entered it, unsuccessfully, into a competition in East London for a new school building.  McLean is passionate about the effect of the learning environment on students and children, and once this strand of thinking about school design had begun, he was determined to see it through.  McLean feels strongly that artists have a vital role in instigating projects, and where they see something that “needs fixing”, they should make a proposal.  Public art should not be just about doing something as a reaction to a brief, or making something that works for an existing place or space.

Tom Littlewood of IPA brought Bruce together with North Ayrshire Council (NAC), where IPA project manager Linda Mallett was working as Public Art Development Officer, and had already been in discussion with Jim Leckie about artists’ commissions for schools. Leckie was keen to explore ideas, but preferred to take the process slowly.  As a result of initial meetings and workshops, the first step in the process was taken as the Council asked the artist to develop a feasibility study (download the proposal for the feasibility study) for this new approach to school design -  “Primary Space”.  Funding for this was secured from the Scottish Arts Council, and IPA provided specialist project management. 

Primary Space Feasibility Study 1998-2000

The feasibility study (download the proposal for the feasibility study) ran over two years and was carried out by Bruce McLean with Mel Gooding and Will McLean, building up their conceptual idea of a new school design through research, discussion, workshops and meetings. Children, parents, teachers and Council Officers were all involved in this study; a broad consultation model which continued throughout the entire process up to the final design of Dalry School.

Test Commissions

As part of the developing relationship between the artist and the client, and a way of starting to test the imbedded intelligence approach, two smaller scale projects were commissioned in addition to the feasibility study. The first project was at a new primary school at Beith, already under construction, where Bruce contributed an artwork for the nursery floor and a wall painting for the reception area.  This allowed Bruce to begin a practical working relationship with the North Ayrshire architects, and allowed the client to see the artist at work on a live scheme. 

The second commission was more ambitious, at Lawthorn Primary School, a project still in the design process. McLean took one elevation of the building and reconfigured it to make a dynamic learning feature – a test bed for imbedded intelligence.  “Wonderwall” as the project was called, turned the “back” of the school into a special study area. The façade can be open or closed, and when closed the design on its shutters creates a huge ruler in the landscape, “measuring” the length of the school at 1:1 scale.  When open, the shutters reveal a wall with sketches and designs revealing and exploring the activities in each room behind the wall – the kitchen wall has texts and images of recipes and ingredients and the boiler room wall is partially glazed to reveal the normally hidden machinery.

Primary Space – the new primary school at Dalry

After successfully working through the smaller scale projects, the client agreed that the team could develop the ideas from the feasibility study for a completely new school project at Dalry, where a Victorian school was to be replaced with a new building in the school grounds. This provided the opportunity for a rare occurrence in the public art world; the artist was given an integral role on the design team before any design work had been done.

Concept and Design Development

Work began in 2002, to develop the ideas of the feasibility study. The basic brief for the project was to develop a school building for a set number of pupils, with the “usual” spaces required for this – classrooms, toilets, library, IT room, gym, canteen etc.  Whilst the design supplied all of the basic requirements, it did so in a completely new way. 

There were a huge amount of meetings, discussions and disagreements before pen was ever put to paper for any design work. Workshops, including a two day drama session, were held with the staff and children that would be transferring to the new school, as well as with other schools, to get as broad an insight as possible into what children really felt about their environments. North Ayrshire architect David Watts, who was the principal architect on the scheme, recalls Bruce McLean’s refusal to accept convention, and constant questioning of every area of learning and existing school buildings – why should things be like this, why not consider something else?

Ideas came thick and fast, with huge amounts of proposals and concept sketches, many of which never made it to the finished school – for example, classrooms were proposed to be different shapes, having the same number of walls as their year group number – year one, 1 wall (a circular class), year 2 a semi-circle, year 3 a triangle and so on…

The process was very different to the normal design method, and although creative, it was also at times explosive. David Watts found it very challenging.  As he puts it, “architects can be control freaks” and “letting go of the reins” on a project can be very difficult, along with the necessity to marry the process within the statutory restrictions and requirements. Nevertheless he is unequivocal in his praise for the experience, his first working with an artist – “it was great – difficult and challenging at times” but has “totally changed the way I think about projects, I’m much more likely to question, to ask the “why” question”.

In 2003, a final document was presented to the Scottish Arts Council (who eventually gave the project capital lottery funding) and North Ayrshire, a mixture of discussion, design, concepts and consultation reports, it outlines the vision for the school design and how it could work on the Dalry site.
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Embedded Intelligence

The notion of embedded intelligence is that the properties and structure of a building can be revealed and used as in-situ learning tools.  So the weight, construction method and materials, power requirements etc can all be seen and used in a variety of teaching approaches.  (For example, in the “environment house”, at Dalry, a section of floor has been cut out and replaced with glass to show the underfloor central heating pipes and the same has been done in the ceiling, to expose the rainwater system to view).  McLean’s notion for this “Machine for Learning” extends to the integration of text, information and artworks as part of the building fabric, to increase the potential for learning and provide more material for investigation.

Detail Design and Procurement

To complete the design process, the concepts were translated into detailed designs and working drawings by David Watts.  Bruce McLean worked closely with architect Will McLean to provide architectural drawings and specifications of some of the distinct, bespoke features to be integrated, as the original sketches and drawings were not necessarily useable for construction purposes.  In some cases, these works were made entirely off-site by Bruce, or others under his supervision, with him sourcing fabricators, arranging delivery, and supplying only fixing and loading details to the architect and contractors. In other cases, work had to be applied, made or created directly on site. 

North Ayrshire employed consultant structural engineers on the project, and all designs were passed through them to ensure structural integrity and safety. Bruce was named as a Consultant for the project, and worked under the auspices of the Council’s Health and Safety policy.  It was written into the building contractor’s appointment that Bruce would be on site and therefore heavily involved in the day to day process throughout construction.
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Completed Building

The layout of the school has the class bases (“home” classrooms for each group) arranged in an irregular pattern along the south side, around a courtyard, and a winter garden.  Areas which are shared with evening community use – sports hall, dining hall – form the northern edge of the building. These spaces are divided by a spine which houses ancillary accommodation. Layout is mainly semi-open plan, with class bases opening into shared activity areas, punctuated by “houses” – spaces which focus on particular activities.  These include the book house (a circular library), the art house (a wet/dry creative space), the data house (IT room – a soft walled structure of balloon material, conceived by the designers as a spaceship crash-landed into the school, and immediately christened by the students with spot-on accuracy as “the Brain”) and the environment house (a space which rises up through the building and allows display and observation of the weather and the school’s energy use).   

The class bases are all different and themed in different ways to an area of the curriculum (language, numeracy, geography, science, nature, history and art). A room focusing on language has one wall displaying a giant A, while the other side contains the 1,000 most common words. A maths room has one wall made up of a giant abacus, while another shows a magic square of numbers.  There is a series of wall drawings by artist Gary Woodley, illustrating where a sphere of the same volume of the room would intersect with the walls if it was placed in the exact centre of the room. Other rooms include text, drawings, images and photographs by McLean and other artists, all designed to provoke thinking or merely enter the children’s subconscious, to be drawn upon at a future date - quotes from poems, the phrases of famous artists (of all media), two giant cows…. 

The School in Use

Headteacher Maureen Denningberg came into the design process halfway through, so was not party to the original conceptual discussions, but was able to have an effect and an input into the detailed design– a “very interesting and challenging process…”  She spent much time discussing with staff how the new design could work and how they could use it.  Now that the school is complete, she feels it is working very well, and is happy that it has made them change their teaching practice.  In fact, teachers and pupils alike are constantly coming up with new ideas about how to use the spaces. The process of testing these new ideas – if they don’t work, examining why - has become an important part of the school.  The children are very happy in the school too – a survey carried out soon after they moved in was resoundingly positive.  The classes move out of their class bases a lot, and locate themselves wherever is most appropriate for their lesson. 

The school is so innovative that it has been the subject of a number of case studies and articles (link to several urls on the documents page) and is often cited as a prime example of the possibilities for good design in new schools.
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Problems and Issues

As with many projects involving artists, the issue of timetables, deadlines and schedules can be difficult.  Jim Leckie acknowledges that the process for Dalry “needed an investment in time” and that the design process took longer than for a conventional building.  David Watts, who also acted as building project manager, found that he needed to be much more flexible on timetabling working with an artist, as information was supplied in different ways to the standard building contract.  In addition, there was a period of uncertainty over the success of the arts lottery application, and that created some difficulties with cashflow.  Nevertheless, the design and the building did get completed, and Tom Littlewood is certain that the traditional method of procurement used by the Council has allowed for the extra time and effort which has made the project unique.  A design and build scheme, or Public-private partnership such as PFI would not have had the flexibility to accommodate the Primary Space approach.

At present (summer 2009) the school is still technically unfinished.  The relationship with the building contractor became difficult, and a number of issues remain outstanding.  Architect, client, artist and project manager all cited this as one of the lower points of the scheme.  McLean feels that some issues could have been resolved if he could have had more time on site, but the logistics of living and teaching in London made this impossible. 

One of the major sticking points post-completion has been the issue of the way in which children’s artwork is displayed in the school.  Although an area was specially designed for this, children’s artwork is also often pasted over the original artworks which form the walls of the class bases, so at any one time, a percentage of these cannot be seen.  The design team and project managers are unhappy with this.  The educationalists, Maureen Denningberg and Jim Leckie counter by saying that it allows the artists’ work to be rediscovered when the children’s pictures come down…

There are also some issues around the final material for walls of “the brain” which has proved to be not soundproof.  As client, Jim Leckie feels he might insist on more prototyping and sample testing for future projects, when completely new materials are used.

The Next Time…

All of the participants in the Dalry project acknowledge that the early design ideas have been watered down during the development of the project, and in particular under the pressure of progressing through the Local Authority committee process.  Maureen Denningberg wishes she had fought harder for artworks on the outside of the building – “everyone comes into school and says wow but I would like people to see the outside and say wow!”  David Watts is philosophical about the lost ideas although he says he is now surprised at how much “safer” the design is than they thought it would be.  However, he is firmly of the opinion that this project is a step in a bigger process, and that the Council can learn more as new building projects come up. 

A book about the project is planned, which will include the ideas which were considered but not realised.  The book will aim to illustrate the collaboration, the approach and ideas, and explain some of the less obvious underlying concepts and links within the school building.  The idea is not to create a “manual” for new schools but to illustrate the Dalry process and provide information for future projects to use and develop.

Unsurprisingly, Bruce McLean feels most strongly about the dilution of the original vision and ideas, but his tenacious desire to create stimulating learning environments continues, as he throws himself into his next big project - designing a completely new University…

© Hazel Colquhoun 2009