141001_Architecture Today-Alfriston

Architecture Today

Peak Condition: Duggan Morris Architects Alfriston School Pool
01/10/14

Text: Giles Reid

Alfriston School is attended by around 130 girls aged 11 and upwards, who have a mix of moderate learning and communication difficulties. In addition, it is a centre of excellence for sports. The Buckinghamshire day and boarding school is situated up a road lined with large houses leading North of Beaconsfield’s town centre. Its grounds are dominated by one rambling building which has been extended in an ad-hoc way over many years.  A new indoor swimming pool, designed by Duggan Morris Architects, is a brave departure for the school.

The new building replaces an outdoor pool on the same site, which was in a state of dereliction. It overlooks the school fields, which are surrounded by mature trees. Hidden from the street, it is approached down a drive that runs alongside the main building. It abuts a large, nondescript 1930‘s pitched roof building, whose flank has been given a coat of dark grey textured render.  This transforms its image from that of a traditional ’house‘ into an abstract gable. The render continues under the base of the adjoining new building. Base and side elevations thus frame the pool enclosure, setting it apart as something modern and ’other‘. Just before the site drops away towards open fields, you enter the complex through a side door. This leads directly into a new services wing containing plant and changing rooms, and connecting the existing gymnasium building to the pool. Finishes here consist of a black vinyl floor, white square ceramic tiles, dark grout, raw concrete block, melamine lockers, black shadow-gaps, exposed timber structure and LED tube fixture.it may be the space you pass through en route to the main event, but it is characteristic of Duggan Morris’ work in general, showing exacting control, a reduced palette and a super-dry sensibility. 

From this service space you walk through another door into the swimming pool hall itself. Here you are hit by the contrast in senses. This is a room of water, humidity, light and sound. The pool is 16.5 metres long by 8.5 metres across and can be split into four lanes. Running around three sides is a perimeter ribbon window, zigzagging in plan. 

The amount of light in the space is surprising given the small amount of glazing, at least in relation to the overall height of the roof. At first impression, one imagines the space must have roof lights, just beyond view, hidden by the first roof bay. Light bounces off the water into the roof space. Suspended metal halide luminaires supplement this. The timber roof and side walls have a limed finish. The colour is much blonder and less woody than originally suggested by the architects computer renderings, and arguably the better for that.

The edges of the pool are not evident when swimming. As with an infinity pool, the water in near level with dark floor tiles. The view extends through flush glazing to the trees beyond. The greenery appears to press right up to the glass, reinforcing the impression that the interior is ‘floating’ , detached from the everyday school world beyond.

The qualities of the space are formed by structure. The pool sits under a folded timber plate cocoo, fabricated by Cowley Timberwork, which specialises in complex wooden constructions. Its past works include the roof of the debating chamber at EMBT/RMJM’s Scottish Parliament (2004), Frank Gehry’s Maggies Centre in Dundee (2003) and Michael Hopkins' Haberdasher’s New Hall in London (2002). The roof and walls are made from cross-maninated Kerto boarding fixed to glue-laminated timber beams.The cocoon hovers a metre above the floor, supported on three sides of the pool by discrete black-painted circular sled columns.

The fourth elevation is formed by the service wing, which in this magical context feels over­ly utilitarian. These columns transfer vertical and horizontal loads from the roof structure into the concrete retaining walls. Being short stubs, they are sufficiently stiff to eliminate the need for cross-bracing, which would interfere with the view out.

Any expression of the structural connec­tions between members is downplayed: beams and planes simply abut. Complex three-dimensional stainless steel plates and resin-fixed anchor bolts required precise engineering and sophisticated fabrication, in addition tn the detailed planning needed for the assembly sequence. Nevertheless, ever one of these plates is hidden cm the cladding side of the connection. The many hundreds of bolts tying the beams together are also concealed by timber pellets, which have been glued into place, sanded and painted to make them invisible. Construction technique is subsumed in a graphic whole. Materials and shapes are presented as closed geometric figures. Parts stand upon, rest against or sit next to other equivalent elements. How they are fixed together is not displayed. On the exterior, the Frake hardwood rain screen cladding of both walls and roofs is very crisply executed. The wide board module is maintained at all junctions. Excrescences are stripped away, over-flashings are omitted, gutters and downpipes are hidden, their termination discrete.

From the playing field, the roof appears as three identical gables. In this, it reads as a continuation of the existing building it adjoins.This distant view-and the plan drawing-are deceptive, however: the reality is more complex. The low-level perimeter glazing zigzags in and out the middle of each of the three bays is pulled in.  By contrast, the top of the wall directly above protrudes. The rear elevation follows an opposing set of moves. The middle of each of the three bays is pushed out at low level and the apex above is pulled in. These diverging points are  joined along score lines, breaking the facade (both the glass and the timber cladding) into folding triangular planes. Valleys alternatively rise and fall down the length of the pool. 

This folding generates symmetries and perhaps unintended ecclesiastical evocations inside-stars and palm fronds.