Heralded Swimming, Beaconsfield
Text: Isabelle Priest
On the day of the official opening, it’s clear from the spectacle how much Alfriston School’s new swimming pool means to its staff and children. Besides a speech from the headmistress, there’s a talk by the architect, a pupil speaks, choir and dance performances are given, and Katie Shelton, member of the London 2012 Olympic British synchronized swimming team, makes an address, followed by an energetic performance in the pool, plus a sample swimming lesson. It’s also clear how much it means to Duggan Morris Architects, which has worked on this project for seven years, having won the commission as a fledgling practice only two years after its inception.
For a school, you can imagine the kind of excitement that any new pool would generate. But this one, which came about because of a single visionary idea and which has been in progress for so long in order to find the financial backing, probably seems even more of an accomplishment. Add to the mix ambitious architecture, a drawn-out phased construction process, the fact that the whole facility is designed to be perfectly accessible to its 120 pupils, who have mild to moderate disabilities, as well as to the local community, and that it has been part of the momentum which saw the school become a specialist sports academy with the independence of governance that entails, and you have something quite rare and dreamy. Who knew architecture could be this powerful and clients so persevering?
From its first sketches on the drawing board, however, this building has always looked mesmerising. In truth, it is one of the only buildings I have genuinely tracked in anticipation of its finish from the moment I heard of it. And the reality does not disappoint. Having looked at the plans for so long, though, I was armed with the sense that things might not turn out as expected (they did not). In my mind the building is vast, but it isn’t, actually: the pool is only 16.5 metres long and four lanes wide, and the longest of its twelve prefabricated roof panels is 15 by 5.2 metres. Moreover, in my mind the building is away from all others, contending with nature alone. Yet it isn’t: the new building is even attached to an existing gym and right opposite a comparatively ugly conglobation of Arts and Crafts-inspired buildings. But taking the structure for what it is and how it has turned out, it is really pretty good.
Of course the most striking aspect of this project is the roof - that’s what it’s all about. It is also where a great deal of energy and innovation has been spent. Through raising it off the concrete plinth on stub columns and adding a continuous, one-metre-high perimeter window, the rest of the building is designed to be mute. It is picked out from its grey-painted, rendered receptacle by its unusual repeated diamond-cut gable form and knot-free West African frake timber cladding.
The interior side is just as impressive. Here, the exposed wood, intricate structure of whitewashed glulam members and repeated folds help create a calming environment. The low windows give bathers a touch of privacy as well as a unique infinity view over the green belt countryside. The space is also loaded with discrete technology, including a liquid pool cover, a below-ground ventilation system, floating stair rails and a level-deck pool.
My only reservations are the finishings in the changing and ‘utility’ areas-which are stark and stripped back and which, after a few year’s use, might just feel unclean - as well as the lack of coordination with the gym and its associated fitness room and staff areas (not shown on the plan). As Duggan Morris was responsible for the project from the beginning, including the renovation of the sports hall completed in 2010, something more could have been made to celebrate all the sports on offer here. As it is, the sequence of rooms prevents the fitness suite from having a relationship with the pool and the gym becomes a thoroughfare tor these areas at the back. The architecture doesn’t articulate the flourishing of all sports at the school, it concentrates only on the swimming. But that is the story told by the exterior.
The same can be said of the entrance, which is purposely understated. But once the building has bedded in, I worry that it will not look stated at all and will lack the announcement it deserves. It is with some hesitation to say that even though there is outstandingly beautiful architecture, it is mildly too unequal in its application.