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Sir, can I go and play in the mud kitchen? The fun-filled school with luxury flats attached

With luxurious modern bathrooms, spacious open-plan living rooms and panoramic views across the city, 333 Kingsland Road sounds like any other pricey block of high-end flats. Except that, where you might normally find sunloungers on a neatly landscaped terrace, this one has a “mud kitchen”. That’s because, rather than a private gym, cinema or other aspirational concept of the kind used to sell such developments, this London high-rise comes with the joyful chaos of a primary school attached to its base.

After five long months of no school, it is a nice surprise to hear the sound of (safely bubbled) playground games in full swing, and glimpse kids fooling around on the deck that hovers above the street. You might expect such a tower to have a swanky concierge at its base, but there instead you’ll find the school reception. Meanwhile, the roof of Hackney New Primary School is given over to planters for each class to grow their own food and get mucky with mud. It is a welcome reminder, in a world increasingly devoted to overpriced apartments for young professionals and foreign investors, that cities are for children, too.

The unlikely pairing was one of necessity. It would be nice to think that a primary school could just be built on such a site, across the road from its sister secondary school, no questions asked. But such is the capital’s superheated property market that the Education Funding Agency was forced to cough up £16m to acquire the site, meaning that a tower of 68 luxury flats had to be built to pay for the £23.5m school, delivered as a joint venture with the Benyon Estate and developer Thornsett.

To make matters more perverse, the site had long been home to a fire station, so the money was simply paid from one public body to another. And, because of the vastly inflated land value, the possibility for any “affordable” flats was ruled out by the viability assessment in the process. In the eyes of the planners, the presence of the school was deemed sufficient to tick the community benefit box (along with a £1.5m contribution to affordable housing off site).

At the time, Labour councillor James Peters wrote to Labour-controlled Hackney council warning that the plans were “a travesty, a mockery of the council’s policies and an insult to people throughout the borough”. Local MP Meg Hillier also wrote to then education secretary Justine Greening, urging her that this was “a golden opportunity to deliver both a school and homes for teachers”. But the viability assessment said no.

Against this compromised backdrop, the architects, Henley Halebrown, have done an admirable job of making the forced marriage seem like a natural pairing, as if a primary school at the base of a tower block was as normal as a Tesco or a Costa. Not only that, they have designed the tower in such a way that it feels less like a cruel imposition to be grudgingly tolerated because it makes the school possible, and more of a positive presence that actively improves this stretch of Kingsland Road near Haggerston station. It might not provide the homes for teachers that it should, but when most new flats stand as blunt silos of speculation, this is a finely composed thing of rare quality.

Resting on a colonnade of chunky pillars, the 11-storey block stands as a monolithic terracotta-coloured mass, as if its apartments have been carved out of a single lump of bricky red matter. It is positioned opposite Ability Plaza, a building of similar height if more lumpen in composition, forming a gentrified gateway of flats to the promised land of Dalston beyond. The storeys rise in pairs, reducing the overall sense of scale, while the red concrete columns extend through the full height of the building, supporting deep balconies as they go, culminating in an open crown at the summit.

The tower has been shunted to one side, towards the busy main road, to help baffle car noise and fumes, leaving the rest of the site for the school, while its angled facades help to avoid overshadowing the playground and the neighbours behind. Architect Simon Henley shows me a collage of Palladio’s famous Villa Rotonda facade, its colonnaded frontage multiplied five times and stacked up to form a tower. It’s a bit of a stretch, but the intent to create depth, dignity and permanence is there.

In a welcoming gesture to the street, a long, low built-in bench, made of the same red concrete, runs along the external wall of the school hall, leading to the main entrance, where big bronzed gates open on to the playground courtyard. Secluded from the road and lined with creamy glazed bricks, the school has the feeling of a little cloister, with all classrooms opening on to this central space. The rooms are arranged over two and three storeys, with a first-floor walkway ringing the courtyard, creating a multi-levelled theatre of activity at playtime, looking down on to a landscape of undulating mounds that bulge through the rubbery playground.

“We wanted it to be possible to see every part of the school from standing in the middle of the playground,” says Henley. “I can imagine an elder child, bringing their younger sibling to the school for the first time, saying, ‘That’s your classroom over there, and that’s mine above you.’ I think being able to understand this whole world in one view is an appealing idea when you’re dealing with small people.”

It’s useful for teachers, too. From the staff offices they can look out across the playground and see pretty much every classroom, while the lack of corridors is a boon. Not only does it reduce the amount of space that has to be patrolled, but it means the area usually assigned for circulation can be given over to other things – such as more generous classrooms. Through this clever sleight of hand, Henley explains, “we ended up with a building that was smaller overall than the EFA would normally fund, but with more teaching space”. The classrooms are large, airy places, with big wooden beams framing skylights at the upper levels, and thoughtful details such as openable hatches next to the classroom doors, so teachers can communicate with senior staff without losing their pupils mid-lesson.

Removing corridors to increase classroom sizes is the kind of spatial trickery that architects have been forced to employ ever since Michael Gove, as education secretary, introduced the meaner regime for new school buildings in 2011. His changes saw space standards reduced, under the misguided notion that Labour’s school building programme had seen lordly architects “creaming off cash” with their inflated visions.

Many of the schools that have opened since then have followed the free school model, and have often been housed in converted offices, churches or portable classrooms, raising safety concerns over the standard of accommodation. One was even opened right next to an airport runway.

The Hackney New Primary School, itself a free school, shows it doesn’t have to be this way. It is a sequel to the Hackney New School, a secondary that opened in 2016 in a handsome complex of new and refurbished buildings across the road, also designed by Henley Halebrown. The project was partly let down by the contractor-led build quality, but the new primary school has fared much better, with a robust finish that feels built to last.

The school, which first opened in temporary premises two years ago has been rated ‘outstanding’

Founded by a group of ambitious local parents with aspirations for a school that put music and performance centre stage, the secondary school has had a bumpy ride. It recently lost its fifth headteacher in two years and last year received a damning Ofsted report that found it “inadequate” across the board. By contrast, the primary school, which first opened in temporary premises two years ago and is run by a different trust, has been rated “outstanding”.

Meanwhile, there has been a further twist in the fate of the apartment block. Built for market sale, the 68 flats were acquired by charitable housing group Dolphin Living in 2017, shortly after the project received planning permission. Dolphin has now rented out half the flats at intermediate rent (80% of market rate) and half at full market rent; and, in a couple of years’ time, it plans to use the building to rehouse residents from the nearby New Era estate, while it is comprehensively redeveloped.

New Era was thrust into the national spotlight in 2014 when it was sold to the US investment company Westbrook Partners, which planned to evict the tenants and more than double the rents – until a residents’ campaign, supported by comedian Russell Brand, saw the plan abandoned, and Dolphin stepped in to acquire the estate.

Soon enough, those very same residents will be able to enjoy the new tower’s communal penthouse roof terrace, jacked way up above Kingsland Road. In one sweeping view, they will be able to see Canary Wharf to the east, the City cluster to the south, and, in the distant West End, watch the sun set over the Mayfair headquarters of the company that tried and failed to evict them.

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