Paul Finch discusses AHMM’s Stirling Prize win, and the lessons that can be learnt from Burntwood School

This year’s Stirling Prize architects, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, were a popular choice both with the audience on the night, and generally in the world of architecture. That is partly because they have a huge network of friends in the profession, many of whom were in evidence at their 25th anniversary party this summer. They are sociable and don’t worry overly about being the only designers at their own events.


Burntwood School by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize 2015

Moreover, they have been shortlisted on several previous occasions for a variety of projects, suggesting that sooner or later it would be their year, and so it proved. The building that won, a secondary girls’ school in Burntwood Lane, Wandsworth, is less spectacular than an earlier shortlisted project, Westminster Academy, and does not have the formal power of, for example, the Angel office building, also shortlisted.

However, Burntwood School is a fascinating project, shortlisted in the World Architecture Festival Awards where it will be presented next week. For one thing it involves a substantial element of retrofit, raising the usual questions about the extent to which you demolish and build new, and/or what you keep and enhance.


Burntwood School by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize 2015

Certainly the built outcome is impressive, and though it is not accurate to describe it as Brutalist, there is certainly plenty of concrete (happily combined with striking colour, including the practice’s trademark yellow), and the project as a whole has gravitas.

The calm presence on a decent site belies the near-panic which affected the procurement of the project. This was nothing to do with the nature of the contract, but the consequence of the last government’s decision to scrap the Building Schools for the Future programme. Wandsworth Council managed to get the project activated two days before the programme closed; it must be very pleased it did so.


Burntwood School by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize 2015

Paul Monaghan, the AHMM partner-in-charge on this project, had considerable experience of the BSF programme from two very different perspectives. AHMM has produced several schools under the programme, so he understood at first hand what could be achieved. But this was enhanced by his role as chair of the Cabe schools design panel, which until Cabe’s scrapping by the same coalition government had done valuable work in assessing BSF designs across the country.

Criteria Cabe used to assess schools had to be convincing for the Education Department which approved the review programme; local education authorities; bidding consortia; and of course school architects. Because of the huge number of schools being proposed, the review process sampled a design by the bidding consortia for every significant multi-school programme.


Burntwood School by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize 2015

Unusually, the reviews produced score sheets (rather like school reports) to emphasise the objective assessment on the same basis of each and every bidding consortium. This meant that it was possible to point to particular areas of a design that needed attention even if the overall score was satisfactory, or to exactly why a design was considered to be sub-standard.

The expertise generated by these reviews rubbed off on the architects doing the reviewing, most of whom were school designers themselves. The loss of that concentrated body of people and knowledge was a terrible waste, but in Burntwood School we have a memorial to the sort of quality which, for reasons best known to themselves, people like Michael Gove think is too good for ordinary people.

Paul Finch is Editorial director of the Architects’ Journal and the Programme director for World Architecture Festival, which takes place from 46 November 2015 in Singapore.