Article from the Design Magazine, no. 292, April 1973

Shortly after the school moved to its new site at Bettws
this article was published in the DESIGN magazine.
For accompanying photos see link to the left.


Newport High's Low Profile

This month, a new comprehensive school in Newport
Monmouthshire is officially opened. The £1 million
building was designed by Eldred Evans and David Shalev as
a result of an open competition. Alastair Best reports.
Photographs by Philip Sayer.

Newport is better known for steel and rugby than for its educational policy. But in 1967 the county borough took the comparatively rare and enlightened step of staging an architectural competition for one of its new comprehensive schools. To a hungry architectural profession, a competition in any shape or form is usually something to be thankful for.

The site chosen, at Bettws, was one of seven "base sites” which the county borough had been assembling on the periphery since deciding to go comprehensive in 1958. It covered 30 acres, was partially hemmed in by agricultural land, and was fairly remote from the centre of the town.

The competition brief was not thought likely to inspire a great piece of architectural design. From a total entry of 165, the three judges had little difficulty in winnowing away all but 10 finalists.

Reactions to the winning design by Eldred Evans and David Shalev were far from ecstatic. The Architect's Journal acidly observed that the scheme exhibited "almost total ignorance of Crowther, Newsom and Plowden, not to mention various DES design bulletins," and whilst conceding that it managed to break down academic and social spaces to some extent, it did so "at the expense of divorcing general teaching space from specialist rooms and workshops".

Newport High School opened last summer and is officially opened this month by the mayor. Those who have actually seen it, may feel that it confirms some of the sniffy comments just quoted. They will find the school's stepped section and intricate arrangement of levels - seven in all - needlessly baffling; they will object to the Brutalism of its untreated Forticrete blockwork and Kee Klamp handrails; and they will conclude that the architects have concocted a form of institutionalism every bit as stark as the carbolic scented corridors of the Victorians. Others will say that the faults - many of them redeemable - are outweighed by the school's undoubted virtues. They will find the deliberately stark, maintenance-free finishes very attractive and will be seduced by the school's astonishingly rich and varied circulation pattern. So what are the virtues and how serious are the blemishes?

First, siting. The land is crossed by a stream and slopes gently towards the south-east. The lower portion was subject to flooding and considered unsuitable for building. The architects sensibly decided to use the stream as a line of demarcation between three distinct activity areas: hard porous pitches to the north; green playing fields to the north-east; and a quiet area to the south, with soft views of the Monmouthshire and Brecon valley basin. The stream, diverted and straightened into a canal, became the building line for the school. This arrangement firmly separated the hard northern "front" of the school from its more pastoral "back" - and it allowed all classrooms, with the exception of the north-lit workshops and top-lit laboratories, to take advantage of the sun and the view. The school's "front" is reached from the road by a long driveway cut between steep banks, and there is a similar exit route running parallel to it at the other side of the playing field.

The brief specified parking spaces for 40 cars - one for every two staff members - but this is already inadequate. Some 72 cars are now parked both in the prescribed spaces and on the other side of the main access roadway, making it impossible for large vehicles to manoeuvre on the forecourt directly in front of the school.

The school bus is another vehicle which has been running into difficulties. The architects intended that the buses should deposit and collect pupils, air terminal style, opposite their appropriate entrance. For this purpose, they provided a sheltered platform running the full length of the north side of the building. Unfortunately, the bus drivers have found that they cannot turn into the exit lane without reversing -a manoeuvre which union rules forbid them to perform when there is no conductor on board. The tedious result of all this is that children who come to school by bus have to be deposited at the main gate and condemned to a long, unnecessary and exposed trudge.

The DES parking space allowance is ludicrously low when every one of the school's present 70 teachers, not to mention a growing number of sixth formers, comes to school by car.

The interior of the school evokes the same mixture of admiration and misgivings. The internal organisation is complex, though simple in principle. The architects have imposed the discipline of a grid onto a sloping site, with the result that the school has a clear-cut circulation pattern, but a bewildering number of levels. The backbone of the plan consists of three lateral corridors running east-west. These are traversed at right angles by five north-south corridors, stepped down the slope. Into this three- dimensional grid are slotted the teaching spaces: to the north, a row of workshops, surmounted by rather dimly lit labs and science classrooms; then ten identical teaching units, each wrapped round two sides of a small courtyard. Each unit is semiautonomous, with its own dining/general teaching area and three classrooms arranged above loos and lockers. One of the units, significantly less tidy than the others, is used by staff, the headmaster and his secretary occupying what amounts to a subdivided classroom only slightly upgraded by the addition of wall-to-wall carpet. The sixth formers occupy a special unit next door to the school's communal facilities: the library, assembly hall, music room, swimming pool and gym.

The villagey, semi-private layout of courtyards is highly successful. The architects have brought off a remarkable conjuring trick. As one moves about the school it's almost impossible to believe that the building harbours well over 1500 children (at a density of about 700 per acre). The network of steps, corridors, gangways, terraces. open and shut views, is also brilliantly geared to a child's small-scale, highly mobile world.

If you believe that mobility is the key concept in school design, that the spaces between classrooms are more important than the classrooms themselves, then you will like Newport. Its classrooms, lit from north and south and domestically scaled, are also successful.

So it is with reluctance that one turns to the headmaster's formidable list of defects, aggravated by the arrival of school children six months before the workmen were due to move out. Twice staff were present as witnesses when the usual flat-roof leakages occurred; parental pressure demanded that the Kee Klamp hand rails should be raised for safety; the swimming pool was rushed into use without proper testing, the water heating worked but the essential mechanical ventilation failed, the humidity soared and a fungoid growth appeared on the ceiling ; the architects say the acoustics of the assembly hall is fine, school staff say it is awful; school personnel have found it hard to accept the architects' idea that glass doors at the back of the hall are part of the ventilation - the doors remain closed, the school complains of a stuffy atmosphere.

As for the magnificently spacious gym, we could share the headmaster's regret that its easily marked cork floor makes it unsuitable for holding large public examinations - if it had not, according to the architects, been the deliberate intention of Newport Education Committee that such a floor be used to prevent public examinations from taking place in the gym.

Some of these defects are architectural some contractual, some stem from awkward briefing, some from inevitable cost paring (the school had to be designed to 1966 DES allowances). It would be pointless to gloss over them. Clearly the school will take time to settle down. But once the trees have sprouted in the courtyards and the planting has taken hold, so that, in the poetic phrase of the Times Education Supplement "green will tumble out of grey, and grey sit perched on green” and once the worst of the teething problems have been sorted out, then Newport High should emerge as a minor, if slightly flawed, masterpiece and a vindication of the competitions system. It should encourage other local authorities to follow Newport's example.