St. Cyprian’s School – Future

Name St. Cyprian’s School
Client St. Cyprian’s School
Location Oranjezicht, Cape Town
Status Ongoing

St. Cyprian’s School is a well-established Anglican school in Cape Town. Both the setting of the school and the original buildings, which were designed by the office of Herbert Baker, Kendall and Morris, are very special. The development of the school over the last 100 years has occurred in a piece-meal fashion, which has created a rich mosaic of different building styles and histories. Importantly, during this period, the school resisted the temptation to re-organize the spaces in a rational, utilitarian modern manner. This has given rise to a set of spaces similar to those found in a city, where chance encounters can and do occur. The paths of pupils crisscross everyday on their way to and from classrooms, making a non-hierarchic network of spaces and movement routes, which allow the youngest and oldest girls’ paths to cross and crisscross again and again.

A campaign to re-imagine the school was initiated in the early 2000s. This has culminated in the construction of a number of new buildings and spaces within the school grounds.  Importantly the school’s brief to the architects was that, while they respected and loved the older buildings, they did not want to create a pastiche imitation of the old buildings but rather to establish a new language of buildings, which would mark a break from the past but which would nonetheless respect that past.

Three key ideas formed the basis of the design strategy. These both impact on ways of thinking about heritage, as well as ways of using history as a source of ideas for making contemporary architecture.

  1. Progressive versus Pathological conservation
    In his seminal book, The Architecture of the City, Aldo Rossi distinguished between two different attitudes towards historic buildings. The first response he termed “Pathological Conservation” – by this he meant an approach which sought to return the building to a state which would closely approximate its original condition and would include freezing the use of the spaces and leaving them as originally intended. I consider this approach to be antagonistic towards the idea that architecture is a part of a living tradition in which older buildings are continually being adjusted to suit new uses over time in response to new needs that society may throw up. “Progressive Conservation” refers to dealing with architecture as a living tradition wherein buildings are given new life by being adjusted to new uses over time. This of necessity means that the building’s fabric will be adjusted and contemporary uses and spaces inserted and/or added to existing fabric. This was the approach that was adopted at St. Cyprian’s.
  2. Archaic Space
    Following on from the research of Rossi into the structure and nature of the traditional city, he also proposed  that those works of architecture that possess the greatest capacity to adjust to new and different uses over time are those buildings that are characterized by the greatest geometric precision. For example, the Colosseum in Rome has supported with ease a huge range of different uses over two thousand years of existence, without having changed the basic order of structure and space of the building.

I have termed the spaces made by these kinds of buildings “Archaic Space.” My interpretation of these spaces is that they are marked by a strong sense of platonic geometry and this is given special expression with regard to the plan form. Because the school required us to design, in some cases, sets of spaces whose future uses were in-determinate, I chose to make these kinds of spaces out of very precise geometries – “Archaic Spaces.” This is best illustrated by the Life Center, which is intended to be used for a number of different uses, many of which have yet to be determined. In a sense we were asked to design a space for which no one single specific purpose had yet been assigned or would ever be assigned. The plan form is generated by the use of platonic geometry and comprises a circle within which is placed a square and then a hexagon. At the centre, the space is resolved once more with a square and a circle. In section the building is proportioned as a square with regard to height and width. This strategy has produced a space of strong spatial and geometric order, which has already proved its versatility by being used for a number of very different uses, including indoor hockey practice, a national student debating competition and an examination centre.

  1. Third Space
    In many schools, spaces are designed with only utilitarian functions in mind, which tends to have two consequences. Firstly, the spaces shut out the creative engagement of children in the use of the spaces, because of their singularity of use. Secondly it follows that the spaces don’t allow for multiple or other uses. To deal with this issue, we created a set of spaces which we called “Third Space.”In a way “Archaic Space” and “Third Space” are similar in that they both seek to give space over to multiple uses.  The difference is “Third Space” is marked by being part of a larger spatial network, wherein the new space sits adjacent to or within a larger space. On the other hand “Archaic Space” holds itself within its own set of spaces. The idea of “Third Space” is best illustrated by the circular hub spaces of the new Knowledge Center in the old Gymnasium. These large scaled timber constructions, which sit alongside an internal street running adjacent to the new library, were made with no specific purpose in mind. The spaces were offered up to the students to use as they wished. As a consequence, a huge range of uses has emerged, which include impromptu theatre, large and small meetings, quiet reading, teaching and homework. What is clear is that the uses to which the students have put the spaces is beyond anything that the architects could have imagined. The way in which these spaces offer themselves up to a variety of uses chosen and imagined by the users leads us to the concept of “Third Space.”

The following buildings have been built or added to existing heritage buildings at the school. These interventions are part of a larger planning study, which was made at the beginning of this process by the architects. The planning process set out guidelines for the future development of the school. These guidelines were defined as a set of performance criteria rather than cast as a so-called master plan. In this way a great deal of flexibility was created, which nonetheless offered up a clear future vision of the school in spatial terms.

New Knowledge Center is located in the historic gym. The existing structure remains untouched. The new additions comprise prefabricated timber construction, which can be dismantled in the future to return the gym to its original use. An existing open air courtyard adjacent to the gym has been enclosed with a translucent roof and three large wooden hubs have been placed within this space.

New IT Hub has been built in the Tortoise Courtyard. It is a two-storey circular building which has been faced with glass mosaics which reflect the sky and surrounding building and make the new building almost disappear. The circular form was chosen to both minimize the impact of the new building in the courtyard, as well as to enable the teacher to view all computer monitors from her desk. The interior is designed like a space capsule – the space is small and the equipment has been very carefully designed to fit. The intention was to provide the pupils with a different spatial experience from what they were used to in other teaching spaces.

Molteno House Extensions were conceived as a set of new specialist spaces added to an existing rectangular teaching block. The extensions weave between existing trees. In so doing, the value of the natural landscape is given precedence over architecture – this lesson is an important one the school wanted its pupils to learn.

Life Center – Life orientation has developed as a requirement of the national curriculum. The subject encompasses a wide range of skills including physical education and development. While the subject matter is expected to evolve, the school needed a flexible space that could be used for exercises during teaching periods and which can double up as a sports pavilion and rehearsal space after hours. The new life center is placed between existing buildings and is circular in plan. The facade consists of an inner layer of sliding glass screens and an outer layer of specially made breeze blocks. In this way a thermally efficient set of conditions is achieved. The Life Center consists of two levels which can be used together or separately. Blinds ensure that it can be used for drama and cinema, as well as hired out as conference space, among many other as yet unknown potential uses. The circular form negotiates between the awkward geometries of the existing buildings and the new building. The space inside the building develops the idea of “Archaic Space,” which has been generated by a precise geometry both in plan and section.

Creative and Science Centers – These two classroom blocks have been remade by retaining the outer shell of the buildings and reworking the interior spaces. I would consider this to be a good example of “Progressive Conservation.”

Other Works – In addition to the above projects, the architects have been involved in remaking the interiors of the existing classrooms and other minor works at the school.

Future Projects – The last remaining major work to be completed is the new Activity Centerwhich is placed at the top of the site overlooking the hockey field and is framed by Table Mountain behind. Learning from Architect Solomon’s original un-built domed roof design for UCT’s Jamieson Hall, the roof of the new hall is vaulted and the soffit is lined with red clay bricks. The soft lazy curve of the vault is a perfect foil to the craggy texture of the mountain behind. A freestanding timber pergola both adjusts the geometry of the hall to the hockey field and acts as a scaling device at the front terrace. A set of ramps and staircases create interlinked platforms which connect the hall and its spaces to the lower campus