Remaking spaces at King Alfred School
Words Vilma Paasivaara
Contributing editor Andrée Cooke, a contemporary art and design specialist, talks about a very special project she realised with designer Michael Marriott in the King Alfred School – involving the students in designing and building their own space…
We all are familiar with those corners of public spaces that you might look at and think, ‘I could really make this space better’ – and that is exactly what Cooke thought about the breakout space in the King Alfred School in North London. With the help of the school and acclaimed furniture designer Michael Marriott, she came up with a unique project to renew the space and to get the children involved in the process.
Marriott, who Cooke asked to participate in the project for his functional design aesthetic and knowledge of working with recycled materials, ran hands-on workshops with students to teach them all the practical skills they needed. For three months Marriott and Cooke met up with a group of children from Years 8 and 9 to first conceive and eventually build their new communal area. ‘It was all pretty hands-on,’ Cooke says, ‘Michael and I were there every week. We both had our sleeves rolled up and we were busy doing everything that they were doing.’
Empowering the children through giving them new skills and ways of thinking was a big part of why Cooke wanted to get involved with the project in the first place. ‘I was interested in creating a team environment,’ she says, ‘a bit like in a design practice.’ The pair worked consciously to familiarise the kids with design processes they would not have been introduced to otherwise. ‘We wanted to get them thinking about materials, or thinking about how you go about a project like this.’ Ultimately, they wanted to create an environment where ‘the kids, in particular, could put forward ideas and thoughts on how they wanted to utilise the space and what the priorities were.’
Cooke remarks that she was surprised by the different discussions that building a communal space sparked among the children. ‘There was discussion from the beginning about ownership and about vandalism, which was particularly interesting because obviously what they produced will then be used by the school community.’ Other subjects the children wanted to address included social exclusion, how the space would be used, and by who – which lead to them trying to design a space which would feel inclusive to all.
Sustainability and the use of recycled materials were also at the heart of the project from the beginning – though the strict budget played its role as well. ‘We would have used recycled materials anyway,’ Cooke says, ‘it’s important these days, particularly in an educational environment, to encourage kids to think about materials and what the implications are in terms of global impact.’ Some of the wood was sourced directly from trees in the school grounds, which gave the kids a rare opportunity to follow the material from ‘tree to table’, Marriott also introduced the use of post-consumer plastics for the table tops, through which they got to work directly with a recycled material.
As we move towards automation and other major changes in how we work, Cooke says it is important to encourage children to engage with fields that won’t disappear. ‘One of the personal reasons for creating this project was that I feel very passionately that the younger generations should be equipped and have the ability to get involved in design.’ Cooke also recognises that it is these kinds of immersive experiences that can spark someone on a whole new trajectory. She also hopes that the project at King Alfred School could work as a pilot and inspire other schools and public spaces to create similar projects. ‘I would love to be doing more of these projects, in all kinds of social environments, where there are large communities using these spaces. I think it’s good for designers to be a part of, and engage with the community.’