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Nelson Mandela Primary School, Sparkbrook, Birmingham. Credit: Balsall Heath Local History Society

Ahead of the MacEwen Award 2019 deadline, APEC Architects’ Naomi Fisher remembers Nelson Mandela Primary School and the lesson that architecture was about more than arranging rooms on plan.

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Naomi FisherDirector | Architect

I had barely recognised architecture as a career when, as a child, I started designing schools on the backs of posters; the largest sheets of paper I could get my hands on. It was a pastime that combined careful line drawing and make-believe as I would configure spaces in plan while imagining the occupants as they circulated between rooms to learn, eat and play.


It was against this backdrop that I recall realising for the first time that architecture could be designed for social purpose. In 1987, my last year of primary school, and so at the height of my expertise in the matter, the Nelson Mandela Primary School in Birmingham was completed; designed by the local authority and later awarded the RIBA President’s Building of the Year. The scheme had a wider community agenda too and, as I poured over plans and photos in publications at the time, I realised that the design had emerged as a response to a conversation between the architecture and the activity of learning, rather than an exercise in arranging rooms on plan. Just as importantly, it embraced its inner-city location with open arms, employing blurred boundaries not metal railings.


Linear in form, it comprised a wide, top-lit spinal street with classrooms arranged along the southern edge, sheltered beneath a low-slung, projecting canopy roof. Class areas could be opened or closed off to the shared space and each other, with sliding panels, permitting a more self-directed, free-flowing learning environment, when desirable. Each had direct access to outdoors. The scale and detailing were designed with its young occupants in mind and a simple palette of timber and bright colours radiated a warmth that drew me into the photos.


In its 30 years, the school has regularly topped the city’s league tables, in spite of nearly all children having English as an additional language. Who knows how much its architecture has influenced this academic success, but it certainly had an impact on my 11-year-old self.