The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Burnham Copse Infants School, Photo David & Mary Medd, courtesy of Institute of Education
Burnham Copse Infant School Photo © Elain Harwood

Lost Modern

Burnham Copse Infants School, Tadley, Hampshire

Status: Destroyed
Type: Education
Architect: Colin Stansfield Smith
Location: Newchurch Road, Tadley RG26 4HN

Burnham Copse Infant School was designed in 1985 by Ian Templeton and Ian Lower of the Hampshire County Council Architect’s Department, under the direction of Sir Colin Stansfield Smith. It was referred to as one of England’s most adventurous schools and won a national Education Award a year after it was completed.

The playful one-off design at Burnham Copse was initially inspired by the idea of a circus tent and successfully created an expressive form based on two Indian Tepees.  The multi-level school had sweeping, conical roofs displaying bands of slate, glass and herringbone tiles, topped with globe finials. The classrooms spiralled into the top-lit central hall and were a level above it. The result was loved by pupils and other locals, who christened it, variously, a tipi, circus tent, roundhouse, oast house, chapter house and magic roundabout.

Burnham Copse was one of several great school buildings constructed during Stansfield Smith’s 1973-1992 tenure at the Hampshire department. He considered public architecture the “visible shop window of an enlightened local authority”, decrying the prevalence of system building and standardisation in local government practice as “a sort of environmental game played by procedures and numbers”. With the pressures of post-war population growth and suburbanisation easing and school rolls falling, Stansfield Smith saw a chance for local government architecture to become more individual and imaginative. Under his leadership, the Hampshire department grew rapidly in number and took on the character of a sort of atelier, with crits, life drawing classes, study trips, exhibitions, competition entries and seminars with some of the leading practitioners of the day.

Stansfield Smith’s special gift was to combine scholarship and invention with a clear-headed understanding of what he called the “complexity of problems and many layers of client” encountered in government practice, for which a “single architectural language” was, he felt, inappropriate. For this reason Stansfield Smith celebrated a “healthy creative tension” within his department and fostered an increasingly rich dialogue between an “enlightened client” and “enlightened architects”. Like all of his department’s school buildings Burnham Copse was a unique response to its setting, its huge roofs place-makers for their suburban community.

By September 2008 a continuing fall in rolls led to the merger of Burnham Copse’s Infant and Junior schools. The building was closed soon after, left to the vandals, and demolished to save the cost of securing the site.  Burnham Copse Infant School remains a standard of innovative school design.

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