Wood Wharf Prep School

Canary Wharf, London

Wood Wharf is an exploration of what’s possible in school design. This could be a worthy blueprint for future inner-city schools.

Danny Harris
Lead Architect, Head of Schools and Colleges

With fewer city centre locations available for school development, we’re seeing more opportunities to explore what’s possible on tight, complex sites. In this case, London’s Canary Wharf. A place where bustling family neighbourhoods aren’t usually the first thing that come to mind.

But Canary Wharf Group’s Wood Wharf Masterplan looks to change that perception, transforming a largely vacant brownfield site into a thriving place to live, work, and raise a family.

© Canary Wharf Group

Connecting the plots

Our site sits in the centre of the masterplan, acting as a marker between two key public spaces—Union Square and Harbord Square Park. It’s the type of plot typically reserved for a museum, library, or civic building, but our client saw the opportunity for a unique educational offering—and a statement building to contrast the surrounding development.

Rethinking what a primary school could be

With the students growing up in an evermore complex world, the brief was to inspire a generation of creative problem solvers. A playful building that encourages the imagination of 252 pupils and 150 nursery children, while nurturing them to become positive and impactful members of society.

Importantly, we also had to balance privacy and security. Where schools are usually inward-looking buildings with barriers and gates to protect the perimeter, the outline planning permission required active frontages in line with the neighbouring retail units.

Referencing the park
Square and park views
Green terraces

A box of curiosities

Given the unique constraints, we looked to schools in Australia and northern Europe to inspire our approach.

Build tall. Eight storeys with a rooftop playground. Balance formal classrooms and specialist learning areas. Plenty of green space. Draw as much natural light as possible from between the surrounding high-rises. All while carefully planning how children would move around the building—both day-to-day, and as they advance through the curriculum. And of course, achieve that balance between public and private in the middle of Canary Wharf.

The result: a box of curiosities, with a park that wraps up and over.

Facade iterations

A mixture of timber with a copper coloured, anodised metal rainscreen embodies Wood Wharf’s natural aesthetic and the area’s dockyard architecture. Branch and leaf patterns create a metaphorical tree, providing visual interest and a nod to the school’s name. Slatted rainscreens further the use of timber, while illuminated signs bring a playful character to Union Square. Elsewhere, bright colours highlight key internal spaces, signify entrances, and communicate the school’s identity.

Playful design elements throughout the building

  • Green screens zones where children can explore video content and editing.
  • Open mesh ceiling sections to reveal steel beams, CLT planks, and M&E equipment. Colour coded so kids could see how the building was engineered.
  • ‘Coding walls’ so students could learn the basics of computer coding.
  • Impromptu performance spaces with terraced steps, designed to encourage spontaneous performance.
  • Slides between floors, easing traffic flow at break and lunch times. And because it’s fun.
  • We were also exploring novel ideas, like a traffic light that signifies when CO2 levels were exceeding limits and windows needed opening.
  • Libraries with circular seating areas to encourage group storytelling for improved presentation skills.
  • Wide staircases with public art, making them interesting places to pass through to encourage healthy travel.
© Ares Landscape Architects

Air quality and acoustic consideration

Designed to WELL Standard to achieve highest levels of air quality.

Privacy for students and residents

Close collaboration with daylighting specialists to ensure no visible sight lines between classrooms and neighbouring apartments.

A space for the community

With the masterplan focusing on community connection, the school also doubles as an amenity for residents. Out of hours, the sports hall can be used for fitness classes, while the specialist learning areas can be used for evening classes. A nice way to meet the neighbours and bring more life to Canary Wharf beyond the 9-5.

Exploring what’s possible

Wood Wharf Prep School was an exploration of what’s possible in school design. By focusing on the skills our children will need for the complex world they will inhabit, it forces us to think differently about what a school can be—and what the world might be—if we encourage curiosity above all else.

The project was granted planning permission in May 2023.