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Benenden’s New Concert Hall and Music School by Hollaway Studio
Benenden School's Centenary Hall, Kent, UK. Designed by Hollaway Studio
Benenden School's Centenary Hall, Kent, UK. Designed by Hollaway Studio

The award-winning architecture practice, Hollaway Studio, has designed a remarkable new music school and concert hall with acoustics fit for an international philharmonic concert hall.

‘Acoustic perfection’ fit for a ‘mini Glyndebourne’

Situated at Benenden School, Kent, UK, and conceived as a musical instrument in its own right, every part of the design of the Centenary Buildings, from the materials used, the detailing, as well as employing a world-leading acoustician, all contribute to an environment that embodies ‘acoustic perfection.’ Hollaway Studio has created a building made to give life to music – and so to the cultural education of both Benenden’s pupils and the local community beyond.

In a school that dedicates itself to the whole-person education of its students, music is absolutely central to the curriculum. As much a teaching and practice space as it is dedicated to performance, Centenary Buildings includes a 750-seat, uniquely shaped, timber-framed concert hall known as the Centenary Hall; The Sir David K. P. Li Music School comprising the 150-seat Bonnie Yeung-Tsang Recital Hall which opens out onto the courtyard by the use of side glazing; digital media suites with state-of-the-art recording and performance facilities including the Metherell Song Room; and extensive landscaping allowing for external performances. Designed as a concert hall first, the building also works as a school hall, although Hollaway Studio considered it a ‘mini Glyndebourne’ during the design process. Fittingly, the Philharmonia Orchestra performed at the opening ceremony of the building.

Connecting a new music department to the performance space in order to work together, The Sir David K. P. Li Music School houses more than 20 light-filled practice, rehearsal, percussion, and song rooms, the latter for choral and solo practice. Each room is designed to respond to its anticipated use. Benefitting hugely from framed views, the Music School is linked to the Centenary Hall by the Beethoven Bridge through the stunning new double-height atrium space which also links to the West Wing, Chapel and main school, and flows into the new Seniors’ Courtyard outside, creating a tranquil and beautiful space in which pupils can relax and gather with friends. The Centenary Buildings are situated at the end of the ‘academic corridor’ which sets up a line through Benenden, picking up sciences, art, library spaces and now connecting to music.

Guy Hollaway, Principal Partner at Hollaway Studio, says “Centenary Hall is like a musical instrument in its own right. To create a mini Glyndebourne in this setting is an incredible feat of design and acoustic engineering and truly shows how important music is as part of an education. We wanted to create something that could be used in so many different ways to benefit the School and its surrounding community for now and generations to come and I think this building really does that.”

Crucial to the structure are the Centenary Hall’s giant doors that function not just as an entrance, but also as sonic reflectors. When open, the doors let the light of the natural world in — the Centenary Hall’s oval external perimeter echoes the shape of the rose garden in which it sits and which were restored as part of the project. When closed, they stand guard over the acoustics so that nothing can detract from it. Added to this the fins of the timber façade, created with Colorminium, emulate the strings of an instrument and fold around the air ducts concealing them from view. The striking diagrid roof is designed as both a structure and acoustic device in one. Its addition allows sound to bounce around the bays, encouraging the volume to feel larger, devoid of echoes.

World-leading acoustician, Matthew Harrison, a partner at engineer consultants, Buro Happold, was brought in to advise on achieving the unrivalled acoustics in the Hall.  His ambition was to achieve exceptional musical acoustics in spaces that would also be used in the daily life of the school.

As he explains, “The Centenary Hall has been designed so that a person can address the entire 750-seat audience at once without using a microphone even though the Hall has sufficient acoustic responsiveness to support live orchestral work. The final acoustic is warm and well-balanced with good clarity which is evident when the organ is played. The Bonnie Yeung-Tsang Recital Hall has been designed to emulate the acoustics of the Centenary Hall to give students confidence as they develop their playing and to give an intimate atmosphere for an audience. The Metherell Song Room in The Sir David K. P. Li Music School also reproduces the same acoustic characteristics giving Benenden School a distinctive sound of its own.”

The heart of the school community for future generations
Set within 250 acres of parkland, Benenden’s original School Hall was built in 1939 when there were just over 200 pupils, meaning that with the current intake of 550 it was significantly outdated. Now Hollaway Studio has designed something fit for both today’s school and for future generations while retaining the building’s place at the heart of the school community. Flexible seating configurations allow a space appropriate for prayer, performance, events or celebrations. The Centenary Hall also makes the most of its position in one of the most beautiful parts of the School site, while the new design retains some tiered seating which had been a treasured part of the old Hall for generations of Benenden girls.

Hollaway Studio’s design – the most ambitious in the School’s history – provides an exceptional performance space for both the School and visiting orchestras, while the attached The Sir David K. P. Li Music School will support and promote the arts to the student body and wider community. The addition of the latest technology, lighting and sound management systems has resulted in a world-class centre of music, performance and worship that reflects Benenden School’s ambition and continues to build upon the strong legacy of high-quality architecture that is already found across the campus.

Aspiration and inspiration for the surrounding community
These aspirational and inspirational new facilities will undoubtedly and  dramatically enhance the experience of pupils at Benenden School for years and indeed generations. Yet its purpose is not intended solely for attendees of the School but is open also to the wider community. Benenden’s award-winning Partnerships Programme supplements the many volunteering opportunities available to Benenden students with a range of outreach activities open to local schools. As part of some of the opening activities to celebrate the new Centenary Buildings,  Benenden recently welcomed more than 450 children from 13 local schools to attend three concerts performed by Kidenza, a local charity that aims to break down barriers to orchestral music for children of all ages and backgrounds. Concerts and performances will also be open to the general public as Benenden continues its commitment to give back to the community at large – something that Hollaway Studio is also dedicated to in its designs.

Samantha Price, Benenden Headmistress, says of the new School Hall and Music School, “These wonderful new buildings are already having a transformational impact on our students and the wider community. The number of students joining Music groups has increased by 25 per cent to 500 weekly Music lessons while the number of concerts has also increased dramatically, and we have been delighted to welcome the local community to enjoy these performances. 

We have also been able to launch the first programme of commercial events through our Hemsted Park brand. The Centenary Hall is a stunning addition to the Kent arts scene and we are proud to welcome the public to come and enjoy performances by a range of professional artists here. With its beautiful grounds, outstanding views and purpose-built facilities, Benenden is a hidden gem that we are confident performing arts enthusiasts will be delighted to return to time and again.”

Hollaway Studio has turned the norms of school hall design on its head by shifting the priorities to music and performance through pioneering acoustic design.

PROJECT: Centenary Hall
CLIENT: Benenden School
SIZE: 2375 sqm
LOCATION: Cranbrook, Kent
TYPE OF PROJECT: Education Building
YEAR: 2023

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