A new architecture building

Northwest view towards entry and Bank of New South Wales facade

What is it?

John Wardle Architects (JWA), in collaboration with NADAAA, have designed a new and much needed building for the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning (ABP) at the University of Melbourne. Their detailed design follows their winning entry into an international ideas competition run by the faculty in 2009, for which short-listed finalists included high calibre practices Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Denton Corker Marshall and Sauerbruch Hutton.

Full design documents, including plans, models, lusciously rendered images and in-depth discussion of the principles embodied in the design are currently on exhibition at the Wunderlich Gallery, on the ground floor of the existing Architecture Building. The exhibition runs until this coming Saturday, the 17th of March.

What do we think?

Due for completion in 2015, JWA and NADAAA’s design will replace the existing ABP building designed in the 1960s by then Professor of Architecture Brian Lewis, whose demolition at the end of this academic year will get the ball rolling on construction. The new building will be three stories shorter than its predecessor, but will have a bigger footprint, stretching out to the west to envelope the 1856 Bank of New South Wales facade.

This expansion will give the building a more dignified presence, connecting into the urban rhythm of what is surely Victoria’s most beautiful university campus. The ABP building will now face onto the Concrete Lawn, rather than hiding behind the Bank facade. It will also gather the momentum of the east-west axis connecting the Swanston Street tram depot through to Union House, with a ground floor plan structured around an internal street. The street feeds off the Concrete Lawn and is flanked by public-access exhibition spaces and a library, a smart recognition of the campus’ street-based organisation, one that is missing from either the original building or its iteration renovated in the 1990s by Daryl Jackson.

The design delves deeply into what JWA describes as built pedagogy. The ambition for the new building is for it to “have the ability – through its composition, material make-up, geometry, systems, and a range of other attributes, to teach, to tell a story, and to produce knowledge“. In other words, the design is no monument to a static institution, rather it is a living system that will reveal the myriad possibilities of good architecture not just through words and slides, but through its very fabric. Much like JWA’s earlier Hawke Building for the University of South Australia, some areas of the ABP building will have their structure and services exposed and accessible to students, while others will be more refined, with nuanced detail telling a different story of process and layered construction. There are examples within the building of heritage restoration and modern intervention, intuitive design and parametric design. It will teach even when its students think they aren’t paying attention.

View of Studio Hall from level two

Central to the idea of a built pedagogy is the provision of flexibility in the teaching spaces available. “Each studio is designed as an environment capable of supporting a range of learning activities from a traditional teacher-led seminar or tutorial to more dispersed group work, even extending into adjacent circulation spaces”. The Studio Hall is a significant resolution of this aim, doubling as a light well and atrium, it will be a natural social gatherer for both scheduled and informal learning. Its semi-enclosed teaching pod and hanging, multi-level studio, are not only engaging formal exercises, they also connect the upper four levels of the building to one another and offer fascinating proposals for modern modes of teaching.

Unsurprisingly, missing from the design proposal are dedicated studio spaces for students. Most likely, this is a briefing requirement from the faculty that recognises the impracticality of accommodating what must by now be more than 1,000 students across the various disciplines and year levels. Instead, students will be encouraged to appropriate the nooks and crannies of the building as they see fit. Much like contemporary workplace design, the fixed desk is now understood to be a hindrance to creative thinking and rich social interaction. Indeed, armed with a laptop and wireless internet connection, we see no reason why students won’t take to this approach also.

Typical studio room

What have we learnt?

As alumni of the ABP faculty at the University of Melbourne ourselves, we can attest personally to the need for a new building. The existing one may have been an interesting project achieved with great ambition and little means, however it has aged and, with one notable exception, no amount of renovations can change the fact that vast amounts of its rooms are uninspiring and under-utilised. The exception is the fifth floor and the final year studios contained within. With vast ceilings and majestic south-facing views over the city, we spent a happy year there working until the small hours, drinking copious amounts of tea and dreaming of the future. That year resulted in lasting lessons and indelible friendships. We will be sad to see those rooms go, and are sad that their spirit won’t be replaced.

That said, we are excited by JWA and NADAAA’s vision for the ABP faculty. Their design offers a smart urban engagement, rich programmatic flexibility, beautiful formal resolution and thoughtful detailing. We are certain it will be a successful institutional building, will establish a modern and flexible learning environment, and remain an inspiring example of good architecture to generations of architecture students.

We may no longer be students, but we do teach, and we can’t wait to be doing so in this long-awaited new building.

Northeast view from Spencer Road

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