A theatrical new building to inspire students with its thoughtful labyrinth of architectural worlds. By Laura Harding.

Melbourne University’s new School of Design

University of Melbourne School of Design building.
University of Melbourne School of Design building.
Credit: Peter Bennetts

The commercialisation of the modern university campus is manifest in a number of ways. On their edges, we see the influx of quasi-corporate buildings dressed in strident visual imagery; architectural billboards intended to sell a university’s sense of ambition and contemporary relevancy. Further in, among the historic stone totems we might also find the sterility of the corporate business park or retail food court infiltrating. Both are symptomatic of architecture’s struggle to defend its broader cultural ambit in the face of insistent commercial agendas. They also reflect more widespread qualms – we are becoming afraid of serious ideas, and even more afraid of serious buildings.

In this context, the raw material expression of the new Melbourne School of Design at the University of Melbourne feels almost subversive. This school will stage the education of the architects, urbanists and builders of the future and, consciously or not, will become their architectural muse. Mercifully, they will not be mollified with visual sophistry, but confronted by an unflinching material and constructional candour.

The Melbourne School of Design is the result of a collaboration between the local firm of John Wardle Architects and the Boston-based NADAAA, winners of a two-stage competition held by the university in 2009. Architectural competitions have an appalling record in Australia, and rarely lead to buildings of subtlety, if they produce buildings at all. This one has been skilfully executed – steadily building upon the work of an excellent jury through the ongoing oversight of the dean of the faculty, Professor Tom Kvan.

While the school may wear its tectonic heart on its sleeve, it is careful not to spill its spatial secrets so quickly. It intrigues us, concealing an inner labyrinthine world in a series of layers that we slowly negotiate. The building proper is made of honed, precast concrete panels that from a distance seem inscrutable and seamless. On the northern, eastern and western sides, the walls are shrouded in a sort of rugged, industrial lace that tilts and shifts in response to solar load and desired transparency, suffusing the building’s white body in gauzy shadow.

One of the stated aims for the project is that it becomes “a living pedagogy” – a noble, if linguistically awkward, idea that the building should actively “teach” the students through its fabric. This feels a little hackneyed where glass apertures have been formed to reveal prosaic basement piling or servicing elements, but the building is densely layered in more important and nuanced architectural instruction. The building’s zinc lace is a case in point, uniting the sophisticated savvy of computer-aided manufacturing to create its seemingly infinitely varied and intricate circular patterns, with the old-school grunt of the industrial brake press that folds the lace sheets into stiffened fins – a light riff on the rich veins of technology and tradition that architecture simultaneously taps.

Cantilevered rooms and arcing balconies peel out of the building, drawing us under its skirts and across feathered paving patterns that momentarily suggest it is casting a mysterious white shadow. A diagonal route, open to all, passes between the faculty’s workshops and library, or philosophically between architecture’s craft and culture. So many architecture faculties are recklessly jettisoning their libraries, but here it is honorifically interred in a sky-lit vault, prised apart from the surrounding earth by emphatic concrete beams shaped like tuning forks. The workshops spill out into an adjacent, interstitial court, placing the very physical act of “making” on the threshold between the school and the broader campus.

The stone facade of Joseph Reed’s 19th-century Bank of New South Wales is retained within the building’s zinc veil, but is no longer an appended archaeological curio. It is purposefully translated into the school’s interior through the construction of a series of smooth, white embrasures that fuse its windows into a softly peaked, illuminated surface that soars above a sunken gallery. Below, three auditoria are packed tightly between the library and an open foyer that will become the focus of conferences and symposia. R. S. Jackson’s classical figures of Britannia and the Goddess from an old Collins Street facade are installed in this space and stand as silent sentinels, their towering presence making the inflated architectural scale of the city legible within the confines of a room.

The inherently bizarre adjacencies in this large, subterranean plan are playfully exposed through unusually placed openings. Glazed walls and windows allow you to look from the foyer spaces into the lecture theatres, from the lecture theatre into the library lunch room, from the librarian’s offices out into the hall, even from the foyer into the plant room. Some of the windows are trimmed and tinted in deep blue; inky portholes that dramatise and reinforce the compressive spatial sense of being below the earth.

A steel stair beckons upwards towards the building’s sanctum, a four-storey studio hall surrounded by the school’s workspaces and offices. From the moment we set foot on it we become aware that this path is as much bridge as it is stair, as its trussed structure is exposed above us. Its “Y” shape allows us to weave multiple paths across the void, but also prompts the mental assembly of the building’s separate worlds through recognition of a repeated motif. We recall the Y-shaped beams in the library and the form of the studio space that licks across the gallery to the Joseph Reed facade like a forked tongue, catching two of its windows in a moment of delightful intimacy.

The studios are arranged in a linear band where they can harness southern light, and are interspersed with other workspaces and offices on the building’s indented northern face. But they are not the architectural focus. A series of informal workspaces ring the void, pushing out into it, folding and pleating the stainless-steel netting that is slung from base to tip. These spaces could have been more insistent in their colonisation of the void, but one can readily imagine students from all of the faculty’s disciplines caught here like specimen butterflies, flitting and darting with increasing intensity as the semester deadlines approach.

A thickened ceiling structure with angled incisions caps the void, taming the northern light and supporting an inverted tower; a tiny twister unfurling from a timber cloud. Its articulated form and beautiful carpentry suggest that it is a sacred reliquary and our anticipation builds, but inside there is no revelation, just three small studios. It mocks us, leaving the delicious question of whether form must always follow function suspended above the studio void.

The spatial theatricality of the Melbourne School of Design is anchored by a profound search for meaning, through making. Without this, architecture is condemned to novelty. So it is not only students of architecture who have something to learn from this building. Perhaps it might start to persuade the rest of us that it is the empty follies we need to fear, not serious works of architecture.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 1, 2014 as "Exhibition building".

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