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Ordinary virtues

An interesting dilemma faced Newman College and St Mary’s College when they received a substantial gift two years ago: should they build more accommodation, fund extra scholarships or put the money to other use? They decided to commission an Academic Centre—a library with associated rooms for seminars, IT and music practice. Father Peter L’Estrange sj, the Rector of Newman and Sr Deirdre Rofe ibvm, then Principal of St Mary’s, managed the project jointly. Unfortunately Sr Deirdre, whose portrait hangs in the foyer, did not live to see the completed building.

There were few options for the site of the building. There was so little suitable space available that it was necessary to build the new library suspended over an existing open car park that was equidistant between the two colleges. The budget of $8 million was not high for such a complex building.

The selection process to find the best architect was exemplary, the only criticism one might level is that it was a totally Melbourne-centric choice. Half a dozen good architects were interviewed and re-interviewed until the Melbourne firm of Edmond & Corrigan was chosen; a brave choice in some minds considering their colourful and exuberant post-modern building at RMIT on Swanston Street. Quite apart from the reputation of the architects, the relationship of any new building to those by Walter Burley Griffin at Newman College—now on all the heritage lists—must have weighed heavily on the collective mind.

The later college buildings that were not designed by Griffin, such as the Chapel and the Donovan Wing, had all tried to more or less match the scale, and materials of the Griffin buildings. The St Mary’s buildings of the ‘60s are of the same height and scale, but are not so interesting in a design sense and clearly did not pose quite the same contextual problem as the Griffin buildings. The common Australian attitude to heritage is often a servile one of over-deference; in Italy it would be assumed that what was needed was the best modern building of our time. Most good architects would also insist on this position and in this case there was an enlightened client, minimising such concerns.

Edmond & Corrigan made their reputation with the Church of the Resurrection at Keysborough built in the last half of the 1970s, and the parish buildings and school that followed the church. These very low budget buildings were a celebration of the vernacular building style of ordinary suburbia, and the church has successfully weathered 30 years of change and adaptation as the parish has grown. The RMIT building was built in the 1980s and is reviled and loved in equal proportions; every city should have one! Peter Corrigan also has a reputation as a theatre designer and teacher, so expectations were no doubt high.

The new building has to be considered in two intimately related ways: how well does the external appearance resolve the heritage context, and how well has the brief of accommodation been resolved internally? The latter is not just a question of accommodating all the rooms in the right relationships. Good architecture should open up new possibilities of delight for users of the building.

The new three-storey Academic Centre, approximately the same height as the Chapel, is on the western side of the college (in line with the Donovan Wing) and more or less on the diagonal axis of the Newman quadrangle. This places it behind, but off the long axis of the Chapel, and it can therefore be seen from Swanston Street in the gap between the Chapel and St Mary’s. It may have been serendipitous, but from one bay window there is a view in one direction back along the diagonal axis across the Newman quadrangle towards the dining room with its tower, and in the other direction towards St Mary’s. The siting is subtle and the building fits in well with those that surround it.

The plan of the building is not at all regular, many of the peripheral rooms have been articulated (almost wilfully and not always successfully) in an attempt to give each room a special identity with irregular plan shapes, angled walls and bay windows. From the floor plan one might expect a very eccentric external appearance but this is not the case. Norman Day’s review of the building in The Age was headlined ‘Celebration of the Mundane’ and while this may be journalistic phrase-making, the building certainly appears straight forward, even ordinary, from the main approach sides. Edmond & Corrigan appear to be too knowing for this not to be intentional. Corbusier asserted that ‘the plan and the section are the generators’. That is, the external appearance is a direct consequence of all the internal design decisions, and there is certainly a directness, a ‘to hell with you’ inevitability about the appearance of this building, in particular the way a fire stair is attached to the western side of the building.

Edmond & Corrigan are asking us to accept the philosophic position that the appearance of the building has almost nothing to do with them. With that plan and that cross-section the building is just the way it wanted to be. This is an approach I have some sympathy with but the designer also has to be a bit canny; Corbusier would certainly never have just let it happen without some art.

I suspect that Edmond & Corrigan would agree with Robert Venturi’s argument that ‘mainstreet is almost alright’. The entrance with its red roof for example, which could well be that of a spec office building in the outer suburbs, is probably a deliberate gesture by the architects to demonstrate what architectural
snobs the rest of us are and that we should learn to love it!

The solid walls are concrete panels painted in a safe stone colour that more or less matches the Barabool sandstone of the Chapel and the Griffin buildings. Combined with the careful siting and height of the building, this no doubt helped ensure that Heritage Victoria, the City Council and the University were all satisfied about this heritage interloper.

The interior of the building however, is an interesting series of daylit spaces that made me wish I was a student again. The library is on the entrance level with a central, elliptical atrium over the main reading area going up through the two smaller upper floors to a roof with skylights. Except for rooms for special Irish and Australian Collections, the upper floors are taken up with tutorial and seminar rooms, computer laboratories and music rehearsal rooms. The space over the bookshelf area of the library is two storeys high with more skylights.

The interiors have no-nonsense details and pleasant, commercial finishes with blue-grey carpet, natural timber and painted walls in subdued colours. There are carefully designed windows that give good views over the campus, particularly a row of diamond-shaped small windows above the bookshelf area that are well placed for views from the upper floor. The bookshelves and desks in the library are arranged in a way that suits the irregular geometry of the plan and provides odd corners that help prevent the interior layout appearing over regimented.
With the floors connected by an open atrium there is a danger of acoustic disturbance caused by people coming and going to the upstairs seminar rooms. The architects have avoided the commercial look of flush, suspended acoustic tile ceilings to dampen sound by utilising plywood acoustic panels arranged in an irregular way on the ceiling. They are all interspersed with suspended light fittings, sprinklers and other necessary pipes and ducts. This arrangement is not entirely successful visually but has the virtue that it can be easily adapted if more acoustic absorption becomes necessary.

The building is not airconditioned but the lowest slab has in-floor heating and fresh air is introduced at the lowest level mechanically, so that, allied with the stack effect created by the atrium, this should encourage natural cross ventilation through the building.

This approach may have been influenced by the budget but it also makes a lot of sense. Despite their common air of omniscience, architects are not all-wise, and buildings have to be run-in like new cars and adjusted in the light of experience in use. Like cars, they also need to be maintained regularly, but this happens all too rarely.

The colleges are well aware that the surroundings of the new Academic Building are a bit forlorn after the construction, and indeed Griffin’s original landscaping itself, which was always rather eclectic, is also in need of attention. Time has shown that the water-proofing of the 1915 Griffin buildings was inadequate and that they needed to be made leak-proof. Newman should demonstrate similar courage with the Griffin landscaping as they have with the buildings. Advice from the best landscape architects in town (they can do more than select the trees) could transform the College when funds permit.

It could sound like damning with faint praise to conclude that Edmond & Corrigan have designed a very workable building. But this is not the location or the budget for tour de force architecture. The new Academic Centre fits well within the Walter Burley Griffin context of Newman College and would be a delight to study in. What more can one ask? 

Don Gazzard is an architect who works in both Sydney and Melbourne.



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