Melbourne School of Design

by Stuart Harrison
Thursday 8th January 2015

Today our architecture columnist Stuart Harrison joins us once again, with an introduction to Melbourne’s latest and greatest architectural masterpiece. The new Melbourne School of Design at Melbourne University is a collaboration between local architect John Wardle Architects and American Nader Tehrani, director of Boston based architectural firm NADAAA.

Incredibly, the building took just over a year to build (construction commenced in May 2013 and was complete by July last year – four months ahead of schedule!), and has already gathered significant publicity both locally and abroad.  This a building everyone is talking about – a seriously impressive centrepiece for one of Australia’s most respected universities, and a buzzing creative hub for tomorrow’s brightest design stars.

The first lucky users of the new Melbourne School of Design in the final weeks of 2014 were those about to leave it – students presenting their final year architectural projects, in a brand new home for the University of Melbourne’s design disciplines. This impressive new structure replaced a hard-working post-war building (designed by Brian Lewis) that had been knocked around and changed over the years, losing its way a bit. The University wanted a new piece of architecture, and in 2009 commenced their search for suitable architects – with an emphasis on track record and a bit of star recognition.

The bright new building is a collaboration of such architects – between local award-winner John Wardle and American Nader Tehrani, director of Boston based NADAAA. The teaming up of these two design-focused firms, who are both interested in craft, articulation and scale has resulted in a building which is pleasantly hard to pick in terms of authorship. It sits squarely in the middle of the University’s wonderful Parkville campus, a well-loved and very open public space here in Melbourne.

The new building is full of holes (in a good way) – from small varying-sized perforations in steel and plywood, to the scattered array of different sized windows on the south facade – the main face into the historic campus. On all but this side, the building is wrapped in overlapping perforated zinc panels, a complex veil protecting sun exposed sides from harsh light, and blurring the solid lines that often that define the edge of a building.

The building’s openings work at a large scale too – with clear entries on several sides encouraging the public to work through the building and engage with the public foyer – with its slopping concrete floor with a bit of street feel. On this level, many of the school’s resources and new facilities are clearly on display – the gallery, the library and the fab(rication) lab, where the ‘cool stuff’ of laser cutters and digitally controlled routers is made.

The building’s ‘wow’ space however is the atria on the first floor – a large, tall room cutting over four levels with a beautiful faceted timber ceiling, bringing tempered light into the space. This atrium is the heart of the building, with movement up and around its mesh covered walkways. The space’s big gesture is its ‘hanging studios’, suspended from the ceiling this tall object hovers above the main floor. The hanging studio seems to have been shaped by its unique setting, and thousands of different sizes holes in its skin add further balanced fragility. The atrium itself is a flexible space filled with shaped furniture for students to work and meet, but can be used for larger events and gatherings.

The impressive first floor atrium with incredible central ‘hanging studios’,  at the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne, designed by John Wardle and NADAAA.  Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

Not all is new however – one piece of former building on the site that survived the recent overhaul is the relocated stone Bank of New South Wales façade, which was moved from the centre of Melbourne and rebuilt within the University grounds in the 1930’s (for real). The back of this fine old stone edifice has been sculptured and shaped into deep white window reveals internally, bringing light into the new deep staircases that span across the central atrium, and connect floors together.

Stairs and connections are a theme throughout the building, both inside and out. The north eastern corner of the building features a giant staircase and amphitheatre to provide space for events, talks and the like outside, as well as giving access directly to the first floor. It’s a generous public moment here, and a motif of John Wardle, who was responsible for a similar manoeuvre at his award-winning building at Melbourne Grammar several years ago.

The old building had a great little gallery, the Wunderlich, which hosted some top shows before it was demolished. The Gallery has returned bigger and better – like a big empty swimming pool, the new Dulux Gallery is submerged, sitting half a level down in the big ground floor space. In this way, the foyer and gallery are both separated and connected. It’s one of the best aspects of the new building and will no doubt host many great design shows as the building comes into life.

The first show scheduled here is the work of those graduating students of 2014, a springboard into the future.

For a somewhat mind-boggling time-lapse of the construction of the Melbourne School of Design, see below.  A fascinating but rather more drawn out (8 min) tour of the completed building can also be viewed here. – Lucy

The stone Bank of New South Wales façade, which was moved from the centre of Melbourne and rebuilt within the University grounds in the 1930’s, has been retained on the west side of the MSD building.  Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

Melbourne School of Design

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