Middle Girls School, Penleigh and Essendon Grammar

Today our architecture columnist Stuart Harrison visits an award winning new school building in Melbourne – the Middle Girls School at Penleigh and Essendon Grammar (PEGS) in East Keilor, designed by McBride Charles Ryan.

This complex project incorporates a series of sweeping curved walls of glazed brick, banded in white, green and blue. As Stuart explains, the fluid shapes and layering of brick patterns gives this impressive building a distinct sense of the Baroque.

Stuart Harrison

Middle Girls School, Penleigh and Essendon Grammar. Designed by McBride Charles Ryan. An exercise in the use of cusps – arcs that don’t meet each other smoothly. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Deep walkways are screened by white battens, recalling Federation-era houses, such as those by Harold Desbrowe-Annear. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Timber battens and solid blocks of colour line the walls of walkways and hang-out spaces. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Stuart Harrison
28th of March 2016

The Baroque is about fluidity, motion and exaggeration – in architecture we associate it with a ‘full on’ version of the Roman Classical style that flourished in the Renaissance. In painting, music and other arts, the Baroque is a historic reference, but here we can apply it as an approach, a strategy, to a more generic type, the 21st century school building. This is one that has been elevated and pulled into life through some gnarly Baroque moves.

Designing for education has undergone a quiet revolution in recent years in Australia. There are a few central themes – moves away from traditional classrooms to ‘learning environments’, the clustering of cohorts of students together (especially in big schools), and a general push toward engaging, colourful and interesting spaces – resulting in a diversity of student experience. Melbourne architects McBride Charles Ryan (MCR) have worked through humble school additions in the early 2000s to their suite of buildings here at Keilor East for Penleigh and Essendon Grammar (PEGS), which is a bright campus of architectural endeavour.

Today we look closely at one of these – the Middle Girls School, which is in many ways the most radical, but also the most traditional in its associations. (It’s also worth checking out some of the other buildings for PEGS, particularly the Infinity Centre for the co-ed Year 11 and 12s – a giant loop of linear classrooms to create several large courtyards).

Distinct from earlier projects, The Girls Middle School is an exercise in the use of cusps. This geometric idea, the cusp, is where two arcs collide, trimming each other – arcs that don’t meet each other smoothly. This creates a sharp point, or edge, a moment of change. It’s a bit like the wings of a bat or the indented fluting of a classical column, played out on a larger and more irregular scale.

So the building here is a complex figure – a series of these cusps meeting and receding back. This is built as sweeping curved walls of glazed brick, banded in white and subtle green and blue hues. It’s this use of the cusp, the layering of brick patterns, the multiplicity of windows and curved walls that gives the Girls Middle School a sense of the Baroque.

The floor plan of the middle school shows a fractal-like building shape that tries to shift ‘normal’ rectangular geometry. This is most evident in the interior of the study and collective spaces. A rectangular geometry sits within the crazy shape to divide the plan into more squarish rooms.

The traditional ‘classroom’ remains at the heart of the teaching model at PEGS – and this has been the case in other buildings MCR has done for the school, including at other campuses. The residual spaces – circulation spaces and libraries type spaces – fluctuate in size and feel, and these become spaces of informal learning and gathering, both inside and out. Timber battens and solid blocks of colour line the walls of these movement and hang-out spaces.

This language builds on MCR’s earlier Fitzroy High School (2009), which used a smoother curving plan, but also vertical banding of coloured bricks to make a façade that had a playful sense of scale. Here at Keilor East, the main building is two stories high, with outdoor spaces pushed into this external envelope. The curving perimeter of the building allows you to look out from the balconies and see the exterior from within – making the façade visible from inside as well as out. The shape of the building is a fuzzy ‘C’ shape, creating a protected courtyard at the heart of the project.

Deep walkways access the teaching spaces, and, screened by white battens, they recall Federation-era houses such as those by Harold Desbrowe-Annear in the early 1900s (Annear is on ongoing source of inspiration for many progressive Melbourne architects). It is the trimming of these white verticals into graceful arches that create these historical connections, and also reference broader cultural sources – Moorish and Middle-Eastern forms come to mind. In this way, the building locates itself both in the complex mathematics of our time, but the rich multicultural present.

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