Like many architectural folk around Australia, the last week saw me descend on Melbourne for the annual AIA conference Material (which I intend to review in a later post) and the fringe event Transform (review also forthcoming). Like any dutiful interstate visitor, I managed to work some additional perks into my visit, inculding the new Swanston Academic Building by Lyons.
I approached and entered the building from Swanston St, where it sits in dialogue with RMIT’s iconic Building 8 by Edmond and Corrigan (1993) and ARM’s Storey Hall. Firstly, it feels extremely welcoming and very porous. I wandered in directly from the street – there’s no swipe entry here, folks. The first thing I noticed was the cacophony of materials on every surface. Within about 10 square meters of floor there’s paving, polished concrete, floor boards and bright green carpet. This seems partially a way to distinguish zones (entry, circulation, threshold, gathering), but it’s not strictly followed, so the result is a bit chaotic. But the building appears well thought through, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a hidden logic. (It also occurs to me that it would be an easy building to ‘patch’: a bold fix job would blend in to the general exuberance.) On the walls there’s pressed metal, panels of cast and burnished metal, paint in every colour and shade (one imagines the twist on Henry Fords’s words: “any colour, as long as it’s bright!”), patterned wallpaper and a carpet like material. In addition to materials not already mentioned, that weird rubberised play ground material makes a cameo, as do timber sheets, glass, lino and folded metal sheeting. This is not an exhaustive list, it’s just what I can remember.
I strode confidently towards the escalators which whisked me up, up, up! (Hot tip for sneaky reviewers of any building – be confident near the entry and lost and confused once you’re safely in). The use of escalators recalls commercial spaces more than educational – the parallel is to the Melbourne Central escalators to the food court (*cough, cough*) is rather than the grand sandstone staircase of public and education buildings past. This is interesting: our public buildings are now embracing the commercial language and attributes of semi-privatised public spaces, rather than the more traditional reverse (think of large malls installing fountains to create interior ‘plazas’). It’s strange how easily the transition occurs – university is now where we come to consume ‘education’. But back to the escalators.
As you travel up the escalators, a glowing numeral on the ceiling alerts you to which level you are arriving on. Once you are there, life-size male and female figures point towards their respective facilities. Throughout the project signage (or “environmental graphic design” for you purists) is both clear and cheerful. While I wasn’t trying to find a specific location, I always knew where I was and what was around me, and was confident that I could quickly move to my destination. At level 7 (which isn’t as high as it sounds – the Swanston St entry is level 3 from memory), the escalators are replaced by ordinary staircases. This acts as a subtle cue that the upper levels are slightly less public and indeed, they appear to contain more permanently assigned spaces (such as offices, post-grad computer labs and scheduled classrooms rather than informal student hubs).
For obvious reasons I did not enter the classrooms, but a surreptitious look seemed to indicate a range of unique rather than cookie cutter spaces, many of which appeared to designed to accomodate both lecture and group work modes (a lectorial, anyone?). The larger lecture theatres seemed to accommodate the more tradiational ‘eyes front’ model of teaching.
While the initial impression is of a cheerful chaos, the building is a delight to move through and it’s well occupied interior indicated it was popular with students (although to be fair I visited shortly prior to exams, when space is traditionally at a premium). There’s also a ton of subtle rich detail, which can be lost in the dominant impression of colour. For instance, some bannisters are shaped to double as a comfortable place to lean against while waiting to access a space and the continuous large round timber benches are both comfortable to sit on and unobtrusive when not in use. The benches also provide a buffer zone for students exiting a classroom, avoiding the traditional log jam.
Each floor plate is unique, which adds texture and interest to the central stair atrium (and makes me wonder just how much fire engineering was involved in this project). The building also paid more attention to the roof plane than most others that I’ve been in lately. For example, in addition to the aforementioned numerals, there were sheathes of undulating folded metal, exposed black service trays and riots of colour.
The building is connected to both the city and the other parts of RMIT campus. Lyons hired architectural photographer Dianna Snape and a forklift to help her get shots of the surrounds at each floor level, help to ensure that each student space that punctured the facade framed beautiful views of the city and campus buildings.
Overall, I LOVED this building. It’s FUN, it’s for people, it’s interesting and delightful to be in. It could have benefited from a paring back of the material palette, but I have no doubt that it’s going to end up a truly beloved building with generations of memories made in it. It’s unapologetic and a good fit for the client and users firstly, but the city more broadly. Bravo!
I steered clear of any other reviews prior to writing this up, but there’s no reason for you to do the same. In no particular order:
- Michael Smith of Red and Black Architect gives it a Vitruvian analysis
- The Sydney Morning Herald reviewed it – in it’s Business section(!)
- The Age got in on it too.
- Arch&Design had a look. Funny how the photo doesn’t show the portals…
- Check out the oddly retro feeling Lyons site (which links to a Youtube video I skipped). You have to hover over the photos on the side to bring them up bigger (took me ages to work it out).
- RMIT page, including virtual tour, Google street view style
- Rush/Wright Associates, who worked with Lyons on the student portals
- Des Smith in ArchitectureAU (also picked up on the retail vibe).
- The eminantly readable Paul Walker, also in ArchitectureAU on Swanston St more widely
- An entire flickr stream devoted to SAB, showing many of the materials used.
- E-architect UK guide, with lots of John Gollings & Dianna Snape photos.