Inside the weird, wonderful and award-winning Melbourne School of Design

40 pictures

Known as the suspended studio, an internal tower dangles from the ceiling of the Melbourne School of Design(Credit: Nick Lavars/Gizmag)

View gallery - 40 images

There was more than a touch of irony about the University of Melbourne's old architecture building. As the breeding ground for generations of Australia's designers and builders, the plain brick building had come to be known as one of the campus' most drab and uninspiring structures. But a simmering discontent boiled over in 2009, when the university announced plans to knock it down and start again. Now standing in its place is a multi award-winning building that's as visually arresting as it is environmentally-friendly. The Melbourne School of Design places a premium on sustainability and collaborative education, and through an inventive architectural approach it has married the two to produce a truly unique learning environment.

"We wanted to grow and we needed a new facility and new labs," Alan Pert, Director of the Melbourne School of Design, tells Gizmag. "When looking for somewhere to study, architecture students these days are looking for infrastructure as much as anything. We knew that the best schools have the best technology and so eventually we got the university behind it."

The university held an international design competition in 2009 and attracted entrants from all over the globe. But it would be Melbourne-based John Wardle Architects and Boston firm NADAAA who would win out, forming a cross-continental collaboration to design the university's newest learning hub.

The key demands outlined in the brief were that the building was to act as an ongoing research project for the future of academic environments and the future of design studio learning, it was to emphasize sustainability and perhaps most audaciously, to bring contemporary lessons in architecture to life.

Pert described this last criteria as a "pedagogical multiplier," the idea of immersing students in a space where much of what they are learning can be better understood by simply gazing around than through reviewing lectures or thumbing through their notebooks.

"We can walk our students outside and explain features to them," says Pert. "It is easier to show them than it is to read from a textbook."

Pert refers to the many aspects of the building that are left uncovered such as the mesh balustrades, bare concrete surfaces and exposed stairways, or features built in such a way that they help teach a lesson. Perforated zinc sunshades shield the north, east and west sides of the building, resting a foot or so out from the building's exterior.

"This isn't the most efficient form of cooling," explains Pert. "You could combine the zinc and glass to form a high-performance facade, but that wouldn't be the best way to teach, This demonstrates to students more effectively that in their work they need to be thinking about the sun."

On the ground floor of the building, a thoroughfare handles foot traffic from all across the university, not just those plying their trade in architecture and design. On one side of this passage is a library complete with study nooks, shared workspaces and an underground bookstack. On the exterior, the library is covered with a man-made rolling lawn, supported underneath by huge concrete beams. Joining the lawn to the base of the building are undulating glass panels, every one of which is angled differently. This peculiar array serves to channel natural light down into the library below.

Also on the ground floor walkway is a series of workshops fitted with 3D printers and modern computer equipment to bring the students' models to life.

Up one level is where the studios and teaching spaces begin, but rather than lonely corridors and closed stairwells, the floor opens up to a mammoth four-story atrium bathed in natural light. Much of this comes courtesy of the many floor-to-ceiling windows on the west side, but the roof plays an important role in this too. Huge laminated plywood panels are attached to the skylight to create a coffered ceiling, angled in such a way that they direct the sunlight to the floor.

These panels conjoin with the building's centerpiece, a stalactite-like structure that houses three studio classrooms stacked on top of one another. Known as the suspended studio, this internal tower dangles from the ceiling and stops around two meters (6 ft) from the floor where it gives way to groups of students working away underneath.

Other than simply a hugely impressive and bizarre piece of design, the hanging studio serves a practical purpose too. Perforations dot all of its surfaces and grow denser toward the bottom to absorb noise in what could otherwise be a super echoey open space. Under its base are messy rows of vertical panels to further soften the acoustics. And it must be said, the relative quietness of the space given how many people are talking and typing away is quite striking when you're inside.

Rainwater is collected on the roof and funneled into a 750,000 liter (198,129 gal) tank in the basement. This is then distributed for use in toilets and irrigation around the university's lawns and gardens. The bountiful natural lighting paired with LED fixtures keeps energy use low, while natural ventilation is designed to avoid the need for air conditioning and heating.

This includes a swinging garage-sized door that opens up to allow natural air flow in the summer, which is then drawn up through the atrium as it becomes warm and stale. The building's passive heating and cooling is brought to life by sensors throughout that monitor energy and water usage, carbon emissions, humidity, temperature and air quality. These are visualized on a large display panel on the bottom floor, freely available to inquisitive students or anybody that happens to be wandering by.

On the top floor of the building is a heritage-listed Japanese classroom. The classroom was transplanted from the original building where it had been designed by the Japan's Professor Shigeru Yura, who had been brought to the university to teach Japanese Architecture in the 1960s. Alongside the classroom is a quaint rooftop Japanese garden that overlooks the university's Union Lawn, home to a local farmer's market on Wednesdays.

This changing of the guard at the University of Melbourne's Architecture and Planning Faculty cost AU$129 million (US$102 million) and took 14 months to build. The school's efforts to lead by example and establish a beacon of sustainable, yet practical design has seen it win awards from institutes locally and abroad, including The Award for Public Design at the 2015 Australian Interior Design Awards and an Honor Award for Architecture from the American Institute of Architects. It was also awarded a 6 Star Green Star Design by the Green Building Council of Australia, one of only 12 education buildings to do so.

Be sure to click through to the gallery where you can see this incredible piece of architecture from all angles.

View gallery - 40 images

Top stories

Recommended for you

Latest in Architecture

Editors Choice