A modest four-storey façade in fluted precast concrete conceals a learning space for high-achieving Victorian public secondary school students. Located at the river end of South Yarra, on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, the state-of-the-art Centre for Higher Education Studies by Fieldwork and Brand Architects acts as a bridge between high school and university, seeking to inspire accelerated students through engagement with high-quality design.
Slotted tightly between high-rises to the north and south, finding sources of natural light became a central concern in the design process. The solution became the highlight of the project – a visually striking central atrium that traverses all four floors from the ground to the ceiling. Natural light pours through a transparent ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) inflatable roof, an ingenious addition whose lightweight construction requires less structural support than a traditional glass roof while still providing thermal insulation and protection from the elements. The cellular membrane of the ETFE casts ephemeral polka-dot shadows into each space as the sun moves across the sky, creating awareness of the passage of time. The atrium is lined with sustainable Victorian ash timber, the natural tones uniting with Openwork’s lush landscaping of ferns and epiphytes to create a sense of escaping the bustle of Chapel Street and entering a deep forest. Students can step out of class and take a break on the curved timber seating underneath the dappled shade of the tall Dicksonia ferns.
A mirrored floor plan ensures all spaces have a connection to the outside, either to the street or to the atrium, allowing each learning environment to benefit from views to nature, to the central garden or to the open greenspace at the rear. Even the view to Chapel Street is met with cascading greenery flowing from planter boxes on the building’s façade, “so the views out have a foreground of landscape,” explains Fieldwork Co-Director Quino Holland. A diversity of learning spaces is provided for students, from workshops and laboratories to a 275-seat auditorium, which is appropriately connected directly to the ground-floor atrium garden, offering students the chance to break from deep focus with a moment in nature. “The architecture enables students to be passionate, innovative and creative by promoting meaningful dialogue between staff and students, fostering a sense of ownership through flexible and varied learning settings,” explains Farnia Askari, Brand Architects Co-Director.
Designing flexibility into the learning spaces was essential to cater for the highly specialised and varied subjects taught at the centre, from AI to environmental science and philosophy. The spaces themselves are open, well-lit and restrained, minimising distraction and allowing the learning to be the focus. The neutral timber and concrete tones in these rooms are enlivened intermittently by bright green and orange board in the passageways and amenity spaces. As well as dedicated learning spaces, social areas are weaved throughout, for collaboration and group projects or just to blow off some steam on a break between classes. The structural elements of the project are left exposed; the building’s low-carbon hybrid construction of laminated timber beams and concrete are put on display to allow students to view and learn about the physical processes of architecture. Ductwork, electrical systems and fixtures are also exposed, allowing the building itself to become part of the lesson.
A mirrored floor plan ensures all spaces have a connection to the outside, either to the street or to the atrium, allowing each learning environment to benefit from views to nature, to the central garden or to the open greenspace at the rear.
The collaboration between Fieldwork and Brand Architects for the Victorian School Building Authority has created an expression of the benefits that inspired environments can have on learning. The quality of the result sets anew bar for public education architecture. Such is the attention to detail in the intricacies of the design that each panel and join expresses a deep con-sideration and respect for the experience of the students using the spaces.