Embracing Domesticity – Fitzroy Community School Creative Space by Baracco + Wright Architects with Richard Stampton Architects

Words by Millie Thwaites
Photography by Rory Gardiner
Architecture and Interior Design Richard Stampton Architects

Amongst the suburban fabric of Melbourne’s Thornbury is Fitzroy Community School Creative Space. Completed in 2011 by Baracco + Wright Architects with Richard Stampton Architects, it’s the second campus for the independent primary school, offering interconnected multi-use spaces that embrace domesticity.

The spatial and educational qualities embodied by the school at the original Fitzroy North campus, which comprises three adjacent Victorian townhouses, informed much of the architects’ approach. Emphasis has been placed on informal spaces that lean towards the domestic and encourage connection between the small cohort, akin to an extended family. Resultingly, the form has been conceived as a plywood clad and timber lined interior core – housing the kitchen and library spaces – enveloped by a perimeter with a verandah enclosed by a layer of clear polycarbonate.

As Co-Director of Baracco + Wright Architects Louise Wright explains, the intention was for a “simple, monolithic, house-like form.” It illustrates the architects’ shared interest in the solidity of Kazuo Shinohara’s work paired with Robin Boyd’s lightness.

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Fitzroy Community School Creative Space is the school’s second campus; it leans heavily towards the domestic and encourages connection between the small cohort.

As Co-Director of Baracco + Wright Architects Louise Wright explains, the intention was for a “simple, monolithic, house-like form.” Here we see the architects’ shared interest in the solidity of Kazuo Shinohara’s work paired with Robin Boyd’s lightness. The outer polycarbonate shell wraps the internal structure and extends along the southern and eastern elevations “giving the feeling of a light, playful and robust enclosed verandah.” Not only does this protective barrier provide privacy from the street, but it also offers undercover areas for circulation, play and teaching. The vast, simple roof and deep eaves are another notable reference to Boyd’s work.

The interior of the plywood core is defined by warmth and quiet, with cues taken from a domestic setting; lunch is prepared for students daily in the kitchen and the library is the architects’ scaled up interpretation of a living room. Large window seats, private nooks and sections of the internal walls provide pockets for individual and group learning, while staff rooms sit to the west with double-height ceilings and glazing opening to the verandah and courtyard spaces beyond. There is also a small apartment on the first floor for a caretaker, which can easily double as a space for learning when needed.

“The garden was always quite an important element and we wanted to bring that spatial quality and softness to the space,” Louise says. Adding, “it’s all pretty informal, which suits the school.”

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While over 10 years have passed since the project’s completion, its refined palette of materials and elemental forms prevail to this day, illustrating its timeless and robust nature

Domestic moments permeate this project, inspiring both curiosity and familiarity. The entrance from the street is in keeping with the suburban fabric of the area, defined by a V-shaped niche in the understated timber fence. Crossing the threshold, your sightline travels through the building to the backyard; a bay window at the front is set on axis to a slightly larger bay-window at the back. Smaller moments inspire a domestic mindset too; the kitchen sink sits beneath a window overlooking a play area and a small balcony from the upstairs apartment does the same. These elements don’t shout for attention, rather, they exist quietly and bring great depth to the experience. The everyday activities of coming and going, making a cup of tea and gazing out to the backyard all have a place here as part of teaching and learning.

The landscaping reflects the architects’ design intent, but also the school itself. “The garden was always quite an important element and we wanted to bring that spatial quality and softness to the space,” Louise says. A few key trees have developed over the last decade, and the school has tended to the gardens and green spaces. A Mallee snow gum relaxes the relationship between the street and facade and, out the back, there are lush climbing vines, fruit trees and a working garden. “It’s all pretty informal, which suits the school,” Louise says.

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The school was always intended to sit comfortably within the suburban fabric of Thornbury, and the landscaping has further softened this over the past decade.

The affinity to re-examine spaces for their intended use is a quality intrinsic to Baracco + Wright’s practice, however, Louise cites the Building the Education Revolution – a government stimulus package in response to the Global Financial Crisis – as pivotal to this project. The package focused on capital investment in schools and allowed for Fitzroy Community School Creative Space and other projects of its kind to be funded and realised. It also encouraged “a cultural discussion around the nature of educational spaces in architecture,” Louise says. “This conversation was already being had, especially through the hard work of Mary Featherston, but it began to gain wider attention.”

Now, 11 years on, the building expresses a lived-in quality, and the landscaping has matured. As Louise says, “you can now see those layers and the softness.” With a shared interest in “capturing spaces as they’re being used, rather than through styling,” the architects asked Rory Gardiner to photograph the school. The images portray the project at its most authentic; it’s inhabited, loved and well used yet the refined palette of materials and elemental forms prevail to this day, speaking back to their robust and timeless nature.

So much can be learnt from this project; not only does it gracefully examine spatial quality, but it asks us to revaluate the human experience of commercial spaces. It’s somewhat serendipitous that, as a building intended for education, it teaches us so much through its very existence.