REVIEW SANDRA KAJI-O’GRADY
PHOTOGRAPHY JON LINKINS
M3architecture is exceedingly talented and refreshingly modest. According to Michael Banney, the project architect of the new Creative Learning Centre at the Brisbane Girls Grammar School (BGGS), the young practice was commissioned only because the client anticipated a much smaller project. The undertaking became more ambitious as the architects worked with the school, initially on a new long-term master plan for the campus, which was crowded, and subsequently on the development of an optimal brief for a new building. In time the new building expanded beyond consolidating the creative arts facilities to include staff parking, a dining hall and gallery, a staffroom and additional performance and rehearsal spaces.
Yet the commissioning of m3architecture was no accident. In previous residential and educational work, m3architecture had demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for architectural invention within the constraints of an unpromising brief or inadequate budget. Projects such as the University of Queensland’s Micro Health Laboratory, with its textured brick tapestry, earned them a place in the Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture and in the Australian Pavilion at the 2006 Venice Biennale. The practice has become known for its playful and graphic manipulation of perception – tactics informed by contemporary visual arts, which place them in the company of architects such as Herzog and de Meuron or, closer to home, Lyons Architects. The dynamic principal of BGGS, Amanda Bell, was determined to get an unapologetically contemporary solution that made a bold architectural contribution to Brisbane. Having previously worked as an arts advisor to government and as director of the National Trust’s gallery in Sydney, Ms Bell made an informed client representative.
The architects and the school agreed that new buildings on the campus should have their own character without overshadowing or imitating the original 1880s school buildings on Gregory Terrace, with which the school had become associated. They began, however, not with an architectural image, but with close analysis of the challenges presented by the fragmented and steeply sloping site, the school culture and the potential for crossovers in the programmatic mix. The desire for internal connection was emphasized, pragmatically to facilitate access between buildings with different floor levels, but also between the girls and between the creative arts and other disciplines and activities.
In plan it becomes clear that the spatial diagram is born from the intersection of two grids – one from the boundaries to the west and north and the other, at about 60 degrees to this, from the alignment of Gregory Terrace and the old buildings. Entry from the southern side of the campus at the level of the old main building cuts diagonally into the building at the fourth floor of the new. The diagonal cut has also been used to frame views across and beyond the campus, with concrete blade walls seeming to fan out from this incision. The inclusion of the school’s dining hall at this mid-level has been successful in connecting the whole school.
Brisbane Girls Grammar was also concerned with its external relationships beyond the campus. Ms Bell sees the school as an organization which “can contribute positively to wider issues and public debate” as well as philanthropy. The building was to be outward-looking at the same time as it reinforced internal connections. On the northern edge of the campus, the site is bordered by train lines, a busway and a six-lane highway. There was both the challenge of acoustic pollution and the potential for broad visibility. The western face, visible at some distance from the highway, theatrically engages the movement of the traffic. Using an outer sunscreen of bronze anodized aluminium slats against an inner wall of white with black vertical stripes, a moiré effect is triggered. The building appears to melt and wobble in circular waves as the viewer passes, leading some puzzled locals to inquire of the architects as to its mechanics. From a position on the highway where both the 1880s buildings and the new building come into view, the ovoid forms of the optical illusion neatly align in height and radius with the arched upperstorey windows of the old brick building. The optical facade also forms the edge of the playing fields of the neighbouring Brisbane Boys Grammar and one can only wonder what this mirage of undulating curves does to the feverish minds of some teenaged boys.
While the western facade is a dramatic billboard of iconic potential, the building is no decorated shed. The eastern side of the building is a highly articulated composition of expansive balconies, courtyards and stairs under a translucent roof. In photographs and plans the arrangement of stairs, landings and balconies takes on an almost Piranesian aspect, but it actually allows direct and convivial circulation between the floors. It is interesting to observe that the lifts and fire escape stairs are almost never used, while groups of girls occupy the more dramatic spaces of the central public space and take advantage of the circling balconies as points of performance and viewing.
The school wanted its buildings to support the social and creative development of teenage girls, and all of us who have ever been there will recall the ceaseless and often fraught negotiation of friendships as well as the intensity of those friendships. While architecture alone may not be able to carry out social engineering, a building like this can alleviate some of the more extreme situations of exclusion and tribalism through the way students are constantly brought into spaces that are at once permeable and intimate. Most of all, the building works hard to integrate social and learning spaces. From any point in the centre of the building, it is possible to take in diagonal views through to spaces of rehearsal and performance, as well as classrooms.
The lowest level of learning spaces consists of double-height rehearsal and performance spaces for strings, choir and band. Alongside stores and smaller teaching spaces, these occupy the largest footprint and deepest plan. Three flights down from the main entry level where the refectory is located, and six floors below the atrium roof, these spaces could have been dark, yet the roof was conceived as a large skylight and soft light filters down to the lowest level. There is also a strong visual relationship back to the floors above. The strings rehearsal room is particularly attractive, with a dark, almost black wall forming a dramatic background to the instruments. Acoustics in the adjacent choir room are reportedly so good that the choir is in danger of becoming lazy.
The learning facilities are impressively equipped and designed, yet it is in the dining hall that the visitor truly appreciates the increasing gap between facilities in the private school sector and the universities to which many of these students will eventually graduate. Particular attention has been paid to the refinement of finishes and quality of space in the hall. The school’s conviction was that if the girls were given dignified public spaces then they would treat them with respect. This has been the case. Students’ work is professionally displayed in a double-height gallery along the length of the western wall and the girls sit at round tables on white chairs. The polished concrete floors, white walls and delicate-looking fabric airconditioning ducts are in an impeccable state.
Elsewhere, materials and finishes are deliberately less refined than in the dining hall or performance and rehearsal spaces. The architects and the client were interested in the ways in which the building, through the rawness of its material surfaces, might suggest further embellishment through occupation and, possibly, installation and performance. In-situ unpainted concrete surfaces are used externally throughout, and the only ornamentation is radiating bands of pastel colours painted on the underside of each concrete slab. Coupled with the expression of structural blades and floors, the eastern facade possesses some of the better qualities of the brutalist architecture of the sixties and seventies – dramatic play of light and shadow, a clear formal diagram and close attention to the ways in which the movement of occupants enlivens space. It is a very mature work for a practice that has not worked previously in this scale and deserves to be taken up as model and benchmark facility for other educational institutions.
Dr Sandra Kaji-O’Grady is associate professor and Head of Architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney.
CREATIVE LEARNING CENTRE, BRISBANE GIRLS GRAMMAR SCHOOL
Project and construction manager
Bovis Lend Lease.
Acoustic engineer Ron Rumble.
Civil, electrical, hydraulic, structural and mechanical engineer and lift consultant
Connell Mott MacDonald.
Eppell Olsen and Partners.
Gamble McKinnon Green.
Food Service Design Australia.