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Geoff Handbury Science and Technology Hub

Full disclosure: as a member of a shortlisted but ultimately unsuccessful project team that bid to design the new science and technology building at Melbourne Grammar School (MGS), I have been waiting with interest to see what enticed the competition jury to select the scheme submitted by Denton Corker Marshall (DCM).

Five years on, the 1954 Bromby Building that once occupied the site is gone and the new Geoff Handbury Science and Technology Hub is open. Armed with an invitation from Architecture Australia to review the new building, my patience was rewarded with a tour of the facility with project architect, DCM senior associate Anne Clisby, and members of the school’s facilities and academic staff.

My sense of intrigue was heightened on encountering the building’s dynamic black facade, which somehow achieves a sense of futurism, timelessness and establishment all at once. At five levels including a rooftop garden, it’s a large building, yet it sits relatively quietly at the far side of the school’s grassed playing fields, opposite the more intensely developed areas of the senior school campus. The hub also offers a relatively discreet frontage to the residential streets to its south and east, responding well to the constraints associated with heritage and height restrictions. Its urban presence on these residential streets is enhanced by a bluestone wall, re-established as part of the building works, as well as a modest setback from the street, which allows natural light to flood the lower ground level.

Melbourne Grammar School’s new science and technology hub, designed by Denton Corker Marshall, is a dramatic presence on the senior school campus.

Melbourne Grammar School’s new science and technology hub, designed by Denton Corker Marshall, is a dramatic presence on the senior school campus.

Image: John Gollings

Within the campus, the building offers a facet of athletic drama, acting as a grandstand-like backdrop to the sporting events that take place in its wake. That sense of drama further creates a sense of wonder about what might be going on behind the building’s veiled exterior – a worthy achievement by DCM amid national discourse about falling interest in the study of science and technology.

Channelling arguments about the social production of space developed by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, my interest in the “lived experience” of the building ran deeper than a desire to explore the experiences offered by the architecture itself. As a former science and technology teacher and now academic in the Melbourne School of Design, I wanted to know what the building delivered as a learning environment and as a space for contemporary pedagogical practice. What does it offer students and teachers in their pursuit of scientific and technological inquiry, and what might it offer to the education community more broadly as a potential exemplar, helping to inform the future of learning and teaching in science and technology?

Certainly the most “affectively charged” spaces are those located on the lower ground level, where an array of learning settings are used for design and materials technologies activities. These interconnected settings allow for the flow of people and resources between spaces dedicated to conceiving, designing, making and testing the products of the students’ imaginations: from furniture to robots and art installations. The obviously deep engagement of the boys who were present when I visited was testament to the successful delivery of a learning environment that had met not only the architectural brief, but also the educational one.

Behind the scenes, the lower ground level also offers well-conceived spaces for the delivery, storage and preparation of materials, such as pre-cut timber. These spaces are complemented by extensive storage for students’ works in progress. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find better provision for students’ ongoing projects in any comparably sized school facility across the country.

A large atrium and spiralling staircase connect the ground floor to the upper levels and encourage social interaction among students and teachers.

A large atrium and spiralling staircase connect the ground floor to the upper levels and encourage social interaction among students and teachers.

Image: John Gollings

Good visual access between differentiated settings, afforded by the extensive use of glass, as well as attention to high-quality acoustics have ensured that the lower ground level works well as a workshop. In effect, it is a supercharged makerspace that delivers exciting hands-on, high-tech and highly engaging learning opportunities to a student cohort that is obviously thrilled with the offering.

Upstairs, the building opens into a large atrium that connects the ground floor to the upper levels. A spiralling staircase adds to the inspiring aesthetic. However, the inclusion of these elements generates a tension with respect to the space-planning within this educational facility. The spatial arrangements that are so effective on the lowest level – interconnected spaces , clustered settings and spatial adjacencies that enable connection and flow – are largely absent on the upper floors. In creating a building of strong design merit, the design team has perhaps overlooked a thorough consideration of students’ and teachers’ human geographic experiences.

The arrangement of laboratories, theory rooms, preparation spaces and teacher workspaces on the upper levels follows a generally linear distribution directed by the arc of the building as it curves to accommodate the site’s corner location. The separation of these spaces, which are connected by generous but not readily occupied passageways, means that the educational experiences afforded are largely isolated within the varied rooms. I couldn’t help but think that a broader range of adjacent settings, including multipurpose common areas, might have helped differentiate students’ learning experiences and offered teachers more scope to develop innovative and exciting programs supported by a wider array of spaces and settings.

The popularity of the small, glazed meeting rooms that are central to each floor, located adjacent to the staircase, highlights students’ desire for “unprogrammed” learning settings: spaces that afford informal study and socializing amid “programmed” (timetabled) rooms. It is a credit to the academic staff that these spaces are regularly used by students, as they were originally conceived as staff meeting rooms.

The organization of project rooms and design and technology workshops on the lower-ground floor is a particular strength of the project, offering a practical and effective makerspace.

The organization of project rooms and design and technology workshops on the lower-ground floor is a particular strength of the project, offering a practical and effective makerspace.

Image: John Gollings

Some nice touches feature in the laboratory spaces. These include power and gas services that are suspended over workbenches to deliver uncluttered practical work surfaces and areas for both theory and practical work within each lab. Writeable surfaces adorn the operable walls, which feature between a number of the labs and project rooms, allowing students to use these surfaces to ideate and explore their inquiries in collaborative groups. The distribution of fish tanks, reptile enclosures and glass cabinets for the display of scientific artefacts also helps to enculturate the facility as an environment for scientific and technological inquiry and exploration.

Without doubt, the Geoff Handbury Science and Technology Hub is an impressive new addition to Melbourne Grammar School’s senior campus. Working within the constraints imposed by the site, DCM has designed a building of exemplary quality and design aesthetic. It is a building that offers a strong and highly respectable urban presence and glimpses of the future of educational design. While the organization of teaching settings on the upper floors leans more toward past practices, it is the spaces for design and materials technologies activities that reveal insights into the future of science and technology education.

Credits

Architect
Denton Corker Marshall
Melbourne, Vic, Australia
Consultants
Access consultant Architecture and Access
Acoustic engineer Acoustic Logic Consultancy
Building access and maintenance consultant Workplace Access and Safety
Building surveyor PLP Building Surveyors and Consultants
Contractor and project manager Kane Constructions
Cost consultant Wilde and Woollard
Facade consultant BG and E Facades
Landscape architect Urban Initiatives
Planning consultant Nicholson Planning and Development
Signage Fabio Ongarato Design
Site surveyor Madigan Surveying
Specification consultant McGaw Consulting
Structural, services and civil engineer and ESD consultant Irwinconsult
Site details
Site type Urban
Category Commercial / public buildings
Type Education
Project Details
Status Built
Completion date 2018

Source

Project

Published online: 22 Jul 2019
Words: Benjamin Cleveleand
Images: John Gollings

Issue

Architecture Australia, March 2019

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