Four new halls of residence, by Jackson Clements Burrows Architects, McBride Charles Ryan, and Hayball and Richard Middleton Architects, are shaping the urban environment of the Clayton campus and fostering a sense of community.
Across Australia, every university is facing the challenge of providing more and better student housing. There are several reasons for this. The first is simply demand. Students, local and international, want to live closer to where they are studying and many, if they can afford it, don’t want to have to opt for the sometimes substandard living conditions offered by private rental operators. The second is that, with tertiary education increasingly moving online and despite the advent of Massive Open Online Courses, universities want and need their campuses not to be empty of life. High-quality, face-to-face academic experiences and interactive, socially positive learning environments can only benefit students if they are physically on campus for greater periods of time. This means that living on campus or very near is ideal. University libraries and learning spaces have to be as or more comfortable than home. The campus has to be safe and secure and, most importantly, it has to possess the various gradations and qualities of propinquity that define the contemporary city.
For central city campuses like the University of Technology Sydney, RMIT University in Melbourne, the University of South Australia in Adelaide and Queensland University of Technology in Gardens Point in Brisbane, urbanity has never been a problem, with housing outsourced laissez-faire to the private rental market. For older campuses like the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne, the rarefied air of college life offers the Oxbridge residential college model but only to the privileged few. But now these institutions are struggling in physical terms to meet pent-up demand. Given exponential student growth over the last decade, some campuses have populations of anywhere between forty thousand and sixty thousand students. They are cities in their own right, complete with their own postcodes. Shared student houses are often not available, let alone affordable, in the over-gentrified inner suburbs around them.
For the postwar campus, often built on a greenfield site, it’s a different story entirely. Nineteen-sixties campuses like Macquarie, La Trobe and Flinders Universities were built on distant, outer-suburban sites, with vast seas of car parking as buffer zones to the featureless (and then often bleak) suburbs around them. The university proper then lay within, as a group of modernist (or brutalist and late modernist) slabs spread sparsely through largely indigenous landscapes, planted to redeem the semirural or semi-industrial landscapes they’d once been.
Monash University, in Melbourne’s outer-suburban Clayton, was one of the earliest and largest of these sprawling modernist campuses. It was established in 1958 and its initial masterplan by Bates, Smart and McCutcheon envisaged a giant, horseshoe-shaped collection of buildings framing sporting fields in the foreground, with a distant view of the Dandenong Ranges to the east. Cut off from the rest of Melbourne’s public transport network for decades, backing onto industrial factory sites and CSIRO laboratories and offices, and only accessible by car and infrequent buses, it epitomized the satellite commuter campus. And yet students were living on campus right from the university’s inception. Tucked away on the north-east corner of the campus were the faintly Wrightian-themed Farrer and Deakin Halls (1962, 1964–66), designed by noted residential architects Chancellor and Patrick. But in the context of Monash’s gargantuan and seemingly endless site, these colleges seemed visually and physically distant from the centreless centre of this campus, whose main visual focus was the highrise slab of the Menzies Building (nicknamed the Ming Wing). Further separating these colleges was the campus’s only major landscape feature, a remnant indigenous bush valley and swamp then known as Snake Gully.
Fast-forward to 2016 and everything has changed. Monash University has acted to fill its residential vacuum, following the precepts of its Clayton Campus Masterplan 2011–2030, undertaken by MGS Architects in 2009. The aim is to have more than four thousand student beds on campus by 2030. Celebrating landscape design and making legible urban design moves have been key strategies. The creation and consolidation of College Walk, which connects the 1960s colleges in the north-east to the rest of the campus, have been pivotal. And the use of student housing to frame and provide an edge and connecting urban fabric has been tactical and strategic. First along this route, which tracks diagonally across Snake Gully (now Jock Marshall Reserve), were BVN’s award-winning Briggs and Jackomos Halls, which added six hundred student beds in 2012. Now, in 2016, four new halls of residence have been inserted, completing the connection to the academic centre of the campus and adding another thousand student beds. It’s as if the meandering street concept of MLTW’s seminal Kresge College (1973) at the University of California, Santa Cruz has been stretched and expanded to meet the new pedestrian walkway grid of Monash’s consolidating urban heart. With a $145 million budget, using the one construction company and involving more than 3,500 fast-tracked precast concrete panels, hundreds of prefabricated bathroom pods and the requirement for a five-star Green Star rating (none of the halls is airconditioned), this project constitutes a complete residential precinct.
Each of the four halls has different attributes: aesthetic, formal and functional. The five storeys of Jackson Clements Burrows Architects’ undulating curve of Turner Hall, in urban terms, negotiate its open, recreational landscapes to the north and south as if it were a giant, glazed-brick garden wall. Across the bizarrely named Scenic Boulevard (arguably the precinct’s only discordant note, with its traffic lights, concrete kerbs and gutters and loss of tactile contact with College Walk), Hayball and Richard Middleton Architects’ six-storey L-shaped Holman and Campbell Halls frame a north-facing teardrop landscape, echoing the spatial generosity of a traditional college lawn. Behind is McBride Charles Ryan’s seven-storey Logan Hall, also L-shaped, which aligns with the new pedestrian route of Sports Walk on its north-curving face and on the east with Scenic Boulevard.
Each hall contains 250 residents and each indicates lessons learned from the earlier BVN project. None has student rooms on the ground floor. Instead these spaces are given over to public function. In Turner Hall, lounge and recreation spaces, the mailroom and the obligatory laundry, which act like a village meeting place, open onto outdoor barbecue areas. At Holman and Campbell Halls, ground-floor spaces are shared with the university, providing postgraduate study and lounge hubs. Logan Hall’s ground floor will contain cafes and also a supermarket. Emulating the city, each acknowledges mixed-use ground-level occupation. Logan Hall gains civitas with a north-facing loggia of blade columns running along its entire face and providing a hard edge before a handsome avenue of existing mature ironbarks.
Above these “urban” ground levels, each hall of residence follows a similar planning strategy for defining student community. Instead of the Oxbridge “staircase” model (which defines a social group of six or seven individual rooms grouped around a common staircase) or John Andrews’s 1970s experiments in Canberra (with five to six student rooms sharing bathrooms and a kitchen, rather like an apartment) all the Monash halls adopt a different model. A generous, double-loaded corridor wing of generally thirty self-catering studio apartments (twenty square metres) constitutes an identifiable community or social group. Each student has their own bedroom, ensuite and kitchenette, while all thirty students have access to a communal kitchen where more elaborate meals can be prepared as a group. There are also small communal lounges per community and on each floor. The kitchens and small lounge spaces, often located at the knuckle of the L-plan and with glazed walls, determine clear and visible “ownership” for the social group and students can choose whether or not to engage with friends or colleagues. It is a model that encourages choice and a level of independence. Further, Monash Residential Services, which manages each of the halls, ensures that each “community” has a resident adviser (a student) and each hall has a live-in head and deputy. It’s a sophisticated and supportive management system complemented by architecture and interiors that are lively, colourful, hard-wearing and always surprising. At Logan Hall, for example, there’s a double-height lounge/community space for the whole residence with spectacular views over Monash’s playing field and onwards to the Dandenongs.
Unlike others who are sceptical of Monash’s relationship with its neighbouring suburbs,1 I am not. Let’s face it – the Clayton campus has always been its own desert island. But in nearly sixty years, it’s beginning to take shape as a campus with its own distinctive sense of urbanity. It’s the same age as Brasilia but without its self-referential aesthetic or its necessary air between buildings for sculptural effect. Instead, what is becoming clearer at Monash is that increased building density and the presence of people living and working on campus – complemented by the mature indigenous designed landscapes fought so hard for by John Stevens, Gordon Ford and Jock Marshall and the new, and also indigenous, designed landscapes by Taylor Cullity Lethlean – have the capacity to evolve as model urban centres. This will not happen overnight. But the strategic insertion of these new residential communities and their stitching together with landscapes, new and old, might provide lessons for how Australian cities and suburbs could implement urban change.
1. Paul Walker and Andrys Onsman, “Circumnavigating the citadel,” Architecture Australia, vol 105 no 4, Jul/Aug 2016, 45–48.