System + Metaphor

RMIT’s Biosciences Building brings John Wardle’s metaphoric, deinstitutional approach together with the systemised thinking of DesignInc Melbourne. Review by Rob McBride.

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The sculptural forms of the event space revealed through the light tower. Image Trevor Mein

The sculptural forms of the event space revealed through the light tower. Image Trevor Mein

 The eastern facade from the north, showing one of the three “event spaces” which punctuate the long, linear building. Image Trevor Mein

The eastern facade from the north, showing one of the three “event spaces” which punctuate the long, linear building. Image Trevor Mein

 View of the the modulated eastern facade from the south. Image Trevor Mein

View of the the modulated eastern facade from the south. Image Trevor Mein

 Concept plan.

Concept plan.

 Precast concrete “T”-shaped sunshades hang from the top of the building. Image Trevor Mein

Precast concrete “T”-shaped sunshades hang from the top of the building. Image Trevor Mein

 Blackened steel “T”s at ground level, interspersed with recycled redgum versions marking the paths of ancient trees passing through the building. Image Trevor Mein

Blackened steel “T”s at ground level, interspersed with recycled redgum versions marking the paths of ancient trees passing through the building. Image Trevor Mein

 The stainless steel flues are spaced along the length of the building according to a quadratic formula. Image Trevor Mein

The stainless steel flues are spaced along the length of the building according to a quadratic formula. Image Trevor Mein

 The “T” motif etched into the glass facade of the postgraduate reseach space. Image 

The “T” motif etched into the glass facade of the postgraduate reseach space. Image 

 Perspective of the building’s north end. Image Trevor Mein

Perspective of the building’s north end. Image Trevor Mein

 Looking towards the main entry on the first floor at the building’s southern end. Image Trevor Mein

Looking towards the main entry on the first floor at the building’s southern end. Image Trevor Mein

 The glazed wall, to the west of the main entry, is raked to reflect sky and garden and to exclude reflections of the adjacent building. Image Trevor Mein

The glazed wall, to the west of the main entry, is raked to reflect sky and garden and to exclude reflections of the adjacent building. Image Trevor Mein

 The “T”-shaped mesh pergola in front of the first light monitor. Image Trevor Mein

The “T”-shaped mesh pergola in front of the first light monitor. Image Trevor Mein

 Suspended seating node in an “event space”, seen from the first floor bridge. Image Trevor Mein

Suspended seating node in an “event space”, seen from the first floor bridge. Image Trevor Mein

 Laboratory. Image Trevor Mein

Laboratory. Image Trevor Mein

 The sculptural staircase housed in one of the light monitors. Image Trevor Mein

The sculptural staircase housed in one of the light monitors. Image Trevor Mein

The RMIT Biosciences Building is a linear facility containing laboratories and administration areas. The building’s orientation and position was determined by the campus masterplan and, as a consequence, its longitudinal axis runs north-south, cutting across the natural contours of the Bundoora site. The main entry, at the narrow southern end, coincides with the crest of the landform and with the paved courtyard that is the heart of the Bundoora campus.

The more I thought about the project, the more I was struck by the similarities to the work of James Stirling. I am thinking here of Stirling’s early campus-type buildings, not the later ones (masonry-clad with internalised circulation), but those of the of the late 1960s. These were primarily glazed, with structure, or implied structure, overlaid on the glass skin, and with the circulation similarly glazed and externalised. This work came from a time when “system thinking” dominated British architectural discourse. Stirling was party to this school of thought, but never partisan. His sense of the history of architecture and of architectural language, his sense of the promenade, and perhaps even of the picturesque, was overlaid on and meshed with the functional diagram of system thinking, making his buildings humane edifices.

Like Stirling’s sixties work, the form of the Biosciences Building clearly expresses its functional layout. Large light towers and service pods separate three discrete laboratory zones, while an overriding order of dramatic stainless steel flues marches across the whole. Like Stirling’s work, the building would make a handsome axonometric drawing.

The long east and west facades are sheer, made mainly of glass and overlaid with “T”-shaped sunshades. In this aspect, the building contrasts with its recently constructed neighbour – Wood Marsh’s curved monolith with punctuated openings and startling orange facade. The “T” motifs read as a remnant of brutalist architectural language. Hung uncertainly from the building, the sunshades are precast concrete on the upper level and, on the lower one, black metal. Elsewhere, the “T” motif variously becomes an image etched into the glass, a mesh pergola, and recycled red gum forms.

Positioned to mark the passage of lines drawn between ancient eucalyptus trees on either side of the new building, these timber “T”s seem to float magically. At first I was uncertain about the leitmotif – I thought of Perth’s Council House and wondered if the gesture was too insipid. Yet, the more I looked, the more I enjoyed the building’s pop overtones, its light graphic and decorative quality, and what it seemed to say about the monolithic institution.

The architects were concerned that such a long building would become a physical and psychological barrier in the campus. Their desire to cut swathes of landscape through the building was quelled by the reality of the functional brief. This desire, however, has left its mark in the light towers and monitors. The long facades are torn to reveal these glass towers, leaving half a “T” hanging precariously either side. The towers imply a sort of functional derivation, yet the angles of the glazing are entirely atmospheric and metaphoric. Reflecting the sky and the land, they imagine the unrelenting institutional facade as disrupted by the passage of the landscape. At night, these monitors become light beacons with the internal sculptured ceilings ghosting behind translucent glass.

These facades attempt to transform the reading of the institution. The building reads as a building in a state of flux, existing somewhere between what it was and what it could become. To the west, in well shaded locations, the “T” is stripped away. Modified only by interspersed vertical fins and upper horizontal shading, a sleek corporate facade is revealed – another manifestation of institutional transformation.

The entrance facade is a node of intensity rendered at an intimate scale. It refuses to engage with its heavier, more sober neighbours, which, as a group, define the campus courtyard. Squeezed between the ribbon aluminium wall and the oblique glazed wall, the passage and direction of entry is clear. Yet, the language of the assembled forms is ambiguous and intriguing. It appears as an overly elaborate annex or perhaps a sci-fi installation. In part, this represents a scaling down and domestication of the institution, a stategy that can be understood in terms of Peter Corrigan’s early institutional work. To the left of the main entry, the glass wall signals an alternative route, directing circulation to the lower landscaped area. In a somewhat self-assured act, the glazing on this wall is raked to reflect the new courtyard landscape and the sky, thereby excluding the reflections of neighbouring buildings.

As I approached this building from the carpark, its entrance visible through the landscaping and beyond the main courtyard, I first thought of Stirling. The similarities with Stirling’s residential expansion for St Andrews University seemed particularly interesting. At St Andrews the elongated campus building is also positioned on the crest of a rise, and, like the Biosciences Building, it presents an intimately scaled entry point.

St Andrews also has a central spine, a glazed promenade and what Stirling referred to as a major area of sociability. This sense of promenade is evident in almost all of Stirling’s work and, as an approach, it contrasts with many campus buildings where the circulation is predominantly internalised and disconnected from the campus. The architects of the Biosciences project say they designed the building from the inside out – an inversion of the apparent method adopted by surrounding buildings. The corridor, the space that is often the most denuded of architectural investment, has become the focus of their attention.

The building’s internal symmetry is disrupted by placing the raked glass wall slightly askew, while the translucent polycarbonate ceiling gives the corridor a lightness it would not otherwise have. Narrow slot windows, cut into the corridor walls, provide views into the laboratories and over the vast grounds of the campus beyond: deep within the building occupants are continually reminded of their position in relation to the rest of the campus. “Event spaces” are located along the corridor, within the light towers. The central space houses a sculptural staircase, while, at either end, fantastic fibreglass-clad circular concrete platforms are suspended beneath the sculpted plasterboard ceiling.

These “events” are eddies in the promenade experience, loci of sociability and rest. They are places for the scientists and students to relax, to eat, to stumble upon ideas, to enjoy views to the campus grounds, and to contemplate the denudation of the ancient landscape through technological and societal progress. Ambitious spaces, they possibly aspire to determine behaviour. They make this building important, yet they were absent from the project brief.

Not unexpectedly, this building displays John Wardle’s architectural dexterity and virtuoso skill. Externally there are experimental, sensual combinations of materials, cantilevers, and clever minimal detailing. Internally, the over-elaborate sign boards and, particularly, the sculptural coffered ceilings of the event spaces are examples of Wardle’s deft formal manipulations. These shapes and gestures may have precedents in a range of modern architectures, but Wardle continues to develop his own sumptuous signature.

However, it is my speculation that this building might not have been possible without the conjoining of these two particular firms. The association seems to have been a symbiotic one, with each informing the other. The project overlays the systematised thinking of DesignInc Melbourne (a firm that was doing institutional buildings when system thinking was popular) with the language, the deinstitutionalised thinking and metaphoric impulses of John Wardle. The resulting building brings quality to the campus experience, but it also speculates on the role of the institution and the nature of institutional edifices. It ponders the remnants of a beautiful landscape; what has been lost and what can be recovered.

Credits

Architect
John Wardle Architects
Melbourne, Vic, Australia
Project Team
John Wardle, Stefan Mee, John Loftus-Hills, John Williams, Christon Smith, Beatrix Rowe, Fiona Dunin, David Andrew, Frank Kruize
Architect
DesignInc
Australia
Consultants
Builder Baulderstone
Electrical and mechanical engineer Umow Lai Melbourne
Landscape designer Chris Dance Land Design
Quantity surveyor Padgham Sweett
Structural engineer Connell Mott MacDonald
Site details
Location Plenty Street,  Bundoora,  Melbourne,  Vic,  Australia
Category Commercial / public buildings
Type Education
Project Details
Status Built
Client
Client RMIT University
Website rmit.edu.au

Source

Archive

Published online: 1 Jan 2002
Words: Rob McBride

Issue

Architecture Australia, January 2002

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