Spatial drama: The University of Melbourne Engineering Building

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The faculty’s original 1930s engineering workshop has been reimagined to become a focal point for the school precinct.

The faculty’s original 1930s engineering workshop has been reimagined to become a focal point for the school precinct. Image: Dianna Snape

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A new linkway within the workshop connects the school’s two courtyards and accommodates a stair with a viewing platform that looks into the workshop.

A new linkway within the workshop connects the school’s two courtyards and accommodates a stair with a viewing platform that looks into the workshop. Image: Dianna Snape

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The north wing student space is intended to be informal, non-hierarchical and relaxed so students feel at ease.

The north wing student space is intended to be informal, non-hierarchical and relaxed so students feel at ease. Image: Dianna Snape

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In the old engineering building’s north wing, standalone pods respond to different student needs.

In the old engineering building’s north wing, standalone pods respond to different student needs. Image: Dianna Snape

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The pods, or “rooms within a room,” support both autonomous and group work.

The pods, or “rooms within a room,” support both autonomous and group work. Image: Dianna Snape

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A sketch showing the connection between the courtyards and workshop.

A sketch showing the connection between the courtyards and workshop.

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Working within the University of Melbourne’s original 1930s engineering workshop, Designinc has opened up the student spaces to put engineering on display.

At the risk of oversimplification, “putting engineering on display” could be the clarion call for this entire suite of interventions in the University of Melbourne’s Engineering faculty buildings, which incorporates an engineering workshop and various moments in the old engineering buildings. Designinc has worked hard with its client to bring spaces, machinery and objects into the light that were previously buried deep within the University of Melbourne’s famously labyrinthine Parkville campus, laying down new paths and vistas through what were once opaque “black box” functions. In doing so, architect and client have elevated and laid bare the machinery and processes, both human and mechanical, and that of the business of educating the next generation of engineers and makers.

In fulfilling a masterplanning concept, an important foundational move was to create a new pedestrian link through what was the southern end of the workshop space, linking two courtyards and connecting pedestrians to the network of paths through the campus, drawing them deep into the heart of the Engineering area. This path through the building is defined to the north by a wall of structural glass and perforated panels, combined with a dramatic self-supporting, black steel stair, allowing views into the workshop from ground level and above as one moves up the stair.

A new linkway within the workshop connects the school’s two courtyards and accommodates a stair with a viewing platform that looks into the workshop. Image:  Dianna Snape

The workshop is a dramatic multi-level volume containing some intimidating-looking machines. However, the design of the old building, with its sills higher than eye height for passing pedestrians, limited the exposure of the goings-on within to those who were actually participating. This condition – of interesting things consistently happening behind closed doors and concealed behind high walls – characterized much of the engineering faculty’s presence on the campus. By cutting through the southernmost part of the high workshop volume at ground level, a dramatic space has been opened for visual occupation. On display south of the link is a room containing a Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN) rig and a room containing a metal printer, again exposed for view behind fully glazed walls.

Past the link and in the heart of the engineering faculty sits the postgraduate work and breakout room, another space that has been newly created in the old engineering building. The challenge here was to take a cellular building divided by structural masonry walls and open it up completely to a new type of occupation. The structural puzzle was greatly complicated by the need to protect the newly exposed shell from potential earthquake damage, and in service to this objective some serious steel structure was inserted above, around and below the newly opened floor spaces, effectively creating a large internal cage.

In the old engineering building’s north wing, standalone pods respond to different student needs. Image:  Dianna Snape

True to the philosophy of the project, this steel cage has been left exposed, and can be seen abutting the walls and floors of the occupied spaces. Inserted into this open-plan space was a range of breakout rooms and areas that support different types of collaboration and group work, creating an essential and social work space for student groups. There are smaller and larger booths with tables and whiteboard walls, so-called “think tanks” that support group collaboration with smart boards and pin boards, and bench seats and clusters of tables and chairs arranged along the windows flanking the space. The “think tanks” and some of the booths are clustered within a series of shed-like volumes that sit lower than the ceiling, bringing an undulating roof line into the space and creating a sense of containment. The interior palette is intended to be calming and muted, situated in the blues and greens range, with natural timber walls and some greys coming through in the custom carpet tiles.

The spaces described above, and range of other internal and external spaces and interventions that constitute this project, are evidence of an architecture of “stitching-together,” of spending money wisely and strategically from a limited fund for maximum impact. Notwithstanding its moments of spatial drama – and they are certainly present – the real proof of the quality of this work is seen in the fact that the collaborative work areas were packed to overflowing – humming with life – at 4.30 on a wet Friday afternoon. It is clear that a social and practical need has been fulfilled in a faculty that teaches what one might be tempted otherwise to think of as an un-social discipline: from such constructive collaboration, the most intractable problems we face may be solved.


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