In the early 19th century, when the architect Félix Duban undertook to transform Paris’s hallowed École des Beaux-Arts, his signal maneuver was to place a late-medieval archway in the forecourt of the design academy’s classical piazza. But the Arc de Gaillon wasn’t just decoration: It was a radical teaching tool, one that demonstrated through its hybrid Gothic–Renaissance style how structure and form could evolve over time, and that there was more to architecture than Greco-Roman antiquity.
Nearly 200 years later and some 10,000 miles away, two very different firms—Boston’s NADAAA and local firm John Wardle Architects (JWA)—have just finished a new architecture school, the University of Melbourne School of Design’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning building. Located in Australia’s sunny second city, it’s a building that doesn’t appear, at first, to incite much intellectual curiosity: Clad on three sides in perforated aluminum sunshades, with a blank south front, it seems just another architectural curio on a campus already littered with evidence of every design trend of the last century-and-change.
But on closer inspection, this is a building whose didactic ambitions make Duban’s look like a remedial course. Tom Kvan is the dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, and he describes the four big-ticket items that comprised the original brief: “The building had to be an investigation into the future of studio; into the future of academic work; it needed to be a living building; and it had to be a pedagogical building—one that teaches us and that we learn from constantly,” he says. On all points, but most especially on the last, the Wardle–NADAAA team have carried the day with a solution that almost overflows with ideas—a place the School of Design’s more than 3,000 students will not only learn in but learn from.
The collaboration came about rather serendipitously. “We were contacted first by John about three days before the competition deadline,” recalls Nader Tehrani, the now-outgoing head of the architecture program at MIT and the founding principal of NADAAA. Tehrani had recently visited Melbourne, but “we hadn’t known it,” says John Wardle, principal of Collingwood, Australia–based John Wardle Architects, who’d been out of town at the time. As luck would have it, Tehrani had seen a Wardle project during his stay, and was sufficiently impressed to join forces almost instantly. “Nader said yes within about 20 seconds of me asking,” Wardle says, and in short order the team found out that their proposal had made it past the first round of the design competition, which included more than 130 applicants.
Significant changes had to be made to their winning design to fit a tight university budget, but the core conceit of the design remains largely unchanged. “The building as a type is very simple,” Tehrani says. “It’s an atrium building, a donut.” It’s a donut with a difference, however, as this one is lofted up a story: The first-floor entry level is a continuation of the campus, with fabrication workshops, the library, and exhibition spaces arrayed around a central concourse; only on ascending the stairs does the visitor find the atrium, with four stories of galleries ringed around an open lounge space topped by a dramatic coffered wood ceiling.
The list of design details, and of the programmatic significance of each, is fairly astonishing, a result of a Skype-based collaboration that Wardle describes as “a conversation that constantly generated ideas.” The undersides of several staircases, for example, are unfinished, exposing the steel to “reveal how the stair is constructed,” as dean Kvan puts it. In the entryway concourse, there’s a small glass portal in the ceiling so that non-architecture students passing from east to west can get a glimpse into the light-filled atrium above, a little teaser to encourage them to head upstairs and see what the designers are up to. From the metal protective mesh surrounding the galleries to the worktables embedded partially in it to help hold the screen in tension; from the swiveling panel walls of the atrium-level studios to the glass windows near the basement auditoriums that give students a glimpse into the boiler rooms—almost nothing in the building is without some educational import concerning materials, building science, and the art of architecture.
All of these little Arc de Gaillon moments inside are set off by one big one on the exterior. What had been the decorative façade of the Joseph Reed–designed Bank of New South Wales, completed in 1859 and gifted to the school after the original building’s demolition in 1932, has been tacked onto a portion of the new architecture building just as it had been to the school’s now-demolished previous structure. This extraordinary set piece and beloved campus fixture (which is secreted under green scaffolding, and will be until its installation on the new structure is completed in December) is given an appealing bit of deference by the brash metal building that surrounds it, with the irregular zinc louvers billowing around it slightly—“like a curtain,” says JWA principal Stefan Mee—a lesson in how even the past can find a place in the architecture of the future.
So profuse, in fact, is the structure’s built-in curriculum that it leaves one a little in doubt as to how much its already-harried students will be able to absorb. “The more we got into it, the more scripting we felt was required,” Wardle says, and the result is a building with a very thick plot indeed. What is likely to become its most recognizable feature, the striking Suspended Studio that dangles like a wooden lightning bolt in the atrium, is also a sort of metonym, a symbol of the whole—a place where the building, and the students in it, seem to be flying beyond the limits of the possible. That, claims Tehrani, is the whole point, a mark of how much the necessity of dynamism and adaptability has become the hallmark of architectural education since the days of the Beaux-Arts. “We’re still always working with an understanding that the building has to be timeless,” he says. “But architecture is changing radically.” —Ian Volner