This past year, residents of Melbourne, Australia, were invited to engage in a passionate architectural debate. The invitation was not a formal one, but rather an unusual opportunity that emerged due to coincidental circumstances.
On the celebrated Swanston Street that bisects Melbourne's central business district, two iconic structures were commissioned by RMIT University for use by students and faculty. Both designed by prominent local architects, the buildings—which are a mere two blocks apart from one another—could not be more different.
The Design Hub is a facility dedicated to multidisciplinary design research, instruction, and communication. Designed by Sean Godsell and Peddle Thorp Architects, the building is a simple mid-rise tower wrapped entirely in a permeable screen comprising translucent glass discs and a steel support structure. Reminiscent of the works of Jun Aoki or Kengo Kuma—Japanese architects who regularly construct entire skins out of repeating, customized material modules—the Design Hub seems simultaneously present and absent. Its intricately wrought facade attracts one's attention when close by; however, its simplistic and otherwise undifferentiated form recedes into the background when viewed from a distance.
The RMIT Swanston Academic Building—which contains classrooms, meeting spaces, and offices for the College of Business—presents a compelling contrast. Designed by Lyons Architects, the structure was conceived as a kind of internalized, vertical campus. From the exterior, the building appears as an explosion of multicolored, tessellated surfaces that hover above the street and wrap around a historic building on the corner of the block. Unlike the refined and understated Design Hub, the Swanston building screams for attention with its vibrant pixelated skin—and if this weren't enough, the cladding is also violently punctured on occasion by giant, extruded balconies and exterior perforations.
Although the exterior comparison is stark, the interior experience of both buildings tells a more interesting story. Once inside the Design Hub, a visitor is confronted with a predictably straightforward architectural vision. Long, narrow spaces clad in steel grating draw occupants down through a multistory exhibition area, and upper level studios adhere to a simple, repeatable open floor plan. The building's occupants speak in hushed tones, not wanting to disrupt the monastic atmosphere. A roof terrace continues the corridor-centric experience, with boxy pavilions separated by tight pedestrian alleyways. While the Design Hub is clearly an expensive container for design research activities, the initial impression is that this container is more controlling than enabling. Laypeople are likely both impressed and intimidated by this building—led to believe that a monomaniacally scripted, austere environment is required for the proper study of design.
By contrast, the Swanston building interior is brimming with variety and experimentation. A complex sequence of interpenetrating spaces of different sizes, shapes, and material palettes forms the primary mechanism for organization. The architects' emphasis on energized collective environments conveys the impression that the building is more of a student center or shopping mall than an edifice full of classrooms. During a typical afternoon, the building is packed with students who have all found their favorite study spot—whether it be a quiet table surrounded by electric green walls or an exterior veranda with a view of the city. To the uninformed, this building would appear to be the new center for multidisciplinary design studies as opposed to the College of Business. Indeed, it seems much more a design hub than the Design Hub itself.
The comparison between these two new buildings resulted in a heated debate among the jury for the 2012 Australian Institute of Architects national awards. Although the choice was a difficult one, the jurors gave the grand prize to the Design Hub. Ultimately, however, the buildings' users will decide the real winner of this architectural contest. In fact, it would appear that the RMIT students—who presumably represent a new generation of mobile, multitasking, creative, and variety-demanding thinkers—already have.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.