Episodic Urbanism: The RMIT urban spaces project (1996-2015)

Launched two weeks ago, Episodic Urbanism is a book which documents the transformation of two city blocks which form RMIT University's city campus located in the heart of Melbourne.

The book depicts visually and narratively the story of how Peter Elliott Architecture + Urban Design has worked, over the course of nearly twenty years, to transform RMIT University’s inner city premises from what was essentially a private fortress into a public-spirited urban campus which engages with its city context.

Touching on everything from Renaissance Italian townscapes to masterworks of 20th century city-making by the likes of Carlo Scarpa, Luis Barragán and Jože Plečnik, Episodic Urbanism illuminates the unique conceptual framework underpinning the success of RMIT’s rejuvenation. As the book demonstrates, this framework sits in stark contrast to typical master planning exercises that work to impose a single, homogenous vision.

Instead, it privileges subtle, incremental change that is respectful of existing conditions and their history – which in RMIT’s case stretches right back to the foundation of the Melbourne.

RMIT University Lawn. Image courtesy of Peter Elliott Architecture + Urban Design

Presented in a visually rich, highly tactile format developed by graphic artist Stuart Geddes, Episodic Urbanism features contributions from several leading thinkers on urbanism and the city, including Leon van Schaik, William L Fox, SueAnne Ware and Robert Nelson.

As an exploration of both urban and institutional renewal, it tells a story about how we might effect dramatic transformation within our cities, without the dramatic rupture commonly associated with ‘renewal’. It is an essential publication for those with an interest in how we can shape our cities for the better, not through erasure and homogenisation but with an appreciative eye to their history, diversity and vitality.

The "episodic journey" as Robert Nelson terms it is centred around six key ideas and explorations of space:

  1. Largo
  2. Theatre
  3. Yard
  4. Courtyard
  5. Street
  6. Alley

Each chapter consists of a narrative describing these ideas supplemented by beautiful, clean drawings in addition to pages populated with colorful and rich photography of the various spaces.

One thing Australian architecture and certainly Australian design does not do terribly well and that is serve conversation. University is that place where it's almost nothing but language. It is the built environment but that is how we're inclined to see it. But from the student's point of view, from the lecturer's point of view, they're transacting ideas through language. The great appeal of being on a university campus is that you can exercise this incredible gift that we as citizens have - what are the spaces that serve conversation?

I think the incredible development that Peter (Elliott) has overseen digs deep into the patrimony where really now it's quite hard to remember the dog's breakfast that was this campus, destined to have signature buildings on it, for which we are very grateful, but that sense of 'the conversation' was nowhere to be seen. Those signature buildings as often as not do not provide it and if anything they sometimes yield, by virtue of their abstraction or snazziness, slightly anti-social space. I'm not saying that of the buildings on the RMIT Campus but it is often paradox that beautiful architecture actually doesn't do anything for the conversational. My goodness we now have a university that does.

Robert Nelson, co-author Episodic Urbanism

As a student who studied at RMIT and now works around the corner I have been able to witness the continued development and curation of spaces within the city campus and further efforts to connect the University with its immediate context and establish itself as a inviting element within the streetscape.

Spaces such as the temporary Urban Square on A'Beckett Street provide a social gathering space and node for not just students of the university but visitors and workers alike.

Typically ‘pop-ups’ occupy leftover and underutilised spaces through the use of recycled materials and the clever adaption of everyday found objects. They are often gritty spaces that are curated rather than designed. A’Beckett Urban Square was conceived as a piece of urban theatre carved out of the surrounding city, which is framed by new residential towers, multi-level car parks and RMIT academic buildings.

The design approach was purposefully lean, developing upon the idea of a temporary and demountable installation. It is an active place for casual recreation, mainly for ball sports like basketball and volleyball. It is a place to socialise, relax and watch people. There is a playful use of bold colours and graphics on the ground plane to distinguish the active hard zones from passive soft zones.

Peter Elliott Architecture + Urban Design
Urban Square, A'Beckett Street. © John Gollings

It is a real shame that the site will ultimately become another high-rise development because that is something the city certainly isn't lacking. Spaces with BBQ facilities, dwell spaces, social sporting activities and gathering spaces which are afforded ample sunlight during midday are few and far between.

Melbourne is far richer for the Urban Square and it would be a significant loss not just for RMIT but the greater city.



3000's picture

It will be a sad day when the Basketball court goes to make way for yet another AB Street tower.
Surely RMIT and Dick can do something to keep it? I'm not familiar with the laws regarding this sort of thing so who knows.

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

The basketball court has only ever been temporary. RMIT own the site and will build a new university building on the site in the future.

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