Reading more like a roll call of the architectural equivalent of an Avenger's film, the design team behind RMIT University's latest $220m project at its city campus, dubbed the 'New Academic Street' (NAS) features a who's who of former alumni and academic staff. Key to the development is the strengthening the university's connections and engagement with its surrounds around the northern parts of the CBD; an area itself experiencing a sustained level of development.
This will be achieved by improving the level of public permeability of five buildings along Swanston Street, Franklin Street and Bowen Street (Buildings 8, 10, 12, 14 and 28), with a series of laneways set to bisect the campus. Penetrating the perimeter of its monolithic fortress-like buildings will allow greater pedestrian flow and natural light to a series of planned interconnected learning and social spaces.
Previously covered on Urban Melbourne in minor detail, NAS continues RMIT's two decades long investment in its City Campus. The development consists largely of a series of additions and subtractions which interface and engage with Swanston, Franklin and Bowen Streets and helps to animate the otherwise static facades of the buildings. These initiatives will be achieved via the following works:
All up five design interventions are proposed which announce and provide the visual cues for the various laneway entrances into the campus from Swanston and Franklin Streets.
This projection is by way of a glazed folding canopy which projects a distance of 3m over Swanston Street providing weather protection to a major new entrance into the campus. Coupled with a range of informal student spaces on an open terrace overlooking Swanston Street, the canopy is articulated by a triangulated pattern of clear and coloured glass, referencing the triangular facade of the Swanston Academic Building (SAB) directly opposite.
This 3m projection includes an open balcony on Level 4, for informal student ‘breakout’ spaces, within enclosed student study space at Levels 5 and 6 as part of the overall University Library environment. A glazed, serrated extrusion in a triangulated pattern punctures the building 10 facade, consisting of a combination of transparent vision panels and opaque glazed panels designed to protect the internal student spaces from the western sun. This element also responds to a similar glazed extrusion on the SAB.
These student balconies perched over Swanston Street provide exterior breakout areas to the Library and other Student Services space on Levels 4, 5 and 6. Wrapped in a steel mesh, the balconies contain a sculptural external stairway that provides a link between the various levels of the Library and act as an extension of the internal study spaces.
They are designed to offer students much more informal group learning spaces which engage and activate the street similar to the breakout spaces which puncture the SAB facade.
The proposed projection is designed to provide a ‘book end’ to ARM's Green Brain at the corner of Swanston Street and La Trobe Street, marking a new major entrance into the campus in a fashion more typical of a civic or public building. This Media Portal is intended to function as both a student and event space supporting the activities of the Media Learning spaces, with the capacity to host fashion shows, product launches and publicity events.
The glazed space has been conceived to communicate the activities of the university to the public while offering opportunities for public engagement.
This 3m projection provides a student cafe balcony on Level 4 of Building 14, as well as creating north facing spaces over other levels that provide views to Franklin Street and the City Baths. The design of the balcony is directly informed by the ‘rhythms’ and architectural proportions of B14 itself with double height roofs chamfered in order to minimise solar heat gain from the west.
As such all west facing façade elements are solid and insulated surfaces. The fully glazed northern façade comprises automated louvers which allow the space be fully naturally ventilated.
The key elements of the design interventions include:
One of the biggest drivers behind the project and a source of inspiration for the design team is Melbourne's laneway network. These new internal laneways are intended to offer a diverse range of quality retail opportunities that can be used to not only promote RMIT through exhibitions and pop-ups, but to also draw the public into the university.
In order to create a very simple, clear and effective means of transforming the access and wayfinding into the campus, the design team proposes to create a new network of ‘laneways’. These laneways will be substantially open, operating on an extended hours basis within the campus, and being partly undercover and partly ‘open’ to the sky.NAS Town Planning Design Report
These laneways also create a large scale ‘urban framework’, for directly connecting Swanston Street with Bowen Street. Although not included within the Town Planning Design Report, the primary centre of the campus along Bowen Street is also transformed as part of the project. This involves the creation of two new ‘infill’ buildings within the existing courtyards which will provide active frontages along Bowen Street.
A further new student focused building designed by NMBW Architects is to be created directly onto the Bowen Street frontage, called the Garden Building , which will act as a student ‘beacon’ when arriving onto the campus via Bowen Street, from either Franklin Street or La Trobe Street.
A perusal of the plans and imagery for NAS makes it quite evident that as the design lead on the project Lyons have drawn on their many years of experience working on institutional projects with various universities across a number of campuses. The introduction of breakout spaces to the buildings' exterior and more informal learning spaces is becoming more common as institutions try to keep up with the advent of the advancement of technology and the implications on how teachers teach and students learn and study.
NAS has a responsibility on a number of levels; it first must accommodate the needs of RMIT's staff and students in engaging and relevant spaces, whilst simultaneously engaging and responding with the area. The key to the project's success will be how well these two desires are embodied within the architecture and design of spaces.
As a former RMIT alumni who now cycles past every day on the way to and from work I've had the opportunity to experience RMIT's city campus as both student and now visitor and have witnessed the area transform over the last 10 years.
For mine the most interesting of the interventions are those to Bowen Street and Building 12's projection. Employing materials not typically seen in institutional projects, the designs are a welcome departure from the drab blandness that alucobond and glazing offer.
Additionally the introduction of a laneway network for improved wayfinding and legibility is a big plus. In my early days at RMIT I struggled to navigate the cavernous corridors and changes in levels, as there was a lack of hierarchy evident in how you were supposed to move through the buildings. One challenge confronting the designers early on would have been how to respond to the existing fabric of the campus while creating a new yet unified design language for so many disparate components and with so many architects involved.
NAS, a multitude of apartment developments, major projects such as the Queen Victoria Market Redevelopment and the Melbourne Metro's CBD North Station; the CBD's north is on the brink of the next phase of its evolution; aesthetically, but also in the context of its place within the city. What was once a largely deserted quarter of the city save for students going about their studies will see a significant increase in the sheer number and types of people passing through the area, as they interchange between train, tram, foot or bike on their way to work, university or social engagements etc.
As one of the largest landholders in the area, RMIT University has identified the need for its buildings and the campus as a whole to make a positive contribution to the public realm. Bravo!