Last week as part of a discussion in class we entered into a debate about the Melbourne School of Design building by John Wardle Architects, namely in the regards to ‘performance’. Performance can mean several things in architecture discussions, but it was regarding how the building performs in a sustainability/quantifiable sense. What transpired however were students venting some frustration about how the building performs in other respects, and there seemed to be more negative points than positives. I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite some time in which I give my critique of the building, and I think a semester-and-a-half worth of studying inside gives me some grounding. However I wanted to look and compare the building from two perspectives merging into one, going from a guest to a student.
My first interaction with the building came in 2014 at the end of year MSDx, and it was a rather fleeting experience. Over time I found other excuses to visit the building, including attending guest lectures and seeing friends. I would often marvel at the atrium space, or void if you wish to refer to it as that, the exposed finishes and the design-y random layout of furniture. The hanging studio was always photographed, even if it was from the same angle 23 times, and wished that I could study in there. Every time I visited there seemed to be something happening, whether full of students, works hanging on the walls or an exhibition in the Dulux Gallery. There seemed to be constant life in the building.
When I viewed it from the exterior I would love the random window layout on the southern facade, the integration of the heritage facade on the west, the huge cantilever on the north and the concrete steps on the east. Each facade seemed to have a life of its own, with a different language but still read in a cohesive manner. The building stood quite strongly, honest of the time it was designed and built, where it didn’t try to look like the historical buildings on campus. Although it stood strongly, it would not stand over the nearby buildings.
Fast forward to now, how do I feel about this building, as a student? Does it still give me this sense of excitement?
There is a lack of chairs on the atrium level, why do I have to stand for an hour waiting for a chair to become available? Why is it when I plug my laptop in the powerpoint doesn’t always work? Why are there not enough tables in general? And why are there students from other faculties taking up our tables, chairs and power points?!
Sorry, I just needed to rant about those petty things. There is some validity to those rants though where the building may not be as well managed as it could be. However what about those which are embedded into the building, I mean it should be easy enough to supply a correct number of chairs and order some new desks, but what about things which are fixed. The building probably has the award for Worst Designed Stairs, and while I’m confident they are to code that doesn’t mean they don’t feel uncomfortable. Two sets of stairs take this award, the ones down to the Dulux Gallery are deep and shallow, and for a shorter fellow like me I have to awkwardly take two steps per tread. These are two consistent, regular steps but rather one normal followed by a half-step, per step. The other staircase links you to each level in the atrium, where again they are shallow steps. The treads are a normal depth, but the shallowness makes it feel like I have to walk lightly.
Does those stairs really affect my performance as a student though? Of course not, until I fall down one, but in reality if they are to code it isn’t that big of a deal. My biggest criticism of the building comes from a design and management viewpoint, and that is I feel like I am always on show. What I mean by that is whenever I’m working on the atrium level, or really any of the levels, with such constant foot traffic I get the sense people are always looking at me. I can be a rather introverted person at times, so this kind of feeling does make me uncomfortable. I’m also strange where I like being at university as I’m still connected with the campus, instead of just going home after or between classes. Ideally I wish there were spaces (or nooks) where people like me can setup and work without having this feeling of being on display. There are some spaces like this, however they seem to be taken each time. Classrooms also sit empty for hours, however without knowing the timetable I avoid occupying.
Before commencing studies at the Melbourne School of Design I viewed this building as a beautiful masterpiece, however when you are there every day you start to notice some flaws. It’s like moving in with your partner for the first time, sure they are beautiful and wonderful to you now but once you move in together you see things you didn’t before. As a guest of the MSD I never concerned myself with the number of chairs or tables, or working power points, or finding quiet study spaces. As a guest I was merely interested in taking the best photo for Instagram.
It performs well in many aspects, such as its sustainability features, acting as a learning tool (with it’s exposed structure and services) and being a drawcard for the university. Look at RMIT’s Design Hub for example, it is such a prominent icon for the university. I have heard that it isn’t always the best place to study, but from an outsider point of view it has that ‘wow’ factor. The MSD has that exact same issue where guests come into the atrium space and the cameras are out snapping away, fingers pointing in all directions and whispers of delight are echoed. I even catch myself still taking photographs and noticing details however the whispers have been replaced with grunts after four laps of the entire building trying to find somewhere to sit.