Melbourne, Australia is a grid city, and Swanston Street is its main axis that runs across the river and links its massive war memorial, the Shrine of Remembrance, with what was once the CUB (or Carleton United Brewery) site. Professor Leon van Schaik has been helping procure innovative buildings for the Royal Melbourne Institute for Technology (RMIT) for 20 years, of a quality commensurate to its status as (arguably) Australia's premiere design school. These buildings cluster around the urban campus of RMIT at the end of the axis and form a dialogue with each other, or perhaps, in the case of two new buildings the “Design Hub” and “Building 80”, an argument about language and program. This argument could be characterised in a myriad of ways: between the styles of (post) postmodernism and (too late) modernism; between architectural semiotics and program; between surface and microclimatic quality. However really the argument concerns parochialism and ubiquity.
The Design Hub, designed by Sean Godsell, looks a bit like the monolith from “2001 – A Space Odyssey”, but for teaching. Its exterior is comprised of a curtain wall grid of extruded galvanized steel circles inset with frosted glass pieces that rotate like louvers. Circulation spaces are faced with vertical mesh of galvanised steel, while its teaching spaces are white-walled, with first-floor galleries running along one side, and on the other a number of huge void exhibition spaces. The spaces are also monolithic in their lack of specification: they could be used for anything. This vision of the Design Hub, as an open space that is given character by the work it displays and the activities that happen in it, is one that van Schaik has pursued for many years. It’s the ultimate expression of the studio system with no dedicated space – just performance. Designed by Sean Godsell, the building is in line with his houses in its emphasis on clarity of form through the relentless use of a single material. But how specific is it really? Is it really OF Melbourne or, despite its virtuosity, a ubiquitous reiteration of Modern architecture in its latest iteration?
In contrast to the enigmatic quality of the Design Hub, Building 80 by Lyons Architects is like a top made of sequins. RMIT's architectural lineage is formed from a combination of design-generation techniques developed from postmodernism, and complex references inside the architectural culture, as well as to the international canon of architecture. Thus the color combinations of Building 80 and their myriad triangular forms seem to reference, and perhaps shred, the combinations on the older Building 8 designed by local postmodern hero Peter Corrigan. This type of reference is called “a tip” as in, to tip ones cap in recognition, and Building 80's use of the Harvard tie is a joke on design royalty, but for a polytechnic. Professor Sue-Anne Ware calls Building 80 “Frankenbuilding,” but with love. These references are combined with generative digital technique and form complex small extruded spaces in the building that are well conceived as break-out spaces for small groups, making its eccentricities occupiable. The specificity of this building is cultural, inside the ubiquitous urban grid, but would anyone else than the local architectural culture appreciate its nuances, and does that even matter?
The two buildings seem to face each other off. Professor van Schaik often talks about the value of tri-polarity, that three differing opinions offer richness in discourse more than two in juxtaposition. While the partisan would back the Lyons building, it could be argued that Godsell's, though more ubiquitous, challenges Melbourne's parochialism. If these two buildings form two poles, perhaps the third is Melbourne's Hoddle Grid, a tableau of open possibility within limits, stretching out across the basalt plain toward the Mallee.
- Julian Raxworthy, Melbourne