Fresh take a class above for campus

Welcoming spaces have young pupils feeling at home, writes Stephen Crafti.

Welcoming spaces have young pupils feeling at home, writes Stephen Crafti.

Morris Hall, at Melbourne Girls Grammar, in Caroline Street, South Yarra, appears to be new. But within the brown brick shell is part of the former school, designed by architect John Scarborough in the 1970s.

"It was solid and well built. But it didn't provide the required facilities for the school's youngest (prep to year 4 students). The previous arrangement centred on traditional classrooms, many quite small," says architect Sally Draper, who worked in association with DP Toscano Architects on this project.

Given the constraints, in terms of space and budget, Draper used as much of the original structure as possible, including some of the timber windows. While the concrete frame was retained, a new brown brick facade was added, with steel and timber louvres to diffuse western sunlight. To add texture, as well as reflect the school's history, the external walls feature cast concrete "crossletts", a crucifix form that also features on the school's crest.

"We wanted to use this crosslett to create a visual link to the school's main campus (Anderson Street), but it also adds a tactile layer to the building," says architect Shahab Kasmai, associate director for Sally Draper Architects.

Designing a school for young children requires great skill and understanding, from a teacher's perspective, as well as the girls.

"The idea of creating a 'home' environment was at the forefront of our minds. The environment had to be comfortable, nurturing, as well as fun," Draper says.

The brief documents given to Draper are testimony to the objectives met: "A home for the mind and the heart", as well as "an environment that speaks to our senses".

While the Morris Hall campus is obviously not a home, the spaces have been arranged to evoke familiarity. Public spaces, such as the art, music, library and gathering spaces, are towards the centre of the three-level building, bedrooms or "learning spaces" towards the periphery.

"We wanted to create a sense of transparency throughout each space, but allowing for flexibility," says Draper, who designed the four main learning spaces to accommodate up to four teaching staff each. A typical corner of a space is given over to broad step like seats, ideal for informal reading. Another area is dedicated to block building or computers.

And unlike some school environments, where youngsters quickly thrash their surrounds, at Morris Hall shelves are beautifully arranged, even different-coloured scissors have their own container. "The children are extremely proud of the school. They felt very included in the process, with windows created to allow them to see the building progress," Kasmai says.

Rather than simply create brightly coloured spaces for the young children, Draper has taken a more sophisticated approach.

There are bolts of colour in places, but the emphasis has been on creating light-filled spaces. Terraces lead from each learning space and a trellis breezeway creates a link between levels. Sustainability is also high on the agenda, with vegetable gardens and cross ventilation at all levels. Exterior spaces are as considered, with a wave-like wall, designed by landscape architects Taylor Cullity Lethlean, providing seating nooks. A quirky tree house by Fitzgerald Frisby, adds to the sense of exploration.

"For a school campus, it's relatively modest in size. Outdoor areas had to be designed for all weather conditions," says Draper, pointing out the polycarbonate roof over one of the terraces.

Broad steps leading from this terrace also allow teaching outdoors.

"The design had to embrace the entire site, with the outdoors as enjoyable as a child's own backyard," Draper says.

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