RMIT's Design Archives haven for the creative

A strong industrial aesthetic infuses the building, writes Stephen Crafti.

A strong industrial aesthetic infuses the building, writes Stephen Crafti.

The Design Hub at RMIT University scooped the Australian Institute of Architects (Victorian Chapter) Awards this year. Designed by Sean Godsell Architects in association with Peddle Thorp Architects, this landmark building in Victoria Parade, received a swag of awards, the Victorian Architecture Medal, the William Wardell Award for Public Architecture and a Colorbond Award.

While these accolades are well deserved, the smaller of the two buildings that make up this precinct, the Design Archives, forms part of this award-winning complex and is equally heroic.

The three-level archives building, wrapped in black steel, is home to the design archives, focusing on design practices in Melbourne from the mid-20th century to the present. From Frances Burke's postwar textiles, to Prue Acton's fashion, leading designers from numerous design fields (including architecture, automotive, product and graphic) are represented.

"The archives are used for research, for both academics and those in the community researching a specific topic. It's not unlike an archaeological dig of some of Melbourne's creatives," says Harriet Edquist, professor of architectural history and director of the Design Archives.

"This archive is unique in Australia. Most archives are attached to a museum," she says.

Previously Edquist and her colleagues Kaye Ashton and Sue Ryan were operating from a small office on the Swanston Street campus. This new building not only includes secure storage, climate control and the right type of storage (compactuses and shelves), it also allows items to be displayed when required.

Unlike the Design Hub, with operable sand-blasted glass discs, the Design Archives features an eastern facade in black steel columns opening to the concrete forecourt. In contrast, the front facade, also the entry point, is glazed, with a series of layers creating a veil to busy Victoria Parade.

There's a complexity to the Design Archives that's slowly revealed. "It's deliberately layered to filter the passing traffic. But it was also about liberating what's quite a simple form," says Godsell, pointing out the steel frames around the front window and series of concrete and mesh blade walls at the entrance.

To acknowledge RMIT University's history, starting out as a working man's college, Godsell used tough and robust materials. As well as using steel on the exterior, the interior has a strong industrial aesthetic. Concrete floors appear in the main thoroughfares, and in the offices and storage areas, there is black rubber on the floors. Galvanised steel, normally used for street grates, appears on walls, ceilings and even doors.

"Like the Design Hub, I've used a restricted palette of materials," Godsell says.

While the Design Archives appears as a single-storey building from the street, the fall of the land conceals a three-level building. At basement level is storage, with a roller door allowing a truck to deliver archives directly into the building. The main level includes offices connected to a generous north-facing gallery with 4.5-metre-high ceilings.

Framed by steel columns, diffused light creates a magical space. And like Palladio's 16th-century Il Redentore Church in Venice, every aspect was considered in the interior fitout, from built-in shelves to long steel tables on which to examine documents and objects.

Edquist's office/meeting room, on the mezzanine level, overlooks the gallery, or what's termed the "active archive" (as opposed to that in storage).

For Edquist, moving into the new Design Archives building has made her look quite differently at the city of Melbourne, which she has been writing about for decades. With its axial view to the Shrine of Remembrance, it has made her rethink the city and its buildings.

"Arriving to work is the most pleasurable part of the day. This building has changed the way I work," Edquist says.

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