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School's chapel cloaked in beauty

The building is a sacred place with a feminine touch, writes Stephen Crafti.

The building is a sacred place with a feminine touch, writes Stephen Crafti.

The Catholic Ladies College in Eltham never really had an appropriate chapel on its school grounds, which border Diamond Creek.

When it moved to Eltham from East Melbourne in the 1960s, the chapel was the size of a classroom, barely accommodating 30 people. The music room also needed attention, previously in the bowels of the main building, adjacent to the maintenance and storage areas.

"Given the size of the grounds, in this idyllic bush setting, both these areas had to be addressed," says architect Virginia Ross, director of Williams Ross Architects.

To accommodate both functions, the school briefed Williams Ross Architects to design a new building, now called the Sister McAllister Centre, after a former principal.

"They wanted a sacred place for the chapel, but they also wanted it to feel part of the native landscape, as well as having a feminine touch," says Ross.

The elevated site, perched above the creek, warranted a feminine expression to the architecture. While some may interpret this literally as soft curves, Ross avoided the literal and conceived the brief in terms of light, how it plays across the form of the building, as well as through the interiors.

As well as using light, Ross was inspired by a photograph found in a yearbook. Taken in 1909, of the "Sisters of Honour", their Edwardian-style uniforms included asymmetrical cloaks, slightly angular in the folds. "I latched onto this image. It was as powerful as this site," says Ross.

This image, along with the unique context, generated a striking building. Clad in timber aluminium panels, arranged with angled joints, there is a subtle connections to the folds of the cloaks. "Fabric has been a source of inspiration for many architects, including Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe," Ross says.

As well as aluminium, the building's "fabric" includes timber wrapping the foyer and entry. And as a reminder of the wonderful bush setting, a "tear" has been made in the canopy. "The entire cladding is like a cloak, but still allowing views of the landscape," says Ross, who worked closely with Rush Wright Landscape Architects.

The notion of fabric continues into the interior of the chapel, with pristine white walls conceived in a series of folded planes. While some of these folds conceal artificial light, others act as celestial windows to admit natural light. As important, are the impressive stained glass windows, created by glass artists Janusz and Magda Kuzbicki and "the Shrine", a magical space, fully clad in travertine with a sculpture by Pauline Clayton.

As there's a significant fall in the land, the architects were able to create a generous music wing directly below the chapel. Complete with tutorial rooms, a recording space and two large classrooms, these are several notches above the previous music facilities.
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