Uni learning hub streets ahead

A curved design helps connect areas at Victoria University, writes Stephen Crafti.

A curved design helps connect areas at Victoria University, writes Stephen Crafti.

Recipient of an interior architecture award from the Australian Institute of Architects, this recently completed project by Cox Architecture, provides a new hub for Victoria University's Footscray campus.

"The previous student hub was extremely basic. There was one cafeteria at ground level and student services above. Even in peak times, the cafeteria was fairly empty," says architect Patrick Ness, design director for Cox Architecture, who worked closely with project architect and director Jonathan Gardiner.

Originally built in the 1970s, the student hub had no connection to a courtyard garden on one side or the street-like mall, on the other. To make these connections, Cox Architecture initially considered creating a rectilinear street piercing the two ends.

However, the architects realised they could increase usage of the space by providing a curvaceous "street", doubling the area for new shop fronts. These "shops", including everything from a cafe, library, student union, meeting rooms, career services and student help, would all be under the one roof.

While most of the original structure has been removed, elements, such as the coffered concrete ceilings, have been incorporated into the new design in the form of bridges linking the various functions.

Even before the design took shape, Cox Architecture carefully examined the changing demographics of the university. "The student profile has changed enormously since the '70s. Thirty per cent of students attending this campus are now over 37. Many are part-time and require more flexible working environments," Ness says.

Statistics also showed 655 students attending this campus speak a second language at home.

"The idea of the street is something that most people understand. It's a place to meet, as much as getting from one place to another," Gardiner says.

In addition to bluestone paving in the "street", the architects created as many "shop" fronts and meeting areas as possible. And along the way, there are a variety of seating types, from benches to accommodate laptops, to tables and stools.

Used for meetings, as well as for quick catch-ups, the curvaceous street also functions for student markets and career days. And to increase sight lines, while still maintaining levels of separation, the street includes cherry-timbered perforated walls.

Unlike the previous library, which was relegated off a corridor, the new library features light-filled spaces, catering to a variety of student needs. There are large pod-like areas, accommodating up to 20 people, as well as breakout spaces for smaller groups.

And for those students looking for a place to study, in regular and irregular times, there's also the original theatrette, directly below. Here the seats have been removed and new platforms created.

"It was important that students be able to access certain areas after hours," says Ness, who included a separate entrance from the new street. "This allows other facilities to remain closed after hours."

The Nicholson Learning Commons is now a hub of the university. Students regularly use the facilities, or simply stop in the street to meet.

"The street has always been an important component in building communities. This one is no exception," Ness says.

And to strengthen the connection to the outdoors, this street features an extended skylight, filtering the harsher afternoon sun.

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