Parkhurst State School

October 6, 2011

A BER project in Central Queensland by Arkhefield creates a striking new identity for a state primary school, and a colourful focal point for the local community.

The scope and extent of the Building Education Revolution (BER) investment is now in the completion phase, with many projects finished and operational. There are reports of a clear difference emerging in the education cultures that are commissioning and accepting these new buildings. For a significant number of state schools, buildings are delivered to campuses that have seen little new permanent building in their recent history, apart from demountable facilities (that seldom demount). There is no master planning behind many of the site decisions nor is a future building program taken into consideration.

This is not the case for the independent and Catholic systems, which are familiar with master planning and enquiry by design processes, and have genuine growth and renewal agendas.

It is interesting and surprising then to encounter the Parkhurst State School on the highway north of Rockhampton. This low-key state primary school barely registers during the drive north and would not trouble the architectural tourist but for its energetic and cleverly inserted new resource centre and flexible music and performance space.

Climatically, the Central Queensland region, like much of regional Queensland, is challenging, with soaring temperatures and high levels of humidity present for long periods of the school year. The need for shade is important, as is the need for shelter during periods of tropical rain. The tropics are harsh environments for mould and the solar deterioration of materials, and yet are also often splendid settings with blue skies, spectacular landscape and the attendant increased outside activity during the warmer periods.

For this particular school the designer, Arkhefield, has recognised many values the project can deliver, commencing with a new front door for the school for passing traffic, even though it is sited away from the main road.

The project presents as an articulated box with subtle design interventions evident, from the pattern of raised brickwork in the overall facade, to the angled metal wall that gives energy to the facades on the short dimensions.

The building has a formal language that is immediately powerful and a little dominant in the context of single storey separated structures of limited presence. Material selections of brown face brick, red polycarbonate sheet and metal cladding deliver a strong contemporary image, with a new community space offered through a skilful reinterpretation of the traditional veranda. Car parking and pick-up/drop-off areas adjoin the new building and engage with the enhanced volumes along this edge.

This newly focused arrival point provides the opportunity for the designers to re-imagine the previously low-key primary school with a simple but dramatic use of form and colour. The public space reinterprets the climatically successful forms of the tropical north in a revised expression through proportion, materiality and volume, while offering all the attributes of the veranda that would otherwise be found in a traditional building form. This approach is carried through to the enhanced internal spaces of the auditorium and resource centre. Material selections are confident in their simplicity and are spatially manipulated by opposing skillion roof forms that come together to reinforce the entry points of the project.

The tightly controlled budget process was challenged and negotiated by the young design team to extract real long-term value for the facilities through outcomes such as the elevated ceiling spaces, through to the interior rooms and covered walkways that are integral to the building form.

The outcome clearly expresses an attitude of interest in the school as an institution, as well as the role the school plays as a focal point for contemporary expression and community interaction.

It is sometimes harder to achieve elevated design understanding within existing facilities, where much of the emphasis is on the technology and hardware outcomes and little focus is given to the important role that buildings play in creating the place where learning occurs.

The long-term impacts of extended educational exposure to built forms lacking daily spatial contribution is perhaps not empirically measured; yet anecdotally, most people know and understand the value space and place play in the memory of students, particularly in settings otherwise lacking such variety. Spatial richness assists in providing a balanced educational experience.

At Parkhurst, materials are subdued but interrupted with highlights of form and strong colour, providing changing spatial expression as students and staff move around the place and navigate through or around the building, depending on the weather conditions.

As a result, Parkhurst State School succeeds at many levels. It establishes (for the first time on this site) a design expression that is complementary to the core values of the educational and community offering that is its primary purpose. This same expression allows the project to respond climatically and socially through the selection of materials and their expression by providing a focal point for the community within it and surrounding it. That it does this economically and responsibly is a strong outcome for the education system’s public sector. The siting, however, has allowed for these benefits to accrue to the wider community and context, and this is unlikely to translate across many other project sites without master planning analysis.

An outcome that is so positive and recognisable should encourage much more thinking on future building works, notwithstanding the significant investments already in place from the BER scheme. Every school community in the country has now experienced, for better or worse, the impacts of this new construction. There will be many that will be keen to go further with the opportunities that new construction offers. Parkhurst shows that engagement with the school, disciplined design thinking and a creative approach can deliver far more than just bricks and mortar. It can enhance the whole experience of education for the staff, students and the wider community.

Malcolm Middleton is a director of Malcolm Middleton Architects and was the 2011 AIA Queensland State Awards jury director. He was appointed Queensland Government Architect in July 2011.

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