This interview first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #124: Architecture and the Body.
Left and right; politics, hands, the brain. Perhaps these are all connected. It is the paired nature of the brain that has for so long caused fascination, and while oversimplifications abound (‘he’s such a left-side-of-the-brain person’), it is scientifically clear to say that certain functions are accommodated in one side or the other, notably in the treatment of language. It is with these aspects of the brain that we might begin to consider the Melbourne Brain Centre, which embraces the left/right split at a number of levels.
Designed to encourage collaboration, this new neuroscience facility houses three brain-related organisations in one cranking envelope: University of Melbourne Neuroscience, the Florey Neuroscience Institutes and the Mental Health Research Institute. It’s part of the larger Parkville medical precinct running between Royal Parade and Flemington Road that includes other major new medical facilities such as the Royal Children’s Hospital (p100) and the expanded Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (p116).
Three 'brainy' organisations in one cranking envelope. Photo: Dianna Snape.
It doesn’t look like one, but the building, at some level, is a big brain. It’s also one of a pair, with a companion in Heidelberg rendered in the same architectural language, with complementary programming, although the Heidelberg building has a strong emphasis on treatment, whereas the Parkville version is very much research based. The two core functions accommodated in the main body of the Parkville building are linked: office/work spaces and laboratories are organised on north and south sides, with circulation and a cortex in the middle. The division is seen in elevation – the left and right as viewed from Royal Parade. A typical researcher will have a split home: a desk in the contemporary, open-plan office space, and a station in the laboratory spaces. The labs are all white, highly serviced but flexible in the reorganisation of benches. Plumbing is pushed against the side walls of the spaces to allow for this, with the central workbenches serviced from the ceiling for power, air and gas.
The building has a tripartite sectional structure. The middle zone of labs and offices is the largest section and the bulk of the building. Mirrored about the horizontal are the top levels and non-windowed, animal-testing spaces – the facility’s darker side. In an inverted manner, the ground floor is a public zone, highly permeable, with open foyer, lecture spaces and reception. The foyer’s three entries stem from the street, from the north and from the south. The northern entry also serves as entry to the DAX Centre, a specialist exhibition space showcasing the work of people with neurological disorders. Embracing the broad discipline approach, the art inside is a fascinating view into the mind and a unique aspect of this super-facility.
Tectonic play enlivens the foyer, with stone-clad, split columns. Photo: Dianna Snape.
Reading as a big carved object, the exterior slices into the form like giant surgical cuts wrapping up and across. Entry from Royal Parade is firmly announced with a large cut into the building’s corner, a scoop in the object leading you into the grand foyer. The space offers flexible use, with a cafe and a small, specialist neuroscience bookstore. Paving streams inside are part of Rush Wright Associate’s landscape design, which also includes the first part of a new campus entry that will eventually link to the South Lawn. Floating within the ground floor is a lecture theatre hidden behind retractable, patterned curtains in the foyer. When open, the curtains display the projection content from inside, while the theatre itself is a dark space with LED lines of light across the ceiling, like a tracing of neural networking. The vivid colour of the upholstered seats suggests a brain scan laid out in plan.
Several tectonic games are evident in the foyer, with its split columns clad in different stones on each side, again playing on the ‘left/right’ theme. The ceiling of the foyer presents the building’s robust concrete structure to view. This chunky embrace of brutalism is among the project’s finest moments, transferring from the structural grid of the car park below to the main levels above. In fact, the building’s DNA is concrete, serving as structure and primary cladding, and the exterior ‘skull’ is a combination of embossed grey in-situ and sandy precast concrete, easing the building into the wider campus palette.
The memorable lecture theatre references neural networks and brain scans. Photo: Dianna Snape.
This pulsating beigeness and the moments of chamfered brutalism are where metaphors give way to directness, an institutional memory founded from enduring architecture. The campus itself is full of this tradition, featuring adaptive modernism designed by Yuncken Freeman, and by Robin Boyd and Frederick Romberg, who were responsible for the former Microbiology building to the south side. The imposition of this new building is therefore strangely at home, especially on tree-heavy Royal Parade, where it comes to terms with a street of some scale that many before it have failed to address.
Patterning is often a feature of the Lyons architectural strategy, and here that tradition continues with a linked-cell pattern inset into the concrete soffit and printed onto the vertical core in joinery and fabrics. This suggests the spongy structure of the brain itself, and is a constant reminder of the complexity of defining, and studying, the brain.
Level 3 plan.