Penleigh and Essendon Grammar – Junior School for boys

September 28, 2011

McBride Charles Ryan’s BER-funded school is a robust yet whimsical building, with a playful façade inspired by the Federation house.

McBride Charles Ryan’s (MCR) recently completed Penleigh and Essendon Grammar (PEGS) Junior School for boys is a robust yet whimsical building that ignites the imagination. The practice is quickly becoming known for its innovation in educational design, following a suite of outstanding school buildings, including Templestowe Primary School (2004) and Fitzroy High School (2009), both award-winning projects. The new Junior School for boys is the first of three to be completed by the practice for PEGS.

The two-storey building houses years five and six boys and is an exceptional outcome of the Building the Education Revolution (BER) scheme. This success can be attributed both to the school being well organised and MCR’s creative design efforts. A Peter Crone-designed masterplan was already in place for the building when the BER rolled out, so the school was quick to get the design process started. Like most schools, Penleigh and Essendon Grammar has grown organically and as a result is made up of an eclectic collection of buildings, many of which face onto an open sports ground in true campus fashion. The new boys school is certainly a handsome addition that engages with its neighbours, but also sets a new standard in innovation for the school.

Located on a quiet suburban street in Essendon, where the Federation house is ubiquitous, the new building toys with the idea of neighbourhood character. The school has four distinct facades – a little like the Choose Your Own Adventure book, where each facade offers a different narrative. MCR describes these as: the silhouetted haunted house (that faces Nicholson Street); the Brutalist-esque south facade; the Shinto Shrine-esque north facade; and the circus marquee meets Federation grandstand facade that faces west onto the sports area.

The Nicholson Street facade profile was created from a flattened abstraction of a well-known Federation house designed by Beverley Ussher. There is no doubt this facade has an ominous character, a darkly glazed, oversized silhouette that looms over the suburban street like a caricature of a haunted house. One of MCR’s directors, Debbie Ryan, explained that during the earlier stages of the project, there was concern from a parent whose son thought the school looked a little like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. While this reading requires more than just a squint of the eye, Ryan suggests that, ‘you can’t have Harry Potter without being a bit scared!’ In this way, the practice cleverly engages with the students’ imaginations, providing a sense of fantasy.

Ryan and I talked about the sense of wonder that pre-war buildings can offer to their school environments, as I reminisced about the ‘haunted’ Edwardian clock tower at the school I attended. Certainly, the Edwardian type creates many nooks and crannies, with its irregular planning and massing. Employing a flattened Edwardian facade as a profile for this horizontal extrusion has also produced wonderfully irregular sectional spaces inside, particularly in the upper level. These curvaceous ceilings are a gracious nod to Jørn Utzon’s Bagsværd Community Church in Denmark, but also provide pin-up spaces for teachers. The sausage-like extrusion also offers opportunity for clerestory windows and takes to task the bland, shed-like extrusions of the Light Timber Construction (LTC) buildings that littered Victorian state school campuses from the 1950s to the 1970s.

A little less ominous, the Federation grandstand facade embraces the Essendon Football Club colours with its red and almost black stripes, particularly apt given the close proximity to Windy Hill (Essendon Football Club Ground). In many ways, it is this facade that looks most like a scaled-up house, with its giant, striped corrugated iron roof that provides sheltered outdoor areas, a result of the diagonal slicing through the extruded form. The striping continues down to the steps and ramps that lead to the sports area, providing areas for students to climb and linger.

Through the use of form and colour, additional narratives are offered internally on each of the two levels. The ground floor, with its vivid green and red colourings offset against the hard brick and concrete materials, takes on a robust, muscular theme for the year 5 students. The Utzon-inspired blue-clouded theme on the upper level offers the year 6 students a space to dream sky high about their future prospects.

Unlike the practice’s recent design for Fitzroy High School, which showcased the latest in pedagogical spatial planning, the brief for PEGS was a more classic one, where the school requested distinct classrooms. Ryan explained that the school was well informed about the latest pedagogical thinking, but that separate classrooms worked best for their teaching methods. MCR massaged the brief to also include outdoor learning areas for the ground floor classrooms facing north, along with a generous lockable breezeway space to the south. The extrusion theme continues via the use of a bench seat profile that extrudes in timber, offering a place for the boys to eat or ‘hang out’ within a sheltered environment.

The school also ticks all the ESD boxes, with its passive solar design, cross-flow ventilation and a chimney that actually ventilates. In its layering of narratives, its play on neighbourhood character, its robust materiality and sense of whimsy, MCR’s Junior School for boys for Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School is no doubt a great outcome of the BER.

Christine Phillips is a lecturer in architecture at RMIT, co-host of ‘The Architects’ radio show on Melbourne RRR and a director of OpenHAUS.

  • Marcus Baumgart September 29th, 2011 5:34 am

    Outstanding piece of work from a firm that just gets better.

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