This article was originally published in Architectural Review Asia-Pacific magazine #128: New Civic Realms.
On the outskirts of Geelong, 80 kilometres southwest of Melbourne, Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds campus boasts expansive grounds. The Deakin Management Centre, one of the occupants, puts it best on its website, describing it as “a distraction-free landscape”. With vast, gently rolling lawns interspersed by the occasional cluster of buildings, spaced to ensure no unseemly contact with neighbours, it is a pleasant, polite campus – and more than a little dull. Rem Koolhaas’ culture of congestion this isn’t.
Finely grained indoor/outdoor gathering spaces help activate the courtyard.
Established in the late 1970s, Waurn Ponds was Deakin University’s first campus and remains its second largest. Its notional heart is the Central Campus Precinct, the core of which is the Deakin Central building, home to the university’s student association, the student cafeteria, more cafes and the campus’ major bar. Designed by Jackson Architecture in the 1970s, up until recently Deakin Central bore many of the then-hallmarks of institutional architecture, being a functional and well-built, if slightly stolid presence in beige brick and concrete. After three decades of internal meddling, though, what may well have once been a perfectly rational and serviceable plan was in fragmented disarray. Awkward level changes and other circulation issues meant the building did not comply with the Disability Discrimination Act; the adjoining courtyard was similarly discombobulated, a mishmash of pavilions, picnic tables and garden beds scattered across it from successive attempts at improvement. The university, already rattling around in what is a vast and nebulous campus, saw an opportunity to improve connectivity and activity, and approached Six Degrees to bring the building into compliance, at the same time and instilling the precinct with a more collegial atmosphere.
Bold, Scarpa-esque geometries enliven the facade of the rejuvenated Deakin Central building.
When it comes to activation, Six Degrees has certainly proved itself. After all, this is the practice that helped turn Melbourne’s wildly inhospitable service laneways into hospitality ‘destinations’. Waurn Ponds Central Campus Precinct, both inside and out, carries many of the traits of those signature bar and cafe designs. Arrays of timber and steel battens screen and apportion spaces both intimate and open. Stained glass provides decorative embellishment, while the warp and weft of the rectilinear internal spaces seems to fray out through the building’s exterior, creating plausible ‘outdoor rooms’.
Six Degrees’ signature material palette of recycled timber and stained glass helps create warm, inviting spaces.
These moves might have been transplanted straight from the Six Degrees hospitality playbook, but for the most part they work. When I visited the precinct on a typically mercurial Victorian spring day, the spaces both inside and out were well populated despite the moody conditions. As James Legge, one of Six Degrees’ directors, explains, it comes back to the way people occupy and interact with a space. “Particularly with the larger institutional buildings, we try to break them down and somehow make the space more complex, so that there are areas and pockets within the architecture where people have a scale they feel comfortable with. It’s all about the finer grain, which is what I suppose we’re well known for.”
A new pedestrian connection has been established with the Deakin Central courtyard.
To focus too much on the micro, ‘fine-grain’ aspects of the project, though, would be to ignore that its success is equally attributable to big, macro moves, the first and most obvious being a new pedestrian connection with the courtyard. The courtyard opens out to playing fields to its east but is otherwise bordered on three of its four sides by buildings: Deakin Central to the south, the campus library to the west and the science, technology and health faculties building to the north. There is a substantial shift in grade to the south and west, a drop of roughly one storey that pedestrians could previously only negotiate internally through Deakin Central or the library. To address this, a new connection has been established by way of a ramp running down from the southwest between the library and Deakin Central.
A double-height void lends a sense of drama to the ground-level student cafeteria.
Behind the library lies one of the ponds from which the campus takes its name. A total of six ponds span the campus in a roughly linear chain, stretching from its western to eastern boundaries. Six Degrees’ design makes much of this watery geography, adding new miniature ponds by way of small pools interspersed among the courtyard’s bench seating. Still, the most striking water feature is the Alhambra-inspired watercourse that runs at banister height from the top of the new ramp to courtyard level, mirroring the imagined rivulet that might have once tied the six campus ponds together. Lush plantings spill down either side of this stream and out into the courtyard, a verdant cue to alert walkers to the presence of the ramp and draw them to it.
Site plan, courtesy Six Degrees.
Finally, there is the building’s new northern elevation. Comprised of a series of precast concrete panels excised with enormous circular openings, this gesture is far from fine grained. Legible from across the campus’ vast eastern grounds, its bold, Scarpa-esque geometries announce the arrival of a lively new presence in this placid and otherwise ‘distraction-free’ parkland setting.