Carpet design

School of Design and the Built Environment, Curtin University

The new school of Design and the Built Environment (DBE) at Curtin University is the third school of architecture that John Wardle Architects (JWA) has designed in the past two decades. The University of South Australia’s Kaurna building was the first, in 2006, followed by the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne School of Design, in 2015. Together, these three projects describe both the incremental changes that occur in the way architecture education is delivered, and the impacts of different procurement models on built outcomes.

The Old Curtin Architecture Building – or Building 201, as it was fondly known – was designed by Vin Davies of the Public Works Department in 1969. A monument to brutalism, it sits in the center of campus, next to the library. The building’s most public thoroughfare and the center of student life was the infamous “Blue Carpet Level” (the name stuck, even though the carpet was changed to other colors, over the decades). The space for pin-ups and presentations is where the work of the students was criticized and judged. Public humiliation or celebration – the building was brutal inside and out.

Over the years at Curtin, as Building 201 struggled to adapt to new ways of teaching and learning, there were many discussions about what a new school of architecture might look like. The new DBE building sits in the heart of the recently completed Exchange innovation district, four miles from the Perth CBD. Unlike the low, slender buildings around the edges of campus, this new neighborhood, which includes student accommodation, a hotel and a supermarket, is dense with designs by architects such as Six Degrees, Nettleton Tribe and JWA. The DBE is the only academic building in the Bourse and, like the other buildings in the mixed-use district, the porosity of its ground floor is an attempt to create a lively and active “street”.

The ground floor has a porous quality that contributes to the street feel in the innovation district.

Image: Joel Barbitta

Twenty percent of the building’s floor space has been allocated for industry participation, in addition to shared learning and collaboration spaces spread across the various floors. Central to the project description, this reflects the university’s desire to create a living laboratory where learning, teaching, research and industry can coexist. The spaces have been arranged to facilitate formal and informal interaction between the different disciplines (architecture, interiors, fashion, games, graphics), alongside industry. Only time will tell how successful this strategy has been.

The civic heart of the project is the large courtyard, onto which many spaces on the ground floor open. The building is arranged around the void of the courtyard, giving the internal footprint a finesse that allows views and natural light from each space – often in two directions. Biophilic design principles helped inform a planting strategy on the structure, connecting internal views to the landscape at all levels and enhancing user well-being through design.

A large courtyard forms the civic heart of the project and endows the surrounding spaces with views and natural light.

A large courtyard forms the civic heart of the project and endows the surrounding spaces with views and natural light.

Picture: Dion Robeson

The outer courtyard is complemented by a second inner courtyard that connects the five floors. This deconstructed “blue carpet level” winds through the interior, providing multiple places for group activity, individual study, and presentations. With every vertical surface and many desks specified to allow pin-ups, students and staff are spoiled for choice.

When I started studying architecture at Curtin in the late 1980s, each student had a dedicated studio space for the year, and this remained the case until relatively recently. It is hardly a contemporary observation to note the absence of drawing boards and the predominance of laptop computers. What is interesting is the profound impact this has had on the way a new architecture building is designed. The move away from dedicated studios has pushed learning spaces towards the center. Rather than the spectacle of presentations, the building is activated by circulation spaces filled with opportunities for group or individual study. The distribution of space has changed from a predominance of formal spaces to a predominance of informal spaces.

Sustainability was central to the project brief and JWA undertook a thorough approach to site planning, materials and energy consumption. Most of the buildings that form the Bourse were constructed at the same time, providing a valuable opportunity for innovative approaches to shared energy, water, factory and mechanical systems. Moreover, the DBE building is itself a learning tool. Building information, including energy meters, is visible to aid student learning, while specialized learning studios allow students to test alternative mechanical systems including thermostats, glazing and air conditioning units.

The layout, with its predominance of informal learning spaces, speaks to the changing nature of architectural education.

The layout, with its predominance of informal learning spaces, speaks to the changing nature of architectural education.

Picture: Dion Robeson

JWA was originally appointed to undertake a Project Definition Plan (PDP) at Curtin. Through access to staff and students, the practice has developed a deep understanding of the learning culture at Curtin. Following the PDP, the university embarked on a market-led consortium bid, separating the architect from the users and aligning them with a financier-led delivery team. Unlike the Melbourne School of Design, where the design staff and school principal were intimately involved in the design and execution of the building, this approach meant that the design response was more closely aligned with budget and delivery. Halfway through the process, however, the university re-engineered this approach, effectively extracting JWA from the consortium and directly engaging the practice as the design architect and lead consultant for the DBE building. JWA was able to translate their intimate understanding of Curtin’s philosophy into the new design.

While consortium-led tenders have been very popular in Western Australia over the past decade, in reality they add unnecessary complexity to the project by separating architects from users. This distracts attention from innovative responses in favor of results focused on time and money. In this equation, design is part of the consideration but not necessarily a driver.

The DBE building has benefited from JWA’s long relationship with the university. During the firm’s involvement, there were three different head teachers and on several occasions the architect was consulted as the cultural knowledge holder of the school. The outcome for this building could have been very different if the university had not extracted JWA from the consortium team.