Opposites Attract? The Design of Education Environments

Published: Tuesday 26 August 2014

On consecutive Mondays in July a hardy group of educators and designers braved the weather and were treated by the Office of the Government Architect and the WA Chapter of CEFPI to an insightful lecture and accompanying site tours of a contrasting pair of award winning buildings.

Governor Stirling SHS
Bradley Day from Donaldson and Warn Architects presented the design of the new Governor Stirling Senior High School in Guildford.

Strongly influenced by its unique site bordered by the Swan River, Woodbridge House and Guildford Grammar School, the architects have approached the task as urban designers. The blocks of this compact two storey school have been arranged to frame views of the heritage listed Woodbridge House, create large courtyards with riverine landscaping and optimise views of the river. The result is a clear and concise set of spaces and built form that celebrate this place. The specific locality is further highlighted by the decision to make extensive use of locally produced bricks in earthy Midland tones. A highlight of the building was the art rooms located on the first floor and positioned at the bend in the river; with students enjoy breathtaking views over treetops and vineyards.

Great emphasis was placed on the importance of creating an impression on entering the building. This is elegantly achieved by a generous two story glazed entrance lobby that ensures students and visitors feel valued and respected on arrival. Demonstrating a sophisticated awareness of local issues, the schools Aboriginal Education Centre; the "Maali Centre" has been designed as a separate, domestically scaled building to ensure the school provides a welcoming face for Aboriginal students and their families.

I found the siting of the buildings and creation of courtyard gardens to be the most successful part of the schools design however some of the circulation spaces between blocks felt austere and disconnected from opportunities to enjoy the adjacent landscapes. GLA’s featured bespoke sliding panels with integral glazing that connected classrooms to the adjacent daylit common areas allowing great flexibility and opportunity for varying groups to gather. Unfortunately the common areas are not furnished as yet and do not appear to be utilised to their potential.

The architects have been strategic regarding the expenditure of the budget with some spaces being celebrated and carefully detailed in elegant materials (e.g. the entry lobby) whilst others have been handled with a more industrial approach (e.g. the gymnasium).

JSRACS Kindergarten
Tom Brooking from Brooking Design presented his design for a new kindergarten at John Septimus Roe Anglican Community School in suburban Beechboro.

This low budget project was built in a short time frame necessitating a strategic approach to the design of the building. The design utilises timber framed walls supporting deep timber trusses creating a highly insulated simple “box” clad in lightweight materials. The depth of the intersecting roof trusses is used to create plywood lined coffered ceilings with skylights providing daylighting.

The quadrant plan arranges three kindy spaces grouped as a single open plan space with a kitchen, toilets and staff offices completing the square. The kitchen has been considered a utility space rather than part of the learning area as is common in kindergartens. This precludes kids from engaging with cooking and food preparation as an activity and also reduces access to a valuable wet area.

In a similar way; walls and ceilings are lined with plywood panels which creates a warm and somewhat Scandinavian atmosphere but actively discourages display of students work – again this is typically a key consideration in design of spaces for learners of all ages but particularly for kindy kids.

It seems that the designers intent was to provide an orderly and calm environment rather than the usual visual cacophony of an early learning centre. The design features an engaging use of bands of colour to provide a sense of fun and vitality to the interiors which is really successful and very appealing. Also appealing is the purpose designed mobile furniture that are configured to look like oversized jigsaw pieces and are used as screening elements, storage and objects for children to explore.

Whilst the building has been designed to be highly insulated and therefore energy efficient; it is strangely contradictory that it has very few opening windows or external sun shading and minimal visual connection to the outside world. I think this was a deliberate strategy to eschew the conventional and suburban nature of its context and to design a building as an interior. This is effective as the experience within the kindy is of leaving the mundane behind; however it does also feel something like a film set.

So – this paired event of lectures and site tours was a tale of two approaches in complete contrast; the first is a school that has been designed largely in response to its site and the second creating an interior world in contrast to its suburban setting. I found the presentations and site tours to be very engaging with many discussions between attendees having differing views; surely a sign of a thought provoking agenda.

Well done to the Office of the Government Architect and the WA chapter of CEFPI for organising this well attended event.

Eamon Broderick 

Eamon Broderick Architects