by Jerry ElengicalSep 06, 2021
A college campus has always been more than about just education. One of the things that the school-from-home model has revealed is the importance of campus life. The academic experience consistently exists beyond classrooms, the collegiate life thrives in corridors and corners that were never meant to be more than connectors. RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, observed the activities that the in-between spaces within its urban campus were nurturing and chose to transform these under-utilised spaces into a more vivid and welcoming place.
Designed and conceptualised by Australian firm, Sibling Architecture, this para-academic urban space was enacted at Rodda Lane. Primarily composed of back-of-house laneways, the intervention is meant to provide a new focal point to the city campus through the addition of outdoor flexible spaces to improve student amenity. Amelia Borg, co-director, Sibling Architecture, in a statement to STIR elaborates on the projects brief saying: “The ambition of the project was to regenerate and reactivate a series of ‘left over’ spaces in and around existing buildings. Many of these spaces were dark narrow laneways between buildings or courtyard spaces that were formed by chance, and most of the spaces that we worked within were in and around existing buildings.” The overall layout of Rodda Lane looks at the design interventions as a stitch between the campus buildings filling in the gaps of what was left. Capitalising on the architecture of chance, the brief of the project called to improve the amenity of the laneway, between Bowen, La Trobe and Swanston Streets.
These chance laneways were already active spaces, that were being used by students, even though no formal infrastructure existed. “This is a project that’s really about the spaces in between – about injecting life into dis-used and left-over space – and about how habitation within these spaces can bring life into the campus. We started the design process as we do with all of our projects, by mapping out the way that people will use the spaces and come together. We defined these two large social courtyard spaces, and then a series of smaller more intimate spaces in between all joined by a new unifying ground plane. All of the spaces needed to complement and plug into the existing structures,” says Borg.
The two courtyards that Borg refers to act as anchors for social activity in this newly formed precinct. Custom urban furniture featuring seating and pergola-like shade structures are set among planters along with increased lighting to improve the outdoor student experience. As Rodda Lane is in the middle of different schools and buildings, the space consists of dramatic volumetric variations. The tight narrow laneways have remarkable vertical volumes, and the seating and lighting in these corridors are designed to accentuate this spatial feature. As a city college, numerous urban infrastructure details are already a part of this space, allowing the project to extend the fabric of the city into the campus, bringing the quintessential laneway experience of Melbourne into the university.
But the interventions set themselves apart from the existing architecture, its materiality and colour palette. Borg says, “Being a highly-trafficked and publicly accessible space, the project’s materiality is utilitarian, durable, protective, and low maintenance, providing long-term value for the client (RMIT University) and long-lasting addition to the campus. Most of these buildings within the existing context are brick heritage buildings, so we wanted our intervention to contrast the heaviness of this. Hues of blue, light grey and white act as a contrasting counterpoint to the existing warm palette.” These colour variations allow the co-existence of diverse spaces and uses while also contributing to campus safety.
Nestled amid a rich architectural context, Rodda Lane needed to have its own identity. The actual location, in many ways, is not defined as a space at all; Sibling Architecture was not only tasked with revitalising the space but also redefining it as a space. Borg elaborates on how the material quality of the space defined the transition from non-space to community space, saying, “The perforated shading devices provide a sense of enclosure, protection, and intimacy to the site – whilst not blocking out too much of the sun which is only present for a small part of the day. Perforated steel portals in the narrow laneway are able to reach tall heights - yet remain slender due to the material’s strength. The steel acts as a nimble and adaptable material in contrast to the heavy masonry ground plane and in this context the perforations allow users to read the existing material context of the heritage buildings behind. There is also an array of materials that feed into the layering of patterns on the site - the concrete paving, bricks, and tiles. The perforated steel projects patterns as another layer onto the ground surface.”
The materiality is utilitarian, durable, and low maintenance, which is particularly important for a campus community centre. While recently on-site the architects noted the activities that had taken over Rodda Lane, from entwined lovers, a manga drawing club, security patrols, and a new-born puppy out for a walk, all passed through the area in one hour. This project highlights the importance of shared public outdoor spaces within a university campus, and an extension of a city. This in particular brings out the importance of outdoor spaces in a post-pandemic environment as Borg mentions, “Whilst the project was conceived before the pandemic it certainly highlights the importance of outdoor learning spaces in this current climate. The project was open for a few months post-COVID-19 and was highly used due to the nature of the spaces being outdoors with access to fresh air.”
This community space also exhibits an awareness of its role in the large campus. Even the paving exhibits a rhythmic pattern of directional custom concrete finishing and lights that act as way finders to the campus. Borg continues, “The RMIT city campus has a rich architectural history and heritage. There are many iconic buildings of very important Australian architects around the site, and so we wanted to ensure that our intervention was complementary to these. We chose to continue the idea of rhythmic patterning as a theme which is clear in the Peter Corrigan building and decided on a contrasting cool colour palette to ensure that we were not competing or detracting from the existing buildings.” Rodda Lane is a joyous occupation of space that is often forgotten, it brings to life the possibility of experiences the magical realism often relegated to exist only in stories, such as Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.
Name: Rodda Lane
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Year of completion: 2020
Architect: Sibling Architecture
Design lead: Amelia Borg