The new chancellery at Monash University’s Clayton campus has a distinctly mid-20th century feel.
Not surprising, given the neighbouring buildings, including the adjacent Robert Blackwood Hall, designed by Sir Roy Grounds (responsible for the National Gallery of Victoria) in the early 1960s, with its Leonard French stained glass window, which forms one of the landmarks.
For Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM), it was this context, including a religious centre designed by Mockridge Stahle and Mitchell design in 1968, along with other great modernists in Melbourne, including Holgar & Holgar, that helped shaped this extraordinary new building.
ARM was also inspired by the American embassy building in New Delhi, designed by architect Edward Dureel Stone.
“We also saw the new chancellery as akin to a town hall, where both dignitaries from overseas, as well as visiting academics and alumni are met,” says architect Ian McDougall, director of ARM, who worked closely with interior designer Andrea Wilson, a principal of the practice.
Although ARM could have created a simple office building for the Vice- Chancellor, Professor Margaret Gardner, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and staff, there was a concerted effort made from the outset to create a building that came with civic pride.
“It’s a slight hybrid function catering for private executive functions as much as bringing the university community together,” says McDougall.
As well as being inspired by mid-century architecture, ARM was drawn to the interiors and the decorative arts from this period.
“Andrea and I literally trawled through the wallpaper collections held at the Powerhouse Museum (in Sydney) from this time, as well as fabrics and furniture,” says McDougall, who was particularly drawn to Australian designers and artists, such as Margaret Preston and her wood blocks.
However, before Preston’s overscaled banksia and tea tree is revealed on the acoustic ceiling through the double atrium spaces, one simply needs to pause and reflect on the magical three-dimensional steel screen that covers the generous-floor-to-ceiling glazed windows.
Rather than the fixed screens Holgar & Holgar conceived in the late 1960s and early 70s, ARM used the latest technology via digital means to create a series of unique sculptural panels for both privacy and diffuse natural sunlight.
“The screen also reduces the scale of the building (basement, ground and three levels).
It’s not a dissimilar approach to that used by Leonard French in the way his window reduces the scale of the Robert Blackwood Hall,” says McDougall.
In response to French’s window, ARM also included a series of sculptural columns surrounding the chancellery.
The interior of the chancellery also has a mid-century, but also a strong contemporary, feel: curvaceous and tiered balconies, clad in plywood, add warmth and texture, as do the layering of imagery, including a collaboration with Steward Russell of Spacecraft and Indigenous artists depicting outreached arms holding twigs superimposed on the lift walls.
Other Australian responses include Grant Featherston’s Scape chairs from the early 1960s in the lounge areas and more recent a board table created by Manapan and produced on Milingimbi Island in Arnhem Land.
As seen in the main meeting space at ground level, ARM also reused some of the fixtures from the original chancellery it replaced, including distinctive tiles, green stone and even the original university crest now proudly displayed.
Although the chancellery contains open plan offices, enclosed meeting areas and kitchens (including a large commercial kitchen at ground level to support functions and events), it’s the lounges and atrium spaces where people tend to linger, overwhelmed by the bravado and scale that’s not fully realised until entering.
“Even though the original chancellery at Monash was set up in the American model, as a business campus, we didn’t want to make it feel like commercial offices,” says McDougall, who sees the result as both accommodating the needs of the executives, as much as celebrating the university’s more recent past.
“There’s a sense of craft, but you’re also mindful of our history and reminding ourselves that the 1960s was a watershed in Australian design.”
Those who recall visiting the former chancellery, built in the early 1960s, may also remember the brise soleil over its main entrance.
“It’s important to take things forward, but importantly, acknowledge the role of architectural history,” adds McDougall.
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