Reflecting on Master design studio C

As the first semester of the Master of Architecture concluded, I’m excited to share the project with you.

It is a vertical primary school for 500 students in Prahran, Melbourne. Hope you enjoy.
(Click images to have enlarged view. Sorry it might be a bit slow to load up)

Scroll down to the bottom for the reflection on the project…

Overview

School in the Grove is about offering primary school students a moment of discovery and an opportunity to interact with the natural and phenomenological contexts at school. We aimed to design spaces that invite students to be curious and have a wide range of interpersonal relationships and play.

Site

The site is located near the major intersection of Chapel Street and Malvern Road in Prahran. The site is adjacent to the large community facilities including a park, playground and a pool that the school can take advantage of. The site is in between the economic zone (commercial, civic and hospitality buildings) on the west side and residential zone (social housing towers and neighbourhoods of single detached houses) on the east side. In considering the design response to the site context, we decided to have a more open, welcoming gesture to the east side of the site where the local neighbourhoods are located.

Precedent analysis

During the precedent study, we analysed the architectural elements used in precedent projects against factors such as fluidity and rigidity, and verticality and horizontality. This helped us identify key elements for our design.

Concepts & development

There are four key concepts: vertical spatial and visual connection, Hellerup stairs for various affordances, indoor-outdoor connection and the flexibility of general learning space. The design was developed based on aspects shown below:

  1. Volume: segmenting the site into the classrooms on the north side and specialist classrooms and the vertical library on the south side. 
  2. Levels: having double-storey high spaces for general classrooms and inserting mezzanine floors in between on the south side. This enabled each classroom to have a platform above for informal learning and play while the space under the platform is for formal learning settings.
  3. Open space: strips of open spaces adjacent to classrooms, on the ground floor and on the rooftop. The open space and classroom area can be spatially connected by opening bi-fold sliding doors and tilt up doors, making the interaction with vegetation and outside accessible.
  4. Structure: engineered timber (cross laminated timber and gluram) for structural stability, durability and construction efficiency as well as a sense of warmth through exposing the raw finish.
  5. Circulation & Nooks: a series of nooks and space adjacent to circulation for a variety of play and social interactions, including solitary play.

A day at school

We imagined student experience by tracking Emily, a year 3 student throughout a day at school. 

  • 8:32am: arrives at school, grabs some breakfast and catches up with her friends on the ground level.
  • 8:45am: goes to her classroom and works on a group maths assignment.
  • 10:33am: during recess, she pulls out movable seats under the bench in the open space and has a chat with other friends, enjoying sunshine and cool breeze.
  • 11:05am: attends an art class in the specialist classroom.
  • 1:00pm: eats lunch on the rooftop garden while watching her friends play basketball.
  • 1:30pm: looks for books to read for her English class in the library.
  • 3:15pm: waits on the ground level for her parents to pick her up after school.

General classroom space

Classrooms are organised by year levels and designed classrooms to have a capacity to be open and flexible for a variety of teaching approaches, including combined classes. The typology of classrooms is repeated across levels to create a sense of consistency and familiarity. The glazing on both east and west side allows sufficient light intake and cross ventilation. The nook above classrooms has movable bamboo screens for creating independent semi private space.

Ground floor

The ground level welcomes students and visitors by a huge Hellerup staircase that extends down to the basement theatre stage. The space under the stairs is utilised as a cafe and food tech room, which can be used as a reception space when there is an event held at school. The community garden integrated to the stepping form offers a wide range of affordances.

Vertical library

The vertical library enables the segmentation of space by levels for classroom activities. The idea of vertical spatial connection is applied here too to create a semi private space above the circulation area.

Rooftop

The rooftop garden and playground have integrated seating, ramp and planter boxes to create a transition from a semi-private intimate area to more open space for physical activities.


Reflection on the project

Working on a design project as a team

This project was the first time I worked on a design project from beginning until the end in a pair. While design projects are university tend to be individual work, and there is always a challenge balancing the workload and responsibilities when working in a team. This time, William, my teammate, and I worked together continuously, we had exciting, constructive design discussions pretty much at every single studio class. We’d critique each other’s work, pull parts apart, explore what’s working and what needs to be developed further. It was amazing to have someone to bounce off ideas, and bring out each other’s strength when producing works (he is very quick with 3D modelling, my forte is physical model making. He works efficiently developing sections, I love developing diagrams and visual communication. And lots of graphic and technical skills in common.) It was certainly a positive experience for me to work in a team.

Thinking moments by moments

One of the greatest enjoyments with this project was when we were talking about the spatial experience from a student’s point of view. We kept talking like:

“Okay let’s make a persona, should we have like a year 1 and year 5 students?”
“Nah let’s keep it simple, like a year 3 student.”
“Sure, what’s the name?”
“Don’t know, like Emily?”
“Cool, so she comes to school in the morning, maybe her parent brings her to the school.”
“Okay, she still has a bit of time before the class, where would she spend time?”
“Wouldn’t it be fun if she catches up with her friends, at the Hellerup stairs on the ground floor?”
“Yeah sounds good, there’s a cafe on the ground floor so she might go and get something like Big M? haha”
“Yeah that’s fun, also there is nice sunshine coming in from the east side so that’s perfect.”

I had so much fun, it felt like I was actually there, at the school we were designing and shadowing a student. It gave me a new perspective on the design process and the communication of the design in more down-to-earth, personal way. Most importantly, it helped us express our attitude towards designing for users.

Level of complexity – step by step

As I continue to develop my understanding of the architectural design process, I started to see a different levels of complexity that an architectural work can embody.

Not in a specific rigid order, but here are some of the levels of complexity that an architecture student may add as one learns to design:

  1. Focus on forms and appearance: visual aesthetics, sculptural characters. Often lacking human scale and/or structure at the early stage of the architecture degree.
  2. Reference to precedents and understanding of design appropriation: we’re not inventing something new every time we design, and we shall not disregard what has been done in the past.
  3. Finding a character of the design: understanding the atmosphere and tone of expression (e.g. vibrant, engaging, solemn, peaceful, etc.) and reflecting it in the visual communication.
  4. Symbolism with architectural elements: meanings behind of the design. More effective and convincing as it becomes specific to the contexts
  5. Functionality: consideration for usage of space
  6. Responding to site contexts: ecological, climatic, environmental, cultural, social, historical, neighbourhoods, etc.
  7. Thresholds and circulation: movement, spatial definitions of space, architecture inviting certain behaviours.
  8. Materiality: sensible use of materials, consideration for tectonics (how materials are put together). Understanding of material standard dimensions and available sizes.
  9. Sensory experience: human-centred design, thinking about spatial experience and human scale. Phenomenological factors.
  10. Consideration of accessibility and for minority groups (especially for public buildings): e.g. ramps with compliant gradient, lifts, space for religious worship if required, acoustically separated space for children on spectrum at school, etc.
  11. Integration / expression of structures: demonstrating understanding of structures and materials used. Structures not ‘hidden’ behind plasterboards…
  12. Integration / expression of services: providing sufficient space, understanding systems, integrating into architecture.
  13. Integration of effective passive design & active design for sustainability / carbon-positivity / responding to climate change: it’s a challenge to properly integrate into architecture – not just mentioning in the presentation or adding lines and boxes on diagrams.
  14. Working with professionals in interdisciplinary fields – going beyond ‘architecture design studio’.
  15. Making effective reference to philosophical / theoretical approaches – more academic and in-depth approach. Evidence-based design through reference to researches in the fields of social science, architecture, philosophy, etc.
  16. (I’m sure there are lots more but I guess I haven’t got there yet…)

Of course, there are other aspects related to specific design approaches (not limited to the list below):

  1. Parametric design: clarifying the purpose and design aim to avoid randomness and copy-and-paste design. Using parametric design for iterative process and analysing the design in a specific environmental context.
  2. Responding to the indigenous history and environmental contexts: cultural sensitivity and consideration for the significance of the Land needed. As people who came to the Land from somewhere else, we cannot speak “for” the Land. Consultation with the elders often recommended.
  3. Fabrication process: new technology, new materials, new design process. Experimentations in fabrication often needed to demonstrate how design works.
  4. Speculative design: distinguishing what aspects are imaginative and what are grounded in reality. There are many other factors influencing how people perceive the work since it is usually not possible to realise it or understand it physically – graphic / visual representation and communication of design become particularly crucial.

Through this project, we were interested in engineered timber, and therefore it made sense to fully express the structure as part of the architectural representation. Some of the feedback I received from my mentors include the next step – provision and integration of services, potentially including water harvesting, photovoltaic panels, efficient air conditioning system, proper fire stairs, etc., as well as responding to the prevailing winds and wind-driven rain. Of course it’s almost impossible to perfect the design in three months, but understanding what to consider and how to make all work together is definitely a skill that myself as a student need to develop through my degree. Also, understanding and actually applying them to the design are two separate things, so it’s a long way to get to the level I’d like to be.

Precedent analysis – pulling parts apart

In the past, I used to simply explore precedent works of the same typology and analyse their relevance to my design work. This time, we selected four precedents, and pulled out elements that are related to the key factors: verticality and horizontality, and rigidity and fluidity. We mapped them on a matrix and identified where our design elements would be situated on the same matrix.

It made me feel like we understood why those precedents were important for the project, not because we superficially liked them but because we could evaluate their approaches and define our design direction. On a different context, but it almost felt like what references mean to a research paper; you don’t necessarily cite someone’s study entirely and say ‘that’s what I want to do’, but you would identify their relevance on certain aspects of your work and use them to strengthen your own design.

Physical model

It was one of my dreams to give a go at using something special to create a physical model. This time, I used furniture grade plywood for the CNC cut site base and luan plywood for lasercut floor plates, and natural filament for the 3D prints of the surrounding buildings. Of course a lot more time and effort had to be put in to ensure the fabrication files are in accordance with the guidelines, but I believe it was worth it. Although the impact of the Covid lockdown was significant at the end of the semester (not having access to the site base, art supplies closed, being unable to work on the model as a team etc.), I did what I could do, and I’m happy with where I’ve got to considering the scale of the model. There are parts that I couldn’t get to complete to the quality I had hoped, but I guess the modelmaking skill is also something to develop over time, and it’s okay not to be perfect.

Conclusion

I’d like to thank everyone who supported the project, in particular Isabel, the studio leader and William, my teammate. As the first design project for the masters degree, I believe there is a lot more details that we can improve, however, as a semester-long project, I’m proud of where it got to and the fact it was resolved enough to communicate our design intent, considerations and design process.

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