Be they gilded, wistful or a little despondent, our memories of school retain a vibrancy quite unlike any other from our early childhood. Due largely to the fact that our schooling represents a period of intense and protracted concentration in our formative development, the richness of these memories should prompt us to consider the prominence of the spaces in which they were formed. Currently across Australia, the education sector is undergoing a top-to-bottom transformation programme that incorporates everything from national curriculum standards, alternative teaching, ergonomic furnishing, and spatial design.
The traditional model of schooling under which we all grew up was devised to produce a particular type of graduate – principally, an industrial worker. Victorian in its tunnel vision didactics, this old format has finally been cast off thanks to an incredible drive in research and development surrounding behavioural psychology in the education sector. Today we recognise that much like our varied and flexible workplaces, our schools need to do more: to facilitate self-directed learning in many ways, to promote our students to become global citizens with agile problem solving skills rooted in creativity.
Designing the spaces to facilitate this, therefore, is a weighty responsibility. This is currently an exhilarating time across the country for our schoolchildren and A+D community equally. On the west coast of Australia, in particular, a consistently high and consistently rigorous educational standard has prompted the world to look Perth-ward. Here, an innovative architectural response across the state has led to a quintessentially Western Australian brand of sophisticated spatial ecology designed to mould the generation of tomorrow.
The most recent example of this movement is the redevelopment of Claremont’s Methodist Ladies College (MLC) Boarding House. Spearheaded by CODA, the project proves that accommodating change is crucial for a school system – and if the spaces we inhabit end up shaping us, those spaces need to facilitate a flexible form of stability.
Through a combination of inspired spatial moves and bespoke furniture and textile design, CODA has transformed MLC into one of Western Australia’s most sophisticated, fresh and age-appropriate educational facilities. Project designers say that the redevelopment “required us to not only consider space, accessibility and fabric, but also closely examine the past in order to imagine a better future for girls living away from home”. And with the transformation seeking to reinforce the values of independence and connectivity, their care toward user-performance and budding individuality is an innovative approach to what is otherwise a complex design commission.
Located within the fabric of a heritage building, three distinct colleges define the boarding house, each distinguished by a fresh and contemporary interior that speaks to the youth and vitality of its inhabitants. Emphasising the importance of well-designed social spaces that students can comfortably occupy as an alternative to their dormitory rooms, a carefully curated collection of artwork and off the shelf furniture promotes patterns of sociability and scholarship that is simultaneously open and focused.
Comprising bespoke bedroom modules that contain a bed, desk and walk-in wardrobe all within one frame, the attention to detail distinguishes MLC from other projects that too frequently abuse ready-made or off-the-shelf interior solutions. Instead, CODA’s dedication to lengthy and intense research and development processes saw an ongoing collaboration with the MLC cohort. Understanding so thoroughly the individuality and distinct soul of the MLC girls, this incorporation of the user in the development of the brief, proved that customisation and character would be key to a successful project outcome.
As a result, the standout feature is a series of textile designs by Andrea Barton. An MLC collegian herself, the bright, playful and charming textiles enhance bedroom upholstery and demarcate various zones of the boarding house in a gentle, non-invasive manner. Throughout, these touches of the MLC spirit forge a sense of continuity between spaces and between years, suffusing the boarding house with a strong sensibility.
While the MLC development demonstrates the potential of interior design to enhance the lives of many, rather than a few, the project speaks so strongly for the direction the Australian educational system is heading. The future for our students is looking bright. Blending cultures, ideas, innovation and imagination, MLC’s redesign stands for a community that celebrates diversity and achievement.
Photography by Peter Bennetts.
Words by David Congram.