by Marina Carroll and Daniel Stanning
The tertiary education buildings and spaces designed for Macquarie University by Architectus are enriched by the knowledge that they came to life through meaningful collaboration.
Between 2016 and 2021, Architectus designed unique and beautiful buildings and spaces at Macquarie University in Sydney. Drawing on expertise from our studios around Australia – working remotely before the practice was adopted into the mainstream – we ran successful large-scale and design-led projects by working together and implementing solid research and design methods.
In all cases, Architectus’ designs respond directly to Macquarie University’s strategic vision. At each stage, we resolved design problems or questions by returning to The Macquarie Five, or the Five Pillars that underpin their master plan strategy:
By establishing a shared language at the outset, Architectus and Macquarie University were able to communicate seamlessly which allowed us to realise efficient design choices quickly. Because fostering a sense of belonging and integration between people was important, we routinely returned to the question of how to best enable and embody these qualities through architectural and interior design.
Approaching a mega-project like Macquarie University is a challenge. It is not a greenfield site but more like a jigsaw puzzle or moving pieces on a chess board. With all spaces live and occupied, construction is only made possible by adaptive reuse or demolition. And construction is a key element to a university’s success in our changing times.
The beautiful and functional completed tertiary education spaces that Architectus designed for Macquarie University are enriched by the knowledge that they came to life through meaningful collaboration. They fit the purposes of the staff and students using them because they played a hand in their creation. This suite of projects was co-created with the next generation of users not only in mind, but in the room. Our consultants included students, faculties representatives and thought leaders: people with the energy and imagination to predict the needs of future.
Tapping into Macquarie University’s progressive history and reputation for applied learning, Architectus went in search of the base needs, or first principles, a design anthropology.
Through a survey conducted by Place Partners, we discovered that not only were textures and identity key factors, but that practicality was critical – clear signage, cleanliness, enough spaces to study, and a diversity of food options. The basics, in the hierarchy of human needs, that sometimes get overlooked. Atmosphere plays a part, too, with the demands for greenery and art becoming higher among a generation who value high-quality surroundings and are willing to invest their money in beautiful experiences.
Gaining feedback from the students and staff cohabiting the new Macquarie Active Zone Experience (MAZE) was important. Avoiding traditional surveys or formal feedback sessions, which people often feel reluctant to participate in, our interior design team observed the users and asked them directly what they thought. It was obvious that the students enjoyed the relaxed and stimulating environment to work in. One student appreciated the simplicity, enjoying the ‘stripped back’ aesthetic. Another found the enclosed rooms great for group work, and many reported that the found the space ‘comfortable’ to be in, especially because they could take ownership and move the furniture around freely. The staff, who were brave enough to work in the student-led space, valued the flexibility and the ability to take ownership of the space, depending on what it was needed for.
Understanding the student body is essential to design effective spaces for them. We researched the archetypal students and pinpointed three distinct types: The Achiever, The Hustler, and The Wanderer.
The Achiever gears their university experience towards curating a career straight away, seeking out the industry connections and expecting great facilities. The Hustler is a student-type on the rise, they have a side-hustle – usually selling a product online – and are at university to get the relevant degree they need to progress their hustle. Industry engagement and mentorship opportunities are extremely beneficial to them. The Wanderer is the type who learns ‘on-the-go’ and has a more holistic approach to the university experience. They take pleasure in exploring the breadth and depth of offerings on campus and organically discover new avenues for themselves in the process.
It is no surprise that these diverse types of student personalities have differing needs. In September 2016, Architectus began creating the four-storey new building of 1 Central Courtyard to host a wide array of teaching and learning spaces.
To get a clear sense of what the twenty-first century university looks like, we embarked on a study tour of some innovative work and student spaces at leading universities in Sydney and Melbourne to invigorate our schematic design for blurring the two environments in an organic way. We paid attention to how these celebrated buildings integrate technology and create spaces for different purposes and identified who – student or teacher – is intended to run the spaces, for inspiration on curating a building that is well-equipped to cater to the requirements of contemporary university students.
Involving the students was a critical aspect of our process. We co-created their spaces by having students involved in the core working group through the design and documentation processes. We took the needs of the student users and mapped their activities on an overlay of each building’s base bones to ensure that all needs were covered in the spaces they will occupy.
MAZE was the first of the Architectus projects on campus. As a designated temporary space, the designers had the freedom to make decisions to get it working quickly. The students who used the space were consulted about their experiences and we factored their invaluable user feedback into later building fit outs and designs.
We asked them what they do in the space, how they respond to the atmosphere, why they spend time there, why they choose the space over other options, what changes they would like to see, how they respond to flexible, movable spaces, and so forth. Students said the “stripped back” aesthetic helped them to concentrate without being distracted by a lot of decoration. The overwhelming feedback was they wanted more spaces like it on campus. Receiving practical feedback, such as the need for more power points, was incredibly useful going forwards into the large permanent building design.
Some spaces were designed with a ‘kit-of-parts’ philosophy – where everything can be moved and reset. This required rigorous testing to make sure the correct materials were installed. With MAZE, some materials were very robust because the intention was to move them to other buildings once the space was no longer needed, while others where purposely designed to be recyclable. 1 Central Courtyard took a different approach because it is an expensive building that thinks well into the future. The four-storey, 25,000 m2 learning and teaching space with enclosed 30-, 60- and 90-person rooms require a variety of table sizes and shapes. With input from different academics, Architectus ensured the building’s design was linked directly to the University’s Campus Master Plan strategy and settled on mixed modalities that allow for flexible configurations. We also set up a six-person group model and applied it across the spaces to guide spatial mapping.
A year-long consultation process of sampling and prototyping furniture resulted in the development of twelve new teaching modalities that depart from the traditional set up, where chairs face the teacher at front of the room. We considered how students and teachers will need to use the spaces, now and in the future, realising that the teacher is no longer a stationery figure at the front of the room but instead roams around to consult and discuss rather than simply instruct.
Architectus implemented virtual reality technology to show our clients at Macquarie University how their proposed spaces would look and function. This was particularly helpful for teachers to envisage how to manage their cohorts, which in turn resulted in feedback that fed the design. For instance, a ‘sea of desks’ is not an ideal way for teachers to connect with students. Dynamically zoned rooms achieve better results, so this was implemented into 1 Central Courtyard.