by Daniel Stanning, Luke Johnson, and Hope Dryden
For Macquarie University to achieve its campus master plan, they required some makeshift spaces to serve as brief homes for students and staff while the planning, design and construction of the new buildings and refurbishments were underway. Because they were realised and implemented much faster than permanent buildings, by nature they could be playful. With minimal interruption to campus life, to aid the campus’ transition through the disruptive construction period of four large permanent buildings, three experimental spaces provided quick wins.
Formerly the C7A Library, the Macquarie Active Zone Experience (MAZE) opened in 2017 to house staff and students for five years’ while their lasting accommodations were being designed and built. While University buildings are usually given a permanent name, MAZE was initially called the “Living Laboratory” because it was a pilot space used to inform the design needs of future building projects at the University. The short-lived mindset of the design resulted in unique features: some furniture is made from sturdy cardboard that students can draw on if they wish; the Architectus-designed modular ceiling panels were created to be reused in different University spaces in the future, making the fit out recyclable.
As the first piece of the puzzle that would make other spaces on campus empty and allow the construction of the broader master plan, MAZE needed to be made available to the university population quickly and have high amenity. The University staff would be initially reacting to their change in work environment, so it was critical that this space be a success. The Architectus interior architecture team brought a lot of colours, life, plants, improved acoustics, clarity of wayfinding, and a sense of fun to a heavy and sober Brutal frame.
It is a big idea that was implemented with a light touch. Internal spaces are independent from the building frame to display the merits of the heritage status. Triangles in the carpet reflect the plates in the ceiling echoes the 1970s-style geometric floor design in a fresh homage. The pure, saturated colours, next to the grey shell, makes for a striking and stimulating contrast, while subtly giving a nod to its past.
The design process of MAZE allowed for enormous freedom. With the pressure of permanency lifted, the designers could do things differently. A sense of ‘let’s try this and see’ guided the process, and a conscious approach of designing for decay which created a space that encourages living in the moment. The fit out is quite raw. It uses the bones of the original structure in powerful ways to ensure that the building’s history was not concealed in the transformation. The contrast between the 2010s and the 1960s was a celebration of the original fabric, with the distinctive styles co-existing harmoniously. The shell of the C7A’s Brutalist base is untouched – panels are lightly suspended and there is a gap between the walls and the floor plate.
The agile ‘kit-of-parts’ was liberating from a design standpoint. The modular furniture has soft boundaries and is easily moved and reset depending on the needs of the people using the space. It is an informal, student-led area. Before it, no such space existed for students on campus, so it is unsurprising that they felt at home straight away and welcomed the fun and creative space.
A sense of fun is clear in the different atmospheric qualities. Users are free to choose their meeting spaces by mood. One is an abstract outdoors diorama – complete with AstroTurf and picnic table. Another is entirely pink, with rose-tinted glazing on the glass wall and a curtain offering privacy. There is a paper igloo room. One workspace is shielded by a semi-circle wall of plants. And another is designed to change the way students work in groups, with lightbulbs and pillows and a Lazy Susan whiteboard on the floor. Throughout are swings and bold statement furniture.
Creating the unexpected was an essential element of this project. It was a learning experience for both Macquarie University and Architectus. A chance to discover what contemporary university students and staff need and want, and then incorporated these features into the permanent buildings. Although it was initially intended to last until 2022, MAZE has been adapted as a permanent part of Macquarie’s campus. The empty, decommissioned building that once thought of as a temporary decanting location, of sorts, has become a popular permanent place on the campus.
The Campus Common is both recycled and recyclable. Another space, like MAZE, designed to be temporary – specifically for students to gather and unwind while the Central Courtyard Precinct was under redevelopment between 2017 and 2021. In a display of Macquarie’s innovation and experimentation, the brief was to create a space that could be easily dismantled and reused after its intended three-year lifespan. The result was innovative hospitality outlets within a cluster of approximately 60 shipping containers that create a cool, industrial atmosphere with polycarbonate doors that light up after dusk. The overall mood was inspired by similar projects in London, Boxpark in Shoreditch, Croydon and Wembley, and Pop Brixton, and the Re:START container mall in Christchurch. The project’s ambition of constructing a place that encouraged a sense of community was successful, with food and beverage revenue increasing since the Campus Common’s arrival in July 2017.
Campus Common features Ferrari fabric, a lightweight roofing membrane by Fabritecture Australia. The material can be pushed and pulled to create curves. Its use on the Campus Common project ties in with the Lotus Theatre, an interim 700 m2 lecture theatre. The bricks were repurposed from former buildings and most of the furniture was resurrected from the University’s holding stock. The lightweight awning structure will be repurposed when the project is dismantled and the landscaping – sandstone blocks and potted plants – are relocatable. Another university has expressed an interest in buying the demountable structures, so they are likely to be reused at another location in the future.
Prior to its transformation into a funky hospitality area, the space was an underused sculpture garden. Students were drawn to engage with and enjoy the comfortable, naturally ventilated offering and – to everybody’s surprise, it became a new heart of the campus, temporarily. From a purely observational perspective, people occupied the space both day and night and generated a vibrant culture that will naturally transfer into the permanent structures of the Central Courtyard – Macquarie University’s true and intended centre of gravity.
Contrary to its fluent and light-weight appearance, the pavilion-style Incubator contends with a challenging brief. It was another intentional ‘quick win’ for the University that was designed to have a minimum life span of fifty years, with the special potential of being disassembled and moved. It is an experimental space used to tide the master plan over until the permanent facilities for the start-up companies that it houses are ready elsewhere on the campus. Since the building opened, there has been a great desire for young businesses to apply to win the chance to work in this atmospheric space.
This building’s design, construction, fit out and commissioning was realised in an accelerated fashion because the funding tied to the application needed to be utilised within a particular timeframe. Macquarie University held a design competition and invited three practices to participate and Architectus was fortunate to have the winning solution. Like a piece of timber joinery, the Incubator is composed of modular and planar components designed to be unbolted, stored if necessary and then transferred to a new location where reassembly can occur. This requirement was a strong reason for Architectus choosing a relatively light-weight timber building and to detail the fixing of its modular elements with accessible bolted connections. Even the footings are relocatable. They are formed with steel screw piles that – just like a giant wood screw – can be removed from the ground and reused on another site with similar ground conditions. Comparing the competition concept with the standing building, the design has been faithfully realised and is testament to the incredible process of engagement with Macquarie University.
Borrowing from the Japanese shinrin-yoku, which translates as ‘forest bathing’ – the practice of absorbing a forest through the senses for calming and restorative purposes – the occupants of the Incubator cherish the pleasantly woody aroma and benefit from the sense of well-being that comes from being in nature because timber is on the floor, walls, ceiling, roof, surfaces, and structure. Visually, the warm tactility of wood presents an extremely comfortable and desirable environment that constantly transforms throughout the day as sunlight moves across the sky and adjusts its intensity.
The Incubator provides a highly flexible physical environment that nourishes contemporary teaching and learning. Its long-span structure enables the interior to be adjusted according to specific needs. For example, the south pavilion supports a variety of learning modalities, from a conventional presentation-style format, through to dynamic and small group scenarios. The space is used as an innovation hub and platform for industry engagements which are increasingly important in forming productive relationships between university students, academic researchers, and business. The cohesive use of a natural products cocoons the teaching and learning spaces in a fabric that makes people feel relaxed and positive in the space.
Macquarie University has communicated that the Incubator’s current location is fitting, and they have no intention of moving it. Instead, they are inclined to roll out its characteristics elsewhere around campus to create a more people-friendly environment.