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    Q&A: Peter Elliott AM on the enormous satisfaction of designing for the arts

    Kirsty Sier

    Earlier this week, Peter Elliott AM was awarded Australian architecture’s highest honour: the Australian Institute of Architecture’s Gold Medal.

    Over a career spanning more than four decades, Elliott has been responsible for designing of some of Australia’s most innovative and forward-thinking educational spaces – Geelong Grammar School, the RMIT University Lawn Precinct, and Victoria University’s Law School, to name a few.

    During that time, Elliott has come to be regarded as one of our most influential architects – particularly when it comes to designing for the public realm. He has been described by his peers as ‘an architect of great distinction who has possibly affected more lives and contributed more to his city [Melbourne] than most could dream of’.

    In light of his recent recognition, and in honour of his long-standing contribution to Australian public spaces, A&D spoke to Peter Elliott about the importance of creativity in educational design, and the incredible satisfaction of designing for the arts.

    A&D: Last year, you received a number of awards [including the AIA Educational Architecture Award, the AIA Heritage Architecture Award, and the AIA Bates Smart Award for Architecture in the Media] for the design of educational institutions. What do you think it is that makes a ‘good’ school or university building?

    Peter Elliott: I think there’s been a big shift in understanding the value of educational buildings. They’re much more transparent and accessible in the way they show activities; they’re more sociable buildings. And there’s been some really good work done in the last couple of years in the educational space. This shift towards buildings that aren’t just single-activity buildings is incredibly exciting. Traditionally, we would have had the classroom wing, the library wing, all of these different areas that just had a single purpose. But now, [educational buildings] tend to be a lot more integrated.

    I guess it’s to do with how education is now being delivered, but it also ends up being a much more interesting place for students to be. These [more contemporary educational buildings] have got more breakout spaces – classrooms, activity areas, spaces where kids can hang out – and they produce more sociable outcomes.

    A&D: How is designing for an educational institution different to designing for other kinds of uses?

    P.E.: [Educational buildings are] not too different to design for, really. From an architectural view point, the sense that educational buildings have this larger agenda makes them intrinsically interesting to work on, but architects treat these things in the same kinds of ways; there’s a methodical approach the production of buildings, and this is relatively consistent no matter what kind of building [you’re designing for].

    But it’s a different kind of thinking behind educational buildings; it’s the concept that is different [rather than the method]. Even high schools now are starting to look to universities for their design, in the sense that spaces accommodate more than one function. High schools have started adopting a lot of that kind of thinking.

    A&D: What are some of the aspects that are crucial to educational architecture?

    P.E.: There’s an enormous diversity in educational buildings. We’ve been working on centres for creativity and innovation, design technology spaces, and all these other types of spaces for creative endeavours. Art spaces, for instance, that provide really fabulous opportunities for young people working in creative areas.

    Educational buildings are not what people used to think they were. When I when to school, classrooms were nothing [but classrooms], and now schools are these incredibly rich, multi-purpose environments. That’s what has made educational buildings stand out [from other kinds of buildings] more recently.

    A&D: Why is creativity so important to architecture within the education space?

    P.E.: The thing for architects is that it’s easy to get caught up in the whole pedagogical debate, but I tend to stand back from that. The schools we work with [at Peter Elliott Architecture + Urban Design] are quite traditional, [but also] incredibly forward-thinking and innovative. They embrace future thinking.

    And [that reflects how] students now have to be prepared for a world we don’t understand. We’re still trying to understand the future of work; we have no idea what that will look like. Resilience and innovation and technology and creative thinking are all at the forefront of what schools are trying to prepare their students for.

    In turn, that trickles down into the architectural brief; it transforms the way a building is configured. What we’re seeing are buildings that are much more conducive to that uncertain yet highly-creative environment.

    Also, there’s an increasing pressure on the size of schools. With the lack of space [for traditional school buildings], we’re starting to look to a future of high-rise schools – and they’re not really high-rise in the traditional sense, either; more like four or five storeys – which is a new thing for Australia. But it looks like the future [of schools].

    A&D: What has been one of your favourite projects to date, and what was so satisfying about it?

    P.E.: A project at Melbourne Grammar School – which would have been about ten or twelve years ago now – that included a music performance space and the renovation of a school hall. It was this mixed bag of a 1930s hall that was the heart of the school, and the new structure, which was a performing arts space where a symphony orchestra would come to rehearse.

    I really like working with the arts, in general. I think that designing for these things is particularly satisfying for people who are drawn to the arts; the whole energy of it. The whole creative spirit that comes from performing arts – and from the arts generally – is probably the reason I became an architect to begin with. To work on buildings that achieve and facilitate that is enormously satisfying.

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