Last month, the winners of the 2017 Brisbane Architecture Awards were announced. Thirty-five projects were recognised across ten categories, but the highest accolade – the John Dalton Award for Building of the Year – went to a project in the Educational Architecture category.
Brisbane Girls Grammar School’s (BGGS) Research Learning Centre not only performs all the practical functions required of a school building, it also explores them conceptually. For the project, m3architecture wanted to channel ideas that were inherent to a childlike sense of wonder and discovery. And so, where better to turn than to the pages of a children’s book.
“A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive, woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presages an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry.”
Taken from a passage on a “cemetery of forgotten books” in Carlos Ruiz Zaffon’s ‘The Shadow of the Wind’, these are the words m3architecture turned to for structural inspiration.
Height is at the heart of the design for the BGGS Research Learning Centre, and m3architecture has taken advantage of it to create escalated, swirling geometries in the form of sweeping stairs that connect the five storeys of the building.
These storeys are, of course, filled with stories. The Research Learning Centre at BGGS contains six book collection rooms, set at split levels to each other and whose walls are lined with books. Together, these split-level collection rooms form two-storey volumes, all of which are easily accessible via the swirling staircase insertions.
The top of each split level connects to the ground floor of the next; a radical departure from the rigidly linear corridor design of traditional libraries. m3architecture have in this project re-imagined the ways in which we move through learning spaces. Their design is a diagonally-traversable, labyrinthine floorplan that is reminiscent of the way we travel through a book.
“Imagine a day when a book swings open on silent hinges and a place you’ve never seen before welcomes you home,” read the pages of another children’s book, this time by Sarah Thomson. In this passage from her book, ‘Imagine a Day’, the author describes a library where books become doorways to other worlds, bookshelves become balconies, and small things become big things in a context of complexity and delight.
With the structural idea in place, m3architecture began thinking about how to “excite the search for knowledge” within the youthful users of the Research Learning Centre. Thomson’s words formed the launching pad for a sense of “tenderness”, which m3architecture believed was crucial for the building’s interior and related functionality.
The original site was home to a 100-year-old Moreton Bay Fig. Instead of seeing this as a challenge – or, worse, chopping it down – m3architecture adopted the tree into their design for the Research Learning Centre.
“The site contains a Moreton Bay Fig [that] is over 100 years old,” says the m3architecture project team. “It is part of the foundational planting of the school and Brisbane more broadly, and the relationship between the new building and the tree was to be critical. These parameters coalesced to form a unique library topology.”
The building’s form was conceived as a five-bay-long, five-storey structure with a north-south orientation intended to frame the tree. A curtain wall façade was designed with the specific purpose of reflecting the tree to external passers-by, and to offer “an experience” of the tree to those on the interior.
Both the height and the length of the BGGS Research Learning Centre frames the tree. From the interior, the tree acts as a navigation device: keeping it in sight, it is possible to navigate the five-storey, light-filled vertical labyrinth without losing coordinates.
Of course, it is not enough for a school library to “excite the search for knowledge” through whimsy. It must also facilitate the search for knowledge through pure functionality.
In designing the BGGS Research Learning Centre, m3architecture thought a lot about how the building would perform. A highly-efficient façade is almost entirely composed of glazed glass panels, which maximise natural light levels while reducing the heat load of the building’s interior.
Vertical fins were integrated into the southern curtain wall, following the arc of the Moreton Bay Fig and registering its “solar imprint”. In this way, the building draws upon the tree for its energy-efficiency and harnesses its shade-producing properties. In the final production, m3architecture have used it as a tool for functionality as much as a springboard for the imagination.