Hamilton Wilson is managing director at Wilson Architects and a Fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

He is a fourth generation architect and has a strong interest in the education sector. In particular, he is fascinated with university libraries and learning environments, and their relationships to both technology and the IT savvy student.

Architecture & Design spoke to Wilson about growing up with liberal parents, how the move to online learning is impacting on education design and why he would like to be a painter if he wasn’t an architect.

You’re a fourth generation architect. When did you know that you wanted to follow in your family’s footsteps and become an architect?

I have always been interested in making things. As a kid I was always drawing or making models and designing things. There was no expectation from my family that I would go into architecture but my interests were just naturally in that direction. Because architecture was so very much a part of my family environment I didn’t have to think very hard about it to know that it was what I wanted to do.

What are some key things you have learnt from your family?

My parents are very liberal, especially my mother. If any of us kids wanted to paint on a wall in our house, we just did it – it was encouraged. When the first man landed on the moon all the kids got to paint something to do with the event on the hallway wall – and that wasn’t something we considered unusual in our family. I grew up with a lot of freedom to follow whatever creative pursuit I wanted.

It wasn’t until Wilson Architects celebrated our 100th year that I appreciated what a valuable architecture legacy we had in our family. I realised that I was part of something bigger than myself and what I wanted from the practice, and this has informed how the firm has grown. It has also impacted on our approach to adaptive re-use projects. I am always very sensitive to the context of a building and I have a better understanding of the many ways you can design connections between a building’s history and its future.

You’ve been involved with education architecture for the past 10 years. How has education design changed in the past 10 years?

The biggest change has been the democratisation of content – the move to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and the ubiquitous access to information we all have through technology. The students have also changed. They are time poor and likely to be working as well as studying, which places more pressure on them.

We need to design in ways that makes studying easier and contributes to work/life balance. Because studying is harder, people won’t do it unless it is really engaging. And they won’t come to the campus unless they have a really good reason to do so. As a result, our design focus is on building strong learning communities students want to be a part of, and flexible learning environments that keep them interested and make it easy for them to learn in the way they want to.

Have any changes to education made it more difficult for educational design?

There is no longer a roadmap for how to go forward in the field of education architecture. The answer is to do more research, which is what we do at Wilson Architects. We look at what the students really want by talking to them. Only the students know what the true value of their campus is and what they need to feel connected and to succeed at studying.

The James Cook University Education Central in Townsville was recently completed. Can you tell A&D about the project and some of the challenges and your solutions?

JCU needed to upgrade its Townsville Campus to provide better services to its students and support new ways of teaching and learning. There was also the opportunity to create an environment that better reflected JCU’s tropical identity, and to build a stronger sense of community among the staff and students.

The first step was a comprehensive research program including staff and student interviews. The research covered all areas of the student experience, including how they want to interact with each other, what kinds of learning support they prefer, what kinds of services they need and how they want to access them, right down to how they want to feel when they’re on campus. These insights became the basis of a plan to revitalise the campus with the Specialist Teaching and Student Services Precinct at its heart.

The Student Services Centre is the front door to the university. It follows a student-led/staff-assisted model of service that was developed specifically for JCU. Based on the latest retail service models, students have a choice of service points (from self-service to fully assisted), access to interview rooms and pods and flexible furniture. Staff move around the space providing help as needed. As well as the student services centre, the building contains large-scale active learning spaces. For example, the School of Education on level 1, a coffee shop and social learning areas. These larger, more flexible spaces encourage peer-to-peer learning and extend learning beyond the traditional classroom environment.

The design uses a double-height circulation hub at the centre of the building and visual connections between all internal and external circulation routes to create a welcoming atmosphere. Continuous undercover connections link the buildings and join the student retail, student service, teaching and administrative functions in one harmonious environment. These new connections create opportunities for spontaneous interaction between students and staff, as well as extend the use of the buildings.

Much of JCU’s identity focuses on its expertise and interest in the tropics. This significant part of its character is reflected in the architecture through buildings that are sympathetic to their surroundings and pockets of tropical landscape across the campus. 

What is a project you wish you had designed?

I wish I had designed Geoffrey Bawa’s house, Lunuganga, in Sri Lanka. It is an incredibly personal and experimental project that synthesises European and Asian influences. The integration of landscape and architecture is inseparable, which makes a very strong connection to place.

If you weren’t an architect, what would you be doing?

I would be a painter or a researcher. Painting is the best kind of meditation you can do. Research reveals things that weren’t known before. I find it exciting to see results that no one has ever seen before – there’s a sense of working at the frontier.