The Discovery Centre at the Port of Echuca in Victoria is designed by JAWSARCHITECTS to be a centrepiece building; a starting point for visitors to explore the broader Port site.

Echuca Wharf is located on the Murray River, and served over 200 riverboats from 1865 until the 1920s. The paddle steamers plying its waters helped to drive Australia’s pastoral and colonial expansion.

According to the architects, a Thematic Interpretation planning strategy was applied to this project – a collaborative and interactive process that added depth and meaning to visitor experiences. This included having a full understanding of the Port through its historical, human, environmental and geographic contexts.

These themes were then injected into the design, reinforced through the built form, spatial planning, materiality and detail.

As a result, the architecture and design of the discovery centre acts as a platform for understanding the Port of Echuca, with its form encouraging people to explore and reflect on the history of the heritage-significant site.

The scale of the new building is responsive to its surrounds. Layered above the Murray River, it draws on the modest roof forms and timber cladding of adjacent structures to be integrated into the streetscape.

The folded roof forms a key component of the architectural language, with entry points marked by shady timber-clad entry verandahs and veiled by screens of recycled wharf timbers. This materiality resonates with the original Evans Brothers saw mill.

Internally, the roof is expressed as an expansive canopy over the entry foyer. Highlight glazing on each end illuminates the space and allows the timber ceiling to float gently above the space.

This undulating ceiling goes on to guide visitors on a fluid journey through the interpretive spaces. Here, spaces overlap, open and contract to provide an abstract canvas for a myriad of stories to unfold and merge with each other. Working elements of the Port are revealed from key spaces, while recycled redgum wharf timbers provide shade and privacy screens.

A key orientation device for the centre is its internal courtyard, which was formed by enfolding the building on itself.

As the gateway to the Port of Echuca precinct, the discovery centre mediates the balance between the current and the past, offering visitors an insight into Australia’s largest inland port.

The project has been shortlisted in the Public Architecture and Regional Prize categories of the 2014 Victorian Architecture Awards, which will be announced on 20 June at Peninsula at Central Pier, Docklands. The winning projects will progress on to compete for the National Architecture Awards.

Photography by Brett Boardman