Bricks from the Petersen range by Robertson's Building Products Pty Ltd provided both context and connection when used on Methodist Ladies College’s new Nicholas Learning Centre in Kew, Melbourne.

Nicholas Learning Centre for Year 7 and 8 students is the first project emerging from the 2015 College Masterplan for the development of the Kew campus of Methodist Ladies College (MLC) in Melbourne’s inner east. The Masterplan aims to cement MLC’s position as a leading innovator in education.

Designed by McIldowie Partners, the new learning centre is located between MLC’s primary and secondary schools on the Kew campus, providing a natural bridge into higher school activity. The building also creates a new campus heart, or gathering space, bringing the previously separated Year 7 and 8 students together.

The design and development process involved close consultation, via workshops with teachers and students to strengthen a sense of identity and ownership over the spaces.

“It wasn’t only about engaging directly with, and responding to MLC’s needs. It was about empowering the staff to understand and leverage the potential of the spaces in their teaching practices,” says John McIldowie, Associate, McIldowie Partners.

Aligned with the student-centric focus, the design intent was to create a flexible and highly adaptable building.

“There is no one single state of the building, it’s always in flux. It’s designed to give maximum flexibility across its lifespan so it can be reconfigured to adapt to changes in pedagogy,” John explained.

The building contains four levels with Year 7 and 8 each having their own floor of 10 learning spaces, or home rooms, broken down into a series of pods or a cluster of five classrooms. Each floor has different learning spaces, with different furniture in each, giving students a choice over how and where they work. Glass sliding doors link rooms and can be opened or closed as needed. This ambitious, innovative design enables users to shift between different modes of learning, supporting a diverse range of teacher and student needs.

Since the building runs north to south, its façade has two markedly different sides. One sits beside the school oval and has a textured façade of Petersen bricks forming a curved veil, softly scribed along the east. The brickwork curves in two directions – not something a brick does naturally – and folds back on itself. Getting the structure to support it was an engineering challenge. Curved steel was used as formwork for the bricks, and positioning it accurately was tough.

The brickwork links the range of building types and materiality on the MLC campus, referencing and reinterpreting the older buildings. John and his team designed a gradient of bricks in pale and progressing tones to bring warmth and connectivity to the campus context.

“The decision to grade the bricks from dark to light also created a lightness in this heavier side to the building, material interest and something that changed and captured light in different ways,” John explains.

The natural colour variation in Petersen’s handcrafted bricks made them perfect for the task.

“The graduation of the brick is really aided by the Petersen handmade brick – the whole manufacturing process of that brick lends itself to something like this, because there were colours in certain bricks that referenced the colour below and vice versa.

“It was nice to be able to use the Petersen bricks as the main material of the building – they’re a beautiful brick – the texture and quality, and the variation within them. They have a beautiful tactile, handmade material quality to them that made them the obvious choice,” John continues.

All the efforts resulted in something spectacular. “The façade reflects the school’s desire for innovation, with innovation literally displayed on the façade through the brickwork,” John reflects.

The western façade is a stark contrast to the east, opening onto a redeveloped garden setting designed in collaboration with landscape architects Taylor Cullity Lethlean. Deep balconies step back inside to create a lower building profile, while glass panels and sliding doors create an indoor/outdoor feel, encouraging outdoor learning in the new garden space. Being the new cultural heart of the school, it’s quite playful. A series of four-metre high colourful triangular battens create a positive way for students to interact with the building: They can rotate them, so the facade changes in response to its users.

“With the battens, the building becomes interactive and playful and as you move past the building, even without the battens moving, your perspective of colour can shift,” John comments.

The real story of success will be how the design influences student learning – early reports from the school indicate students are enjoying the space. The team at McIldowie Partners should be congratulated for delivering a learning centre that is both aesthetically innovative and functionally ambitious.

Photographer: Peter Bennetts