Tertiary institutions are more than bricks and mortar. These spaces shape the way students learn, the quality of research they produce, how they perceive their study experience. Philosophy and strategy construct these buildings, as much as the site or context.
The educational landscape is swiftly transforming. Compared with five years ago, prevalent thinking about pedagogy is accelerating in diverse new directions.
It’s an ever-changing evolution. But while commercial organisations have the capacity to rebuild, educational buildings need to last a distance of decades. These permanent structures have to be flexible and malleable enough to evolve with the next century of education, without limiting new methods of learning we might discover, new technologies we might assimilate.
Universities are simultaneously becoming both hyper-local and global. There’s fierce competition to engage the best and brightest minds from around the world, while also developing an inclusive approach to better the prospects of people in surrounding communities to enable their learning too. World-class research facilities collide with open, accessible spaces; enclosed laboratories are suddenly exposed to the public.
These new demands have created new opportunities for the design of tertiary institutions. Over the past half century, Warren and Mahoney has been at the forefront of this revolution, designing educational buildings within Australasia and abroad. From briefing to stakeholder engagement, planning to change management, Warren and Mahoney’s expertise in psychology and process has shaped innovative solutions, and helps write the theory for the future of tertiary education design.
Nicole Stock, editor, in conversation with Andrew Barclay and Blair Johnston. —
NS What was MIT’s brief to you at the beginning of the project?
BJ There are two parts to any brief. There are the functional requirements – how big the building will be, what it needs to contain – but there’s also a strategic intent. MIT’s strategic intent was to open up the possibility of study in the minds of their local community. They want to improve the educational outcomes for people in South Auckland. That high-level philosophy is driven right down through every design decision of the building.
AB I remember the interview. We stood on the lecture theatre stage; Dr Peter Brothers and his staff were in the students’ seats. After the presentation, Dr Peter asked the vital question: “How would you link the advancement of this community with developing pedagogy?” It was a very loaded question because that’s exactly what the project needed to deliver. The brief was to mash those two worlds together. It’s about encouraging people to engage with education.
BJ I think this project is almost entirely about eliminating thresholds. MIT Manukau is more than just a building. It aims to break down barriers between public and private realms: between the streets and the educational institution, but also within MIT itself, eliminating thresholds between learning and social spaces.
The real hope is that this building can transcend its physical form and change how people enrol in and engage with education in South Auckland. Architecture as an instrument of social change is a grand ambition, but one that is within reach at Manukau.
NS This building is unusual because it brings together a tertiary institution and a transport centre. Was that in the original brief from MIT?
AB The land was always going to provide a co-located bus and train transport interchange. It’s an example of some really forward-thinking between the Council and Auckland Transport. Our influence was the nature of that co-location. The biggest design decision we made was to embed the station completely, seamlessly, within the heart of the MIT building. We wanted to give everyday people a reason to enter, people who’ve never set foot in a tertiary environment before. It’s the best way to expose the possibilities of learning to ordinary commuters, every single day.
BJ The idea is that if you were on your way to work, you might have five minutes before your train. You might look up and see someone you went to school with studying. That could create a connection for you, one that would open up the possibilities of learning, especially for people who traditionally don’t consider tertiary education. It acts as a daily reminder that tertiary education is a real option for them too.
The biggest design decision we made was to embed the station completely, seamlessly, within the heart of the MIT building.
NS How did you approach the design process?
AB Rather than break it down into more easily managed constituent parts, we approached it from a different point of view entirely, which is to accept that it’s a large building. It doesn’t try to be particularly fractured. It’s got a very clear entrance and a very clear ‘wrap’.
BJ The reality is that it’s a large building, and the people we want to reach tend to be threshold averse. Manukau is the most demographically diverse part of New Zealand. How do you develop an architecture that responds to not one but many points of view? I think that has been a key challenge of the project. We want anybody, from any culture, any age, any background, to feel confident that they have ‘permission’ to move around the space.
How do you do that? First, you need to create a reason for people to enter. Then they need to feel welcome once they’re inside. And finally, it should let them co-opt the building as a community, to make it their own.
The entire life of the building happens openly and visibly in the central atrium. It’s about creating a sense of comfort and familiarity in an educational environment. And that’s a huge step towards changing impressions of the academic world.
It’s as far away from the ivory tower of academia as possible. MIT aims to eliminate the lines between public and private realms entirely – and, in doing so, remove the individual and social preconceptions that prevent people from entering the world of education. This philosophy guided every single design decision – from the scale of the building, the façade, the materials, the entrance and of course the integration of the train station.
There is the possibility to break down, through sliding doors, the teaching spaces. It's actually just playing with the extension of a real-life workplace.
NS It’s a big building but is approachable as well. How did you manage both when they are often conflicting conditions?
AB When you’re in the building, the volume is not disguised. It’s big. Although I think it’s very rich. It’s not a visually noisy building but it is visually complex. There’s lots of shadow. There’s lots of light. There’s richness and texture and colour.
BJ The ground floor is where people are welcomed; commuters pass through, buy tickets and coffee. Upper levels consist of open teaching and social spaces surrounding the central atrium, with more traditional spaces around the perimeter.
There is the possibility to break down, through sliding doors, the learning areas. It’s actually just playing with the extension of a real-life workplace. Workplaces are not seamless, sealed environments. We see this building as the intersection of culture and technology. Its structure is completely exposed. It’s very raw. All the joints and bolts are visible. It’s a serious building in terms of space, but it’s really about the occupants colouring and enlivening the space.
We described it as the coat hanger and cloak. Essentially it’s a framework for people to dress with their own community identity. It’s a very adaptable, open space, built with long-term options for flexibility to evolve with the identity of the local demographic. It will happen over a period of years. We hope that people will adopt it as their own.