More Than Just a Building

June 21, 2017: Perspectives


The new MIT campus designed to increase engagement with education in South Auckland.

The people of South Auckland enrol in tertiary education at a rate only half the national average. For a large proportion of the community, engaging in formal education after secondary school isn’t something they’d seriously consider. MIT’s strategic mission is to open up the possibility of study in the minds of their surrounding community, encouraging them to learn, to lead to better employment opportunities, and ultimately a better life.

Correspondingly, the new MIT campus in central Manukau aims to be more than just a building – it’s a physical manifestation of MIT’s strategy. MIT Manukau is designed to remove barriers to entry and invite people to engage with the institute by creating a sense of comfort and familiarity within an educational environment. And that’s a huge step towards changing impressions of the academic world.

Of course, ultimately the building has a physical presence – it is a significant 6 storey structure with a generous internal atrium designed to support the life and activity of up to 5000 students. But the real hope is that this project can transcend its physical form through its capacity to change how people see, engage with and enrol in education in South Auckland. Architecture as an instrument of social change is a grand ambition, but one that is within reach at Manukau.

The campus design adopts a threefold approach to initiating this change – firstly, creating a reason for people to enter the educational institute, then making them feel welcome once they’re inside, and finally, allowing them to adapt and co-opt the building as a community, to make it their own. 

Architecture as an instrument of social change is a grand ambition

A reason to enter

The first challenge was how to actually draw people into the space. Many of the people we’re trying to reach have never set foot in a tertiary environment before. There’s rarely reason to. So we integrated the MIT campus with the public transport system, with the teaching facilities built directly over a new Auckland Transport railway station. It brings commuters into the building, to expose the heart of MIT and its programme to the widest possible audience.

It’s the first time education and transport has been so seamlessly integrated in New Zealand. Weaving the train station into the heart of MIT intentionally blurs the lines between the life of commuters and the life of the students. The idea is that people, during their five minute wait for the train to work every day, will look around them. They will see others from their community studying, maybe even people they know. It opens up the possibilities of learning, acting as a daily reminder that tertiary education is a real option for them too. 

Eliminating barriers

Once people are actually in the building, they need to feel at home, rather than like intruders in a foreign environment.

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 Auckland. Creating a universal sense of comfort was important, so anybody from any culture, any age, any background, will feel confident that they have ‘permission’ to move around the space.

The ground floor is completely open and accessible – a feeling magnified by the soaring six storey atrium. It has commuter areas, ticket sales, food and coffee opening out under the canopy into Hayman Park. The learning spaces themselves aren’t formal – they’re flexible, open and designed for student interaction.

It’s as far away from the ivory tower of academia as possible. MIT aims to entirely eliminate the lines between public and private realms – 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.

Dressed by the community

The ambition is for this space to become embedded in the ‘mental map’ of people in the Manukau CBD. It’s designed as acultural destination – a place to meet, to enjoy events and arts, a platform for transport, and an environment where the possibilities of learning are discovered.

It’s a powerful building because essentially it’s just a framework, a ‘coathanger’ for local people to dress with their own identities, to hang the cloak of the community on. It’s a very adaptable, open space, built with long term options for flexibility to evolve with the identity of the local and national demographic.

Ultimately, we hope that people will come to live and learn in the space, and that they will own it as a community. That ownership is the main difference between building just ‘buildings’, and building great spaces that reflect, engage, encourage and work to make life better for the local community.

MIT aims to entirely eliminate the lines between public and private realms - and in doing so, remove the individual and social preconceptions that prevent people from entering the world of education.