A school design free of limits

MCR has created an innovative Infinity Centre for students in Keilor East.THE Infinity Centre at Keilor East is McBride Charles Ryan’s (MCR) latest creation. Made for year 11 and 12 students attending Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School, this extraordinary new building is testament to the skills of this award-winning practice. Like the Penleigh Junior School in Essendon, MCR has come up with something quite unique for this project.

While the Keilor East site was opened in the 1960s by then prime minister Robert Menzies, the large property facing Rachelle Road consisted of a cluster of ordinary brick buildings and a series of ovals. A limited architectural competition was held by the school, aiming for a design that would inspire students and staff to greater heights, while still maintaining the generous grounds.

When architect Rob McBride and interior designer Debbie Ryan first inspected the site they noticed the extreme winds, as well as the heat from the slightly elevated L-shaped site. “Our first impression was to provide a solution that offered protection from the wind and extreme temperature,” says McBride.

The MCR practice also saw the design as an opportunity for students from two separate Penleigh schools in Essendon, to come together in their final years of school. “There is that idea of the ‘walled city’, like places such as Oxford University. But the infinity form is also about students in their final years at school, aspiring to the next level in their journey. We really saw the infinity sign as something inspirational,” adds McBride.

Like ancient walled cities, the Infinity Centre is monumental. Featuring an exterior skin of gloss black and silver glazed bricks, the walls on the inside of the centre are clad in vertical bands of black and silver steel. “We wanted students to be able to read the shape. We also wanted them to enjoy passing through these gateways [one at either end of the continuous form],” says Ryan. The curvaceous undercroft of the Infinity Centre, clad in timber and punctuated with vibrant fuschia alcoves, adds to the drama.

Contrasted with the steely exterior is a rich interior, expressed in joyous colour and sensual curves. At the heart of the plan is the library, deemed by the school to be paramount in the hierarchy of spaces. Located at the junction of the symbol, the library is endowed with a complex beehive ceiling, with cubicles looking as though formed by the ”honey” released from the hive.

“This space was about valuing the school’s collection of books and the importance of a library, but we wanted to create moments for the students, in spaces that were rich and varied,” says Ryan who, like McBride, was inspired by the work of great architects, such as the early 20th century Italian architect Carlo Scarpa.

Each of the components forming the infinity symbol has been carefully delineated as a way of differentiating spaces, as well as a location guide. The cafe, for example is green, while the science area features rubber flooring in broad bands of bright yellow and grey stripes.

Even areas such as those allocated to lockers have been thoughtfully considered, not only in terms of finish, but also in terms of location. “Often locker areas are tucked away, far from teacher supervision. There’s no reason they should be treated as a low grade aesthetic,” says Ryan, pointing out the luscious vibrant colour joinery.

Staircases joining the two levels of the centre are memorable, some finished in concrete, while others are lined in timber. One staircase is even lined in a rich hue of blue tiles, evocative of a swimming pool, with light filtering down from blue painted skylights above.

Outdoor spaces merge with those indoors. And mindful of the wind conditions, MCR has set up delightful protected pockets for students, such as the undercroft of the lecture theatre.

While the infinity sign might be seen as a metaphor for life, it’s also clearly an inspirational building by one of Melbourne’s leading design practices.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.


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