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Opening Up

Monash Caulfield Library project team in conversation with architecture, art and design writer Dylan Rainforth.

It’s fitting that a library should be the beating heart of a research-focused university. The major renovation to Monash University’s Caulfield Library recently completed by John Wardle Architects doubles the library’s study seating to meet the needs of the contemporary university. Just as importantly, the project takes an internally focused 1970s building, one loosely in the Brutalist style, and thoughtfully opens it up to the campus while restoring its original architectural language.

In the simplest possible terms, the old library had no significant front door. Its cramped main entrance was on the southern side, accessed from an elevated walkway between two buildings. The renewed library features a large, welcoming entrance on the building’s western elevation, connecting it directly to the newly landscaped campus green at the heart of university life.

“Creating a library that was legible – externally and internally – was a fundamental aim of our design,” says project architect Jasmin Williamson.

“We needed to make sure the front door and wayfinding through the library was something that students could clearly understand, while also opening the library up to play a significant role in the university’s new campus masterplan, which was being initialised when we were awarded the contract in 2013.”

The western facade, and its new entrance, is marked by an architecturally striking steel and mesh shade structure, with its complex cantilevered truss system providing an immediate signifier of the library’s new identity. Internally, the shade screen shelters the library’s new four-storey western extension. Within the existing structure, a new four-level atrium is created. Allowing light deep into the opened up floor plates, the soaring atrium is the focal point for users’ movement into and through the building. To the right, the main stairwell features an orange treatment, echoed in the entrance itself, which is clearly visible from the exterior through floor-to-ceiling windows.

“The orange that comes up in the glass portal to the front door and the internal stairwell provide strong wayfinding features. It’s a beacon as you approach from the campus green,” explains design architect Alex Peck.

“It also breaks down the exterior-to-interior opposition by being completely visible. We talk about creating explanatory buildings where you can see what the function or activity is from the outside.”

The project also detaches the building on its northern edge to create a courtyard and walkway there, known as Campus Walk North, allowing the renewed library to exist ‘in the round’ and in clearer dialogue with the faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (MADA) building to its north.

The new library looks outwards, with views framed through generous windows on all sides. No longer do students feel like they’re working in an artificially lit bunker with no reference to natural time and light outside.

Lead interior designer Amanda Moore describes what Monash University’s head librarian, Cathrine Harboe-Ree, was looking for from the project.

“The librarian was after something very studious – it's a space for quiet, dedicated study. While it is a formal library, it’s also the heart of the campus – a building in the round where students meet and work together, the centre of the campus community,” Amanda says.

Working with the existing conditions to create flexible spaces with clear views through large floor plates introduced additional complexity. But it also provided opportunities to refine the response, as architect Bill Kalavriotis explains.

“In just one example, but a powerful one, the void we cut through the existing building to create the atrium revealed some of the beautiful T-beams, which you didn't used to see at all; so that got put on show. Underneath the ad-hoc alterations made over the ensuing years, the existing building is quite beautiful, and there were a number of architectural gems we wanted to reveal and celebrate,” Bill says.

Modernising the building’s services while respecting that heritage was another crucial task, as interior designer Sharon Crabb explains.

“As the user population increased significantly, it was important for new services to be integrated seamlessly with the existing T-beams – access to power, data and AV was critical to the brief.”

The team's ability to seize opportunities throughout the construction process was important to the project’s success, Jasmin says.

“We would often be on site and see something that had only just been revealed. We would then quickly come together and assess how to enhance the way the existing fabric was expressed alongside our response to it,” she says.

Amanda also picks up on this theme of responsiveness.

“Briefing on a complex project isn't something that happens solely at the start; it's something that the client is on a journey alongside you. On this project, with the library being open and the staff on site throughout, it meant they were on the same page with us as the response evolved,” says Amanda.

“Holistically we are incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved with Caulfield Library,” Jasmin says.

“Much of the credit should go to Monash’s librarian, Cathrine Harboe-Ree, who has since retired but remains involved with the university in a research capacity. Every project needs a champion and she was one of the best we’ve worked with.”

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