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ASPECT and the Australian campus

Date: Dec 07, 2023
Category: Insights

The institution of the university occupies a large cultural and physical presence in Australian cities. Here, we reflect on how that role has grown and changed, and the part ASPECT Studios has played in that transformation.

Over the past few decades, there has been an almost surreal reconfiguration of Australian university campuses. The level of investment in enlarging, rebuilding, updating and rearranging not only the campus, but the way it interfaces with the city, is hard to overstate.

Where once the Australian campus was built as a kind of isolated, self-contained space, designed for a single purpose – today’s “sticky” campuses are miniature cities in their own right: places where people live, work and play. They are also hyper-connective entities that are tightly interlaced with the surrounding urban fabric.

Kambri Precinct, Australian National University
This thinking is an extension of what we try to achieve in urban design more broadly – repairing and reforging connections between the public realm and the city at large. With the campus, we constantly seek better connections between knowledge and the public, between academic and on-campus life, against a background of changing educational and cultural context:

Post-COVID pedagogy – universities now connect with students and the community in new ways.

The multi-institution campus – the university is often co-located with private and public partners, and the campus must enable this collaboration.

Sustainability – landscapes must be designed to change with the climate, and active and public transport connections must be accessible and finely-tuned.

Porosity – the modern campus is open to its city, and vice versa.
A multiplicity of experiences – campuses are now places to live, as well as work, and that life requires ways to socialise, entertain, and recreate.

Connection to Country – a focus on reconciliation as an ethical imperative has made campuses sites of interpretation and storytelling, where First Nations stories and narratives can be unearthed and given physical form.
University of Technology Sydney Alumni Green

ASPECT Studios has been intimately involved in this reimagining, working on projects across the country, at all scales. There is no monolithic, defining approach for ASPECT. Instead, our work demonstrates an evolving understanding not only of what the campus is, but also the different “characters” that a campus can embody.

Our work is instead defined by our ongoing collaborations with likeminded university partners and architects, who are also deeply engaged with learning environments and the nature of ideas in our cities – and how these are presented in knowledge institutions.

ASPECT began its journey in education with Monash University in Melbourne, the University of Technology Sydney and more recently Australian National University in Canberra. At Monash, ASPECT helped to engineer the large-scale transformation of the Clayton campus, with a master plan led by MGS Architects and co-authored by ASPECT that has informed subsequent public realm projects. For UTS, ASPECT was involved in the redevelopment of its inner-city Ultimo campus, which aimed to project a new image for the university.

03of10 UTS Alumni Green photo Florian Groehn
UTS Alumni Green. Photograph by Florian Groehn

These relationships have persisted into the present day, with changing cultural and political inclinations meaning that ASPECT has focused on more precise, student-focused projects within university campuses. There is still, however, a desire to reconfigure the “type” of campus – in terms of setting, relationship to landscape and Country, and as platform for learning and teaching.

In Perth, for instance, Murdoch University is building upon its identity as a “bush campus”, with the development of Boola Katijin, which embodies an intimate relationship with the surrounding landscape. Elsewhere, Edith Cowan University is embarking on a major project to expand its presence in the CBD, creating Perth’s first “city campus” infusing the city centre with over 10,000 students and staff, contributing a new social dynamic to energise the city through learning, arts, performance (WAAPA), emerging technology and industry engagement.

With the recent publication of Campus, a comprehensive survey of the Australian university campus edited by Andrew Saniga and Robert Freestone that outlines these core spatial typologies, we thought it was a choice moment to reflect on the work that ASPECT has been involved in over the last few years.

Macquarie University Brett Boardman 02
Macquarie University Central Courtyard Precinct
The courtyard campus
Macquarie University Central Courtyard Precinct
Macquarie University Central Courtyard Precinct – Sydney
Constituting a major revision of the idea of the campus itself, this project cracked open a cloistered campus and opened it to both the natural landscape and the suburban fabric. ASPECT Studios Senior Associate Natalie Burnuetz said the focus was on “really connecting to a broader precinct,” by opening the interior of the university to its surrounds, complementing the development of a nearby train station and retail centre.

The design tussles with the idea of the campus as a distinct space. “It’s not a separate education precinct,” Burnuetz said. “Part of that was the result of bringing in residential into the inner heart of the campus, positioning it next to cafes and events spaces and places to learn – and, of course, the university buildings themselves.”

The heart of the project is the reworked Central Courtyard, a major public space that provides an alternative vision of what the campus can be – something closer to nature and the community. The courtyard has been thoughtfully assembled to act as the natural staging ground for all manner of activities. The shift in focus represented here isn’t limited to remote learning – it reflects an attention to wellbeing, an emphasis on ecological guardianship, and an awareness that a move toward more fluid work practices requires spaces that collapse boundaries between uses.

The existing campus already had an impressive, bush-oriented design pedigree, which was defined by a collection of modernist and brutalist buildings arranged in a rolling, picturesque landscape. That original vision had become murky in the decades since its initial conception, and part of ASPECT’s response was to emphasise what was already there. A careful arrangement of courtyards, trees and other points of interest form a diagrid that echoes the original plan for the campus laid out in the 1960s by architect-planner Wally Abraham.

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Boola Katijin, Murdoch University
The bush campus
Boola Katijin, Murdoch University – Perth, with Lyons Architects, with Officer Woods, The Fulcrum Agency and Silver Thomas Hanley
This project saw the architecture of the new building and the landscape working in tandem to reinforce a uniquely Western Australian “bush campus,” where the endemic landscape character is celebrated as an integral component of the campus identity, experience, and structure.

The project respects the principles established in the original campus design, which was conceived by preeminent landscape architect Marion Blackwell and architect Gus Ferguson. As ASPECT Studios’ Studio Director Michael Rowlands explained, Blackwell insisted that Murdoch should depart from a European tradition of campus landscape expression and reflect a uniquely local context and be “about Perth and Perth landscapes.”

The project embraces Marion’s original philosophy by reinforcing the significance of Banksia Court as a defining open space within the campus. Banksia court is framed along its eastern edge by the alignment of the new building and a new promenade that connects into the heart of the campus. The buildings teaching spaces are physically and visually stitched into the surrounding landscape allowing informal learning, recreation, and leisure to spill out and activate the length of the building.

Produced by a unique collaborative design team that included multiple architects led by Lyons, the landscape design works in every dimension to reinforce the design objectives of the building, by creating a sense of place using native species. A new pedestrian spine was created, with a north-south promenade that forges a new gateway to the campus, while unabashedly making the surrounding bushland the defining aesthetic feature.

Edith Cowan University
The city campus
Edith Cowan University – Perth
By some measures the largest education project currently being undertaken in Australia, the development of Edith Cowan University’s reflects the changing understanding of what the campus and the city can contribute to one another. Positioned at the primary junction between Perth’s CBD and the cultural and entertainment centre of Northbridge, it is envisaged that the vertical campus will be a much needed activator to enliven the city centre. Working within the constraints of a vertical campus arrangement a landscape strategy informed by Richard Walley’s (whadjuk noongar) cultural narrative infused throughout the architecture to create breakout spaces, informal learning and wellness gardens throughout.

Located in close proximity to other urban regeneration projects, like Elizabeth Quay and Yagan Square, the new campus will support a community of over 11,000 students and staff.
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University of Melbourne Student Precinct – Melbourne, with Lyons, Koning Eizenberg Architects, Breathe Architecture, NMBW Architecture Studio, Greenaway Architects, Glas Urban, Architects EAT
The new Student Precinct has transformed the on-campus student experience at the University of Melbourne by delivering a collection of sophisticated indoor and outdoor spaces that attend to the needs of a diverse student body.

By designing in relation to the existing heritage and modernists buildings and landscapes that flank the precinct, the history of the university is sharpened and brought into focus. The result is a vibrant centre of activity that locates student services and activities closer to the heart of the campus, and to primary transport links.

“This is really a project about working with our collaborators to expand thinking – both about education and about what the campus itself can be,” said Kirsten Bauer, Director of ASPECT Studios.

230222 Uo M NSP 6775

ASPECT Studios led the design of the public realm and landscape with GLAS Urban landscape architects, in collaboration with the architectural team, university stakeholders and its First Nations community. The First Nations Engagement strategy was produced through consultation with over 130 stakeholders, with the goal of ensuring that the project stimulated cultural understanding between non-Indigenous and First Nations people. This was conceptually realised in the dual ideas of the “Welcome Terrain” and “Water Story”.

The first involved the removal of decking and other artificial surfaces, allowing for the creation of a wide, “on-ground” pathway hewn from local stone. The “Water Story” involved the reconstruction of the lost Bouverie Creek that once ran across the site, giving physical form to eel migration paths. In both instances, these concepts involved the removal of colonial obstructions, and the unearthing of Indigenous narratives and culture.

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A range of economic and cultural factors – to say nothing of COVID-19 – have propelled universities to forge different kinds of connections with both students and the broader community. As designers, we have extended this beyond the academic sphere to a commitment repair and enhance relationships between the campus and the landscape in which it is enmeshed. The contemporary multi-institution campus, often situated in collaboration with private and public partners, necessitates a dynamic and collaborative environment. The campus serves as a nexus for the intersection of knowledge, academic pursuits, and on-campus life, all within the backdrop of a shifting educational and cultural context.

As universities navigate a complex field of challenges, landscape architecture and design have helped to redefine their role as dynamic hubs in the evolving fabric of urban life.