Melbourne, Australia

Sean Godsell is a surprise. I'm expecting a rising rock star of an architect, a Melbourne Bjarke Ingels, with more success than he knows how to use. The man I find is almost the opposite'more in the mold of Glenn Murcutt, with a small, dedicated practice, an intense seriousness about the job, and a staunch devotion to making architecture from first principles.

Godsell's reputation, like Murcutt's, is bigger than his buildings, which are themselves remarkably Murcuttesque, with their orthogonal forms, underdressed materials, and attenuated plans. Mostly boxes, they range from Future Shack, the 1995 parasol-sheltered habitable shipping container that first put Godsell on the international stage, through a series of widely published steel-and-timber houses. They stand in contradistinction to the typical Melbourne shtick, which implies that architecture is a bit of a giggle and repeatedly reenacts Venturi with the multicolored, the stuck-on, the decorative. Godsell is undisturbed by this, saying, 'I'm happy to work in isolation.'

Why the box? All architects fear being boring, says Godsell. The box is just the hardest form to make interesting. What is no surprise is that Godsell's latest triumph, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) Design Hub, is yet another box (or rather two), writ tall.

Highly nuanced and spatially serene, this project works on several levels and scales. From a distance, at the clash of two street grids that marks one of Melbourne's messiest and least charming precincts, it reads as an exercise in cool self-possession: translucent, ordered, its glowing skin folded with loose precision, kimono-like, about a solid core.

Closer up, you notice that the skin on one box has nearly 16,250 sandblasted-glass discs, which can be used for applied solar research and one day may fuel the building. (For more on the façade, go to the Dynamic Facades CEU story.) Get even closer and you see that the discs become more opaque, their tessellation more dominant. The discs rotate (vertically on three walls, horizontally on the other) to reduce solar gain; when they do, the building becomes more textural, acquiring a reptilian scaliness.

Australian universities can be divided into those established long ago on their own sprawling campuses and Johnny-come-lately institutions that are more scattered but also more urban. The latter stand at the forefront of current commitments to urban reinvestment and community connectivity, a vogue on which RMIT wholeheartedly capitalizes.

Margaret Gardner, RMIT's vice chancellor and the primary client for the Design Hub, says she wanted a building that would unify the design disciplines across this most urban of campuses, providing flexible studio spaces (or 'warehouses') for transdisciplinary postgraduate research teams while drawing the life of the city in and through it.

It's a nice program and well fulfilled by Godsell's design, with its pair of boxes: an eight-story stack of flexible studio and exhibition spaces, and a two-story archives wing. A broad, caf'-lined pedestrian space ramps between the two buildings, linking the street at one end of the site to a forthcoming commercial development at the other.

Structurally, the tall building is pretty conventional, with steel-clad concrete columns supporting partly-post-tensioned floor slabs from which the facade is hung. The low archives wing offers a visual and structural counterpoint, with a set of rectilinear steel tubes slipped one inside the other.

In the tall box, each main floor has a vast 'warehouse' space for changing, project-based design teams and a parallel 'long room' that serves as circulation, exhibition, and gathering space. On top of the building, four steel-portal pavilions house seminar rooms that open onto a roof deck.

A glance at Godsell's oeuvre suggests a rationalist, Miesian approach. And Mies is certainly there. But less predictable influences can be seen too, in five 'tributes''to Shinohara, Corbusier, Palladio, Michelangelo, and Peter Corrigan.

Corrigan, father of Melbourne's Venturi-ism, taught Godsell and employed him briefly as a student (before the three years Godsell spent, more significantly, working in London with Denys Lasdun). The tribute takes the form of a wall-size supergraphic''MOTHER KNOWS''from a 1981 Corrigan artwork on a Melbourne tram.

The other tributes, being spatial, are more interesting. There's the door-within-a-door at one of the archives' entrances (Michelangelo's San Lorenzo Chapel), the archives' layered box front (Palladio's Il Redentore), the slender off-form columns in the main building's basement workshop and foyer (Corbu's Ahmedabad), and, most enchanting, the long, ruthless Shinohara stair that drops 29 feet in a slot 195 feet long and 6 feet wide that runs through the archives on the ground floor.

But one influence is the most surprising and entrancing of all'John Soane. At first glance, Soane's house in London seems to represent everything that Godsell's boxes preclude: complexity, darkness, symbolism, intrigue, romance. Yet Godsell says, 'There's a lot of Soane in this building.' He's right. The winding route, the choreographed glimpses (one spanning the length of the Shinohara stair), the use of darkness as a ground for light, the way delight is deployed to enrich commodity; pure Soane. If good architecture involves complexity that appears simple, minimalism that feels rich, and pragmatism fleshed out with beauty, then this is it.

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and the author of Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses; Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness; and Potential Difference.

Completion Date: July 2012

Gross square footage: 140,000 square feet

Total construction cost: Withheld

Sean Godsell Architects


Owner: RMIT University

Sean Godsell Architects

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Sean Godsell Architects
Sean Godsell (Registered Architect) FRAIA
Hayley Franklin (Registered Architect) AIA

Architect in Association (of record)
Peddle Thorp Architects
Chris Godsell (Registered Architect) AIA
James Hampton
Raf Nespola

Architect of record: Peddle Thorp Architects

Interior designer: Sean Godsell Architects

Structural: Felicetti Pty Ltd
Landscape: Sean Godsell Architects

Lighting: Services: Aecom Pty Ltd

Acoustical: Aecom

Mechanical, Electrical: Aecom

Quantity Surveyor: Davis Langdon Pty Ltdd

Project Manager: Aurecon Pty Ltdd

Façade contractor: Permasteelisa Group Pty Ltd

Accessibilty consultant: Architecture and Access (Aus.) Pty Ltdd

General contractor:
Base building: Watpac Ltd
Fit out: Brookfield Multiplex Australia

Photographer(s): Earl Carter Photography

CAD system, project management, or other software used: AutoCAD, Aconex



Structural system
Steel reinforced concrete columns
Post tensioned concrete slabs

Exterior cladding
Masonry: Boral Concrete block

Metal Panels:    
2mmZincalume sheet
Level 10 Pavilions: Umicore Group VM Zinc cladding Colour: ‘Anthracite’   

Double glazed inner skin, custom made galvanized steel window frames
Automated operable second skin shading device comprising 17,000 sandblasted glass disks supported on galvanized steel substructure

Off form concrete: Off form concrete, Class 2 finish

Moisture barrier: Volclay ‘Voltex’

Curtain wall: See Facade

Other cladding unique to this project: 30 x 3 galvanized steel grating: Rhino Grating

External paving:      
Cut bluestone, stainless steel control joints
100x100x50 ‘salt and pepper’ granite cobblestones

Tactile Indicators     
‘DTAC’ stainless steel tactile indicators

SW Drains
 ‘Aco’ slot drains

Lysaght ‘Kliplok’ Zincalume metal deck roofing

Metal frame:  
Custom galvanized steel frame windows to Architect’s detail
Thermally split mullions

Internal glass façade: Argon filled double glazed units 6-12-6
Building corners 10-12-10 double glazed units

Argon filled double glazed units 10-12-10

Ground floor entry doors: Frameless glazed external sliding doors, Dorma EL301 low profile automatic door operator

Metal doors:  
Custom galvanized steel frame doors to Architect’s detail.
Custom circular stainless steel cover plate to floor springs    
Sliding doors:
Exhibition Room entry doors: Frameless glazed external sliding door, Dorma EL301 low profile automatic door operator.

1200 x 8500 and 4200x3300 flush panel shop primed mdf cavity sliding entry doors

Fire-control doors, security grilles:
Flush panel shop primed fire rated doors.
Automated  hopper window

Special doors:
Level 10 Seminar Rooms: ‘Airport Doors’ bi-folding motorised door with VM Zinc lining inner and outer faces

‘Legge Pacific’ Hardware 

Glazed external doors: Dorma Low Profile Automatic Door Operator - Warehouse entry doors: IGS floor spring

Exit devices:  
Request to egress push buttons

‘Legge Pacific’ furniture

Security devices:     
Proximity card readers

Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings: 
Atkar ‘Audilux’ Perforated cement sheet with acoustic backing

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:  
Mdf factory applied paint finish to architect’s detail

Paints and stains:   
Dulux 101 Low Sheen PVA ‘Natural White’ Walls and Ceilings 

Wall coverings:    
Painted mural to Level 1 corridor

Wall cladding:
2mm perforated  Zincalume
30 x 3 galvanized steel grating : Rhino Grating
Boral Plasterboard

Special surfacing:   
Hot dip galvanized industrial grating utilised for wall and ceiling linings   

Floor and wall tile:     
Bathrooms: Circular mosaic tiles, supplier: Floortech

Resilient flooring:    
40mm granolithic topping screed, stainless steel control joints
2mm 100% rubber flooring, Colour: Black: Activa Rubber Flooring
Lecture Theatre: 4mm Hot dip galvanized mild steel perforated sheet
Door mats entry / entry flooring: 3M Nomad Scraper mat
Kitchen Areas: Forbo Surestep Vinyl Original 17199 Charcoal
7mm ‘Sussex’ loop pile carpet 100% wool : Godfrey Hirst

Raised flooring: 
Raised access floors: Tasman ‘Tascor’

Special interior finishes unique to this project:    
Floor boards and exterior deck (Level 10) Recycled tallowood, Howard’s Orange Tung Oil finish

Office furniture:   
Mobile office furniture including desks, shelving and filing units, custom made to detail. Fabricator: Jacaranda Industries

Fixed seating:      
Class 2 off form reinforced concrete to architect’s detail. Corian lecture theatre seating to architect’s detail: Fabricator Solidwerks

‘Miles’ conference chair – Schambugalvisse
Folding tables (Level 10) – Wilkhan
Workstation chairs – Stem Intelligent Seating
Stackable chairs

See office furniture

Interior ambient lighting: Warehouse spaces and Longrooms: Surface mounted linear extrusions, incorporating emergency and exit lights, smoke detectors, motion detectors and fluorescent lighting.

Typical floors: Custom recessed extrusions housing Reggiani Axel fluorescent downlights, movement sensors, security cameras, sprinklers and fire alarms
Custom suspended lighting track, housing Reggiani Zagra flood lights
Exhibition Room 1: Low voltage track mounted Erco Emonon spot lights

Task lighting:   Artemide ‘Tolomeo’ desk reading light

Exterior: Lumascape ‘Vedi Mini’ in ground LED external uplights

Dimming System or other lighting controls: DALI lighting control system

Elevators: Schindler Australia Pty Ltd

Water closet: Caroma Leda
DDA water closet: Caroma Invisi
Cistern: Caroma Water Wafer MK3
Urinal: Caroma Cube 0.8 litre
Hand basin: Caroma Flora500
Drinking fountain: RBA stainless steel floor mounted wall fixed fountain
Hand basin taps: Enware 1000 series
Kitchen taps: Scala sink mixer

Hand dryer: JDMcDonald recessed stainless steel paper towel/dryer
Boiling water unit: Whelan Industries thermal tap
Dishwasher: Intergrated single drawer Fisher & Paykel
Refrigerator: Intergrated under bench bar refrigerator LG
Zanussi PT3 Series glass door refrigerator
Oven/Cooktop: Zanussi Snack 600 oven and cooktop
Rangehood: Zanussi Master M-line
Refrigerator: Zanussi PT3
Dish washer: Zanussi LS-5 undercounter stainless steel dishwasher

Energy management or building automation system:
All mechanical services + Façade automation are driven by a centralized computer controlled building management system
Ambient light is sensor controlled
The building facade incorporates solar power infrastructure
Black, grey and rainwater harvesting / recycling
Fresh air intakes to habitable spaces

Photovoltaic system: The outer skin of the Hub incorporates automated glass sun shading cells that include solar power infrastructure and fresh air intakes that improve the internal air quality and reduce running costs.

Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
Bicycle Victoria ‘Ned Kelly’ bike racks

Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project:
Signage: Designed by Sean Godsell Architects