Learning to love RMIT’s new wonder

Let me declare an interest up front. Sean Godsell is true to his name – a god who can sell – and deliver a unique architectural vision.

And so I wanted to love the RMIT Design Hub the moment it emerged from its scaffolding. But for so long (there were inevitable delays for such a complex building) I wondered if this great work wasn’t a personal folly, possibly an overly expensive experiment in technicalities.

Unlike RMIT’s New Academic Building, a mere block away, which engaged the public even in the building phase, the Design Hub had faced the public for many months as an icy impenetrable fortress. From behind the wrap of construction paraphernalia the building appeared un-embraceable, remote, a citadel in an other-wise relaxed and self-confessed hip city.

I wondered how I could learn to love this building. Would it have to be an exercise in intellectual appreciation? Far be it from me to take a critical pen to Sean Godsell’s work – I knew it had to be ‘excellent’.

The Lyons Architects project led by Carey Lyons, intentionally punches through the Academic building to actively invite the public in and offers its student clients gaping externally oriented spaces to enable peer to peer interaction.  Passersby initially looked on with dismay believing the builders were making a terrible botch of the whole building, assembling sliced off pieces of jagged metal against perfectly executed – if active – shapes. It was exciting to watch the assembly of such an uninterpretable facade. Now finished, you’d hardly be surprised if a pterodactyl settled in the upper storey cafe balcony. The interior too is cave like with luminescences of green and orange lighting your way in and around the spaces.

So there I was on the tram again (going to another Uni a little further up the hill) and I saw something new about the Design Hub. Call me unobservant – but perhaps it was the removal of the construction trappings which made me stop and see. Idiot – I say to self – Unbeliever.

Next morning, straight off the train and on foot to take a proper look and what bliss it was. This was an Uluru moment – being able to take in the whole perimeter of a building I had only really been able to consider at a distance. But before this little tour – what had I seen on the tram? On the ascending line of the footpath along Swanston St, each sand blasted disc and its casing is machined to diminish with the climb. The detail of the resolution between the base of the building and the street is perfection.

Like the stone cutters who had worked the heavy bluestone on (the remainder) of the adjacent CUB building to ascend with the slope, Godsell has meticulously made this statement. Why such amazement? Knowing what a complete struggle every millimetre can be even when building a simple box – this was really a moment to move from ambivalence to respect. Of course this is what an internationally renowned architect must do, but I realised he must have had to fight for the detail or have won over the most reverential client to do it.

So back to the Uluru sensation and going from respect to what I was hoping for – adulation. Being able to explore and engage with the exterior of this building, without having to get inside it, is absolutely intended. You have to look up and see it against the sky – you start to take in the texture of the building and then move with the fabric as it drops into new spaces off street level. Suddenly you’ve got too much happening in your head. The overwhelming acknowledgement that – not only does Godsell know his craft, but that both he and his group of dedicated apostles in building construction, have crafted the entire building as a sculptor would treat a single piece of precious stone – is a great moment for the agnostic.

More images and stories about the two RMIT buildings with the architects talking about their work are available here



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