Reimagining a campus
A massive building project at the heart of the historic Parkville site is enhancing the student experience. By Muriel Reddy.
The University of Melbourne is set to add a fresh chapter to its fabled history with the unveiling of a bold new student precinct. The $229 million project will revolutionise the way students experience life on campus. It represents a collision of two worlds, the old and the new, while creating connections between what has been, what is, and what is to come.
The precinct has been a long time in the making, and will take the next three-and-a-half years to complete. It will be – more than anything else – the product of a co-creative effort, with more than 4000 students already contributing to all aspects of its development, a very modern step for Victoria’s oldest university.
It will be located in what was formerly the Melbourne Teachers’ College cluster of buildings nestled in the southeast corner of the original Parkville campus, bounded by Monash Road (to the north), Swanston Street (east), Grattan Street (south) and the School of Engineering (west). The site makes sense for a grander student vision on two key fronts: it enjoys easy access to transport services, which will ultimately include the planned Parkville metro station, while recognising a population shift (40 per cent of students now study south of Grattan Street).
The new precinct will incorporate student services, mixed-use retail, restaurants and food and beverage outlets with extended opening hours, festivals and events, an arts and cultural centre and dynamic study spaces. It promises to be welcoming, colourful, light-filled and earthy – very much a home away from home for students.
It will also be a home that students themselves have been hands-on in shaping.
“The importance of the student voices in the decision-making along the line has been very powerful,” explains Paul Duldig, Head of University Services. “And that connection has also been a very powerful design principle for us.”
Enhancing connections has been central to the evolution of the new precinct. Students indicated they wanted a place where they could chill, find balance and reflect.
For a start, the levelling of the ground between key buildings within the precinct – the Alice Hoy, Frank Tate, 1888 and Sidney Myer Asia Centre, to name a few – will be key to achieving a more interactive space, and is set to commence before the year is out.
But students also wanted a haven where they could make friends, collaborate on projects, and belong to a community. Additionally, they wanted somewhere where they could experience something new, gain life skills and express themselves creatively.
“A lot of our students live in student accommodation,” says Duldig. “That can be an isolating experience for many of them. The big driver for this new development was to create a precinct that would enhance connections so that students felt less isolated and have access to greater levels of socialisation, particularly for students not originally from Melbourne.”
In the past 20 years alone, the University’s student population has doubled to more than
60,000. And while being ranked consistently among the leading universities in the world, its student cohort has found facilities for them (outside of their own faculties) less than inspiring.
“Our feedback from students suggested that while they think our heritage buildings and landscape are both impressive and beautiful, the campus facilities, social spaces and amenities beyond their own faculties were viewed as poor,” says Alex Kennedy, Project Lead for the new student precinct.
“We need an atmosphere that encourages both productivity and creativity. I want somewhere to create things, be a bit more artistic.” – Student feedback
Until now, all student activity has been centred on Union House, but time has finally caught up with the historically significant building. The expansive new precinct will reflect a new age, one that respects the past, celebrates the present, and maintains an agility to be relevant to future generations.
“The new precinct represents a lot of exciting possibilities, as well as a real opportunity for students to have a say about what happens to our campus and our spaces,” says Yan Zhuang, President of the University of Melbourne Student Union.
“It’s important for students to have spaces they can call their own, and that they feel ownership of,” she adds.
“We’d be eager to see spaces like those we currently have [around Union House] available to us in the new precinct, like the current site of our legendary Tuesday bands and BBQs, which is also home to a whole range of activities.”
Interestingly, the storyboard that most resonated with students for their home away from home was the one that centred on the ‘natural harmony’ mood. Their ideal aesthetic was naturalness, with elements of history and comfort. They felt it should be possible to keep the ‘prestige’ feeling of the campus while making significant upgrades.
The project team has been working hard to encourage student engagement with the precinct through a variety of initiatives, some of which are already in place. These include an outdoor gallery that provides a feature creative space for students not dissimilar to Melbourne’s creative laneway culture.
A recently-launched cargo bike, dubbed ‘The Unicycle’, has been designed to make sustainable on-campus catering and cooking easier. The initiative, led by student group Fair Food Challenge, provides food education, skills development and outreach programs for students, while encouraging staff and students to come together to cook, eat, share and connect.
Also, the aptly-named ‘Growroom’ is an immersive, spherical garden structure being built in collaboration with students across faculties. The 2.6 metre-high, edible garden has interior seating, making it an ideal place for students to meet and unwind amid the foliage.
Pedal power will be celebrated, too, through ‘Precinct Pedal Projections’, a custom-built projection bike that will bring stories and events to life through light, sound and film. It will have many applications, including projecting film onto a building – for example, screenings of recently digitised films from the Victorian College of Arts’ School of Film and Television Digital Archive – or creating audio-visual works of art.
The precinct will be timeless because of its agility. “Our fundamental goal is connection and how we achieve that will change over time,” explains Duldig. “You do not finish a project like this and then say, ‘this is it’. You keep listening and you keep collecting data. You keep surveying and you keep engagement ongoing.”
The students are talking and the University is listening. They want technology to be part of their precinct but only as an enabling force. Curiously, for a generation raised on social media, many students have suggested the establishment of ‘no internet’ zones within the precinct.
“There was a real desire for things that create connections with one another like a ping pong table and a piano,” says Kennedy.
Tyson Holloway-Clark (BA 2016), a former president of the UMSU and a member of the Student Precinct Project committee, believes the precinct will be “the most exceptional and largest evolution in student life” that the University of Melbourne has seen.
WHAT THE NEW PRECINCT OFFERS
- A richer campus experience for the University’s 60,000 students
- Co-located, student-led services
- Better food and retail offerings, and a host of special features
- A ‘feel-good’ environment allowing easier interactions
- A mix of open and some quieter spaces, with improved accessibility
- Key infrastructure upgrades
- Close proximity to key transport services, notably trams and Melbourne’s upcoming expanded underground rail network