Graduate focus: Award-winning alumna designs college’s future

For architect and Bethlehem Catholic College Ashfield alumna Rachel Neeson, re-designing her former high school has felt a bit like re-modelling the family home.

“It’s been a huge privilege,” she said of the project, which her firm Neeson Murcutt has been working on since 2016.

“When they’ve given you so much, it’s great when you’re able to augment their lives through the skills you’ve learned as a professional.”

She remembers the school as inclusive and multicultural, a place where students were straight-forward and honest and teachers were encouraging. When she came back to meet with Principal Paula Bounds to discuss what was then only a potential project, she realised the community hadn’t changed.

“They take girls who are refugees, and they run extension streams for kids who need that in their learning,” Ms Neeson said. “The school’s community has such a wonderful, warm heart – much of this project was about finding a physical heart for the school that matched it.”

A big garden space in the middle of the grounds will provide the school’s new emotional centre, and a large spine will connect previously disconnected buildings, creating a campus that feels united.

Removing an older building has allowed for new, refreshed classrooms and a view of the heritage church across the road – a visual reminder of the college’s values and spirituality.

“And the last thing we’re doing now is we’re moving the library to the front of the school in one of the heritage buildings,” Rachel explained “so it’s a threshold between the public face of the school and the heart of the learning spaces.”

I had a fantastic art teacher. He introduced me to architecture in classes.

The school’s art and music rooms have also been refreshed, allowing Rachel to utilise her skills in the very spaces where she first chose architecture as a future career after a short-lived period wanting to become a scientist.

“I had a fantastic art teacher. He introduced me to architecture in classes, so it was really from Year 8 that I thought it might be for me.”

“It’s a profession where you need to know a little bit about a lot of things, and you’re tapping into your intuition as strongly and as regularly as you tap into your rational mind.”

Ex-Student Rachel Neeson

Ms Neeson has enjoyed incredible success in her chosen profession. Her firm, Neeson Murcott, started in 2004 with her late husband, has won the Australian Institute of Architects’ New South Wales Wilkinson Award and the Robin Boyd Award, and has re-designed a number of well-known Sydney buildings.

The firm has also worked renovated several Sydney Catholic schools, including Columba’s Catholic Primary School Leichhardt North. Ms Neeson said that while it’s always difficult for a school to weather a construction process, they’re some of her most rewarding projects.

“Bethlehem had an open day for prospective parents and some of the older alumnae to open up part of the garden playground space to the kids. I have this beautiful email from Paula, who said ‘if you could see the looks on the girls’ faces when they saw it…’

“That’s the fantastic thing when you’re working with Sydney Catholic Schools – at the end of the day it always comes back to what’s best for the kids.”

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