In Sydney’s inner west, Neeson Murcutt and Neille has rejuvenated an historic school, linking a disjointed conglomeration of buildings and creating spaces for contemporary learning without losing the memory of previous built forms.
Any house – even a hut – you build embodies a history, that of its own building. For a public institution, the actual business of building may have a complicated backlog of debates and even quarrels that have shaped it. After it is built, time will alter and modify it, year by year. — Joseph Rykwert on David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum (2009) 1
The curious in-between ground that school buildings occupy is both private and public – and at the same time, neither. Perhaps the Latin words communicare (“to share”) and communitas (the “community” or “kinship” that develops among people experiencing a rite of passage, such as a school cohort) might best describe the state that binds a school together.
The campus of Bethlehem College, located in Ashfield in Sydney’s inner west, was a complex conglomeration of buildings that had been collected on the site since 1881, when the Sisters of Charity established a convent school here. Rachel Neeson, a former student of the school and now director of architecture practice Neeson Murcutt and Neille, was approached to reconsider the school – its communitas – which had become tangled and compromised by built additions made over the years. The campus lacked a meaningful centre and had become a series of well- meaning yet disconnected outtakes that provided little in the way of a cohesive school campus experience.
Sometimes you need to take something apart to understand how it works. Through a graphic analysis of both the existing built form and the landscape, Neeson Murcutt and Neille identified the plaques and ligatures that blocked and bound the potential of the campus and, in turn, recognised a strategy that would free it up and create a new arrangement grounded in the landscape.