The adaptive re-use of this major piece of Melbourne’s civic infrastructure demonstrates how the combination of radical interventions and careful conservation can yield new life from past forms to play a vital role in the future of our city.
The Former Mounted Police Stables and Former Riding School have been transformed to VCA’s School of Art. Once home of the horse is now home of 150 under- and post-graduate students. One of the largest metropolitan stables, this heritage-listed building is significant for its police use and distinguished by cellular organisation of its stalls, sublime repetition of structure and light-filled volumes by way of clerestory windows. Its bones formed an ideal fit with the university’s need for studios and a performing arts space.
An urban cornerstone of the university’s Southbank campus, the distinctive form of the octagon marks the intersection of Dodds and Grant Streets. It hinges the two wings of the facility into a v-formation to create the southern end of the central courtyard. The Dodd Street wing – former stables – is dedicated to studios and the Grant Street wing – former riding school – to performing arts space. It’s linked with the existing Grant Street theatre via a new steel canopy. The ground floor of the octagon forms the ceremonial entry and access to both wings and the campus courtyard. Exploiting its geometry, it can be divided into seminar, exhibition and event spaces as required through a series of sliding panels.
At first floor it accommodates staff offices, seminar rooms and a central conference room distinguished by the now-revealed original steel frame supporting the clerestory. An oculus through the conference table frames this remarkable structure from the entry below.
While there was ease of fit between original and new uses, the transformation required the full spectrum of interventions to the heritage fabric, particularly in the stables wing: from careful conservation and restoration works in the ‘heritage slice’ of existing floor surfaces and stall fronts, to dramatic change in the sectional qualities accommodating the brief.
The original double-storey central void was partly in-filled to yield additional floor area to accommodate upper level studio spaces and align these with higher ceiling and access to natural light through the clerestory windows. A series of smaller voids maintain the legibility of the original space. Circulation is relegated to the perimeter. An upturn of the floor adjacent to the external wall solves height clearance and creates a portfolio display shelf and breakout areas. Designed to operate day-to-day as studio space and regularly as exhibition space, new studio partitions – sliding and side hung – enable the school to safely and easily shift between these primary modes of use.
New works including lighting and structure reinforce the rhythm and formality of the original fabric but are materially and tectonically distinguishable.
A significant challenge was integrating building services. By locating much of the plant, including the lift within a series of brick-faced panel urban blocks, the original heritage fabric was least disturbed and place-making opportunities for the courtyard were created.