Architect - Simon Thornton
Simon’s first major project at the college was the challenge of rethinking the area occupied by relocatable classrooms. The rooms themselves were upgraded from dilapidated wooden single rooms to double portables. He tackled the daunting question of how to make these lightweight, temporary structures feel part of the school and add to the visual appeal of the site. His team carefully re-positioned the rooms to form courtyards and protected spaces. He introduced broad walkways to provide shelter and link the rooms to one another and to the permanent buildings. At the same time he used the buildings to block the ever present north wind and so make the area more pleasant for those using the spaces.
From there Simon’s attention turned to the northern quadrangle between A & B Blocks where a bleak rectangle of asphalt was transformed into a welcoming and attractive centre of the school.
Simon and his team tackled some of the practical problems resulting from decades of inadequate maintenance during major maintenance late in 1990s. Both main buildings were re-blocked, electrics and plumbing were repaired, windows replaced and floor coverings renewed. The college council commissioned Simon to develop a master plan for the future development of the site. Simon worked closely with staff, students and the council in analysing what existed and in detailing what needed to be added if the college was to support its teaching program and provide a learning environment appropriate for the twenty first century. He identified significant shortfalls in what existed compared with the college’s entitlement and set about the task of incorporating new facilities into an overall scheme for the site.
So great was the magnitude of the work that it had to be approached in three stages.
Stage 1 involved the construction of the technology wing, the theatrette, the cafeteria and the three art classrooms at the end of B corridor. Simon distributed the design task between himself and two other architects in his firm. He designed the technology wing, Mirjana Lozanovska the theatrette and arts area while Dianne Peacock concentrated on the cafeteria. Simon believes this approach worked well – the buildings “are different from each other but they have similarities due to a similarity of thought amongst the architects. And they have a similarity due to the choice of materials which are chosen for economy and maintenance properties.”
Attention then turned to Stage 2. This stage saw construction of the gymnasium and the science classrooms at the north end of A corridor as well as the conversion of the old hall into a music and drama centre. During this demanding period Simon’s team were overseeing construction of one large scale building program whilst designing another.
Stage 3 was less intensive as it principally involved the renovation of B corridor including the building of new toilets, offices and locker bays. Simon’s involvement with the school has continued through to today with renovation of the library and science rooms, re-design of the drama space and development of the VCE study area.
The original buildings of the college were light timber construction, the sort of building common in Victoria from the 1950s and 1960s. Simon respects these buildings and considers them well designed in terms of light. The building style is essentially modernist. When it came to new works Simon felt that “It is not possible to think in a modernist way at this point in time … I began to practice architecture in the post modern period so I probably have a broader approach. I am happy to take ideas from many different sources, not just historical but contemporary as well. I like to show analogies between ideas that you might find in literature, poetry or music and use these ideas to help shape things. When you look around the school you will see quite a number of interesting, perhaps, inexplicable shapes. Generally speaking they have been derived from some other source. It is not essential to someone enjoying the building that they know what the source was … people approach buildings from their own perspective.”
Conservation is important to Simon. He considers we should “construct buildings that are going to be there for a long time so that you only expend the energy wasted in construction once.” With the school, rather than demolishing what he considers to be generally good buildings in need of tender loving care the money would be better spent on solar collectors, shading, heating and other environmentally sustainable features. For this reason Simon preserved as many of the school’s original buildings as possible in his plans.
The grounds were designed by Kate Cullity. She and Simon collaborated closely so that the buildings and gardens would complement each other. As Simon recalls, they both “had a vision of interesting architecture set amongst high quality landscape architecture.”
Choice of the colours that line the College’s corridors and classrooms is an example of Simon’s sourcing ideas from art and literature. The colours are inspired by a nineteenth century painting, ‘The Raft of Medusa’, by Théodore Géricault. The painting’s colour scheme was employed for several years until, as Simon remembers, other architects in the firm “departed from that painting all together…[and]…because I like diversity and because I have a liberal attitude to authority I allowed those other kinds of colour schemes to come in.” Simon encouraged diversity throughout the school, in order to clearly “differentiate very different classroom wings from each other. So you go into one classroom and it’s a certain colour and you go into the next room and it’s a different colour…You really have a sense that you’re moving into a different space.” He estimates that more than 200 different colours have been used in the school.
Simon is pleased with the exhaustive use throughout the school of windows or glass, especially in corridors, even offices. He feels that “… this is an analogy with the concept of openness and transparency in process … I think it illustrates the lessening of authoritarianism in schools and the lessening of the gap between teacher and student.”
There have been major obstacles to Strathmore’s renovations. One significant problem facing any design is the unstable soil found across much of this site. This resulted in part from the re-aligning of the Moonee Ponds Creek which previously meandered across the site and was covered with fill in the 1960s. In order to reinforce buildings, before any construction could begin, large concrete supports had to be driven into the ground. With Simon’s buildings these supports have extended anywhere from half a metre to 12 metres below the surface.
Simon reflects upon being “in the very enviable position of an architect who’s been able to watch over the transformation of a neglected school…to a very beautiful environment.” For Simon it was an exciting prospect to lead such a transformation and the experience has been rewarding. But he is always quick to acknowledge the role other architects and designers have had on the project. He maintains that it is impossible for one person to tackle such a major project as so many different elements are needed to create “the jigsaw of Strathmore”, as he describes it.
This successful collaboration, led by Simon, was recognised by the Victorian Chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects for its work in the Stage 1 development. As Simon explains “we won an award for extensions to an existing institution/building…and the jury was very impressed with the process that I applied to the collaboration between myself and two other architects within our firm to produce a coherent project but a project with a lot of diversity and interest.” Simon’s team also won two awards for the gymnasium design, one from the Australian Institute of Steel Construction and one from the Victorian Association of Consulting Engineers.
Ultimately, what Simon has created at Strathmore Secondary College is an attractive, diverse and interesting educational environment.