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Challenges of Adaptation: From Collingwood TAFE to Circus Oz 

While the Burra Charter in relation to conservation works invites us to ‘do as much as is necessary and as little as possible’, the development dictum sometimes appears to be ‘keep as little as is necessary and demolish as much as possible’. Our challenge as architects working with heritage buildings and sites is how to avoid the banality of the latter approach and achieve a positive outcome for both the building owners and the community by integrating new works with an existing building fabric.

Creating Arts Victoria’s new home for Circus Oz on the former Collingwood TAFE site was an opportunity for us at Lovell Chen to explore the possibilities and potential of an existing site and complex of buildings. In the process we saw that we could deliver a project that could be a catalyst for the renewal of this inner city site earmarked for development by the State Government as an arts and educational precinct. The existing buildings, built in stages between 1913 and the late 1950s for the Education Department, were purpose-designed for teaching a variety of trade and vocational skills to support the various local light industries of this inner city working class neighbourhood. The complex comprised a series of interlinked single, two and three-storey blocks containing simple rudimentary industrial spaces separated by a series of courtyards, laneway and alleys, and providing an abundance of natural light throughout. Architectural pretension was reserved for the street frontages, most notably the 1938 Administration Building on Johnston Street, regarded as an exemplar of international Dudok Modernism.

Street View of 50 Perry Street, Collingwood, Before (2012) and After (2014).

Photograph: Trevor Mein

Internal view of Circus Oz building, 2014.

Photograph: Trevor Mein

Although as far removed from performance and circus big tops as possible, there was a natural synergy to be found between a performing arts company that champions and nurtures creativity, and buildings where creativity had been part of the curriculum. It was not lost on us that the move to Collingwood was also prompted by the inability of the Circus’s previous home, the former Post Office and adjoining Navy Drill Hall in Port Melbourne, to accommodate the needs of the growing company due to heritage and spatial limitations that restricted their ability.

Operationally, Circus Oz needed a range of diverse spaces including administration offices, green room, steelwork and carpentry workshop, industrial design studio, props store, set stores, costume store and workrooms, band rooms and music studios, and two rehearsal spaces that required an internal hight of 15 meters.

While in many respects a standalone heritage complex, the technical school buildings make an important contribution to the diverse heritage and built form of Collingwood, which includes modest housing from the Victorian and Edwardian periods alongside early pubs, commercial shopping strips and industrial buildings and complexes. Collingwood is an urban environment that is simultaneously robust and fine grained and one where the valued heritage and urban qualities are vulnerable to the effects of the consolidation of larger sites.  Retaining and working with the heritage buildings across the site (and not just at the street edge) helped to hold the fine grained and diverse urban character as well as maintain a sense of the history of the site and the locality more generally.

The starting point for the design was how the natural grain of the site could be maintained and enhanced by the insertion of these new functions, and allow the Circus as the first tenant on the site to define their corner of the complex and eventually connect and interact with a larger community in a neighbourly fashion through the continued development of the site.

The design concept emerged from an understanding that the best fit for the Circus would be spaces and buildings that allowed for change, growth and repurposing and that there was as much value in the original fabric as anything new we could build.  Circus Oz is a community of performers, designers, and administrators who come together to form the company, creating almost a mini-village.  This meshed well with our approach to maintaining and reinforcing the existing grain of building blocks separated by courtyards and alleys, selectively removing only those structures that could not accommodate the new programme.

The most critical new spaces were the rehearsal rooms located at the heart of the Circus operations and the new design, sitting within the footprint of the demolished buildings with their scale ameliorated by the retention of the encircling existing buildings.

We roofed over in-between spaces to link the old and the new creating a new street within the complex that stitched together the functional operations of the Circus. Retention of original windows along the new internal street enabled a permeability and connectivity across the site, supporting the company operations while enabling visitors to metaphorically peek behind the curtain and glimpse the creative processes at work.

The interventions into the existing buildings were focussed on bringing the spaces up to modern standards while allowing the original industrial character to be expressed and enjoyed. The ability for the occupants to control their environment and create their own space was an important part of the design, and this was achieved through the restoration of the original windows including making the hopper style ventilation operable.  The large floor plates were retained where possible to maximise the flexibility of use, with new service pods inserted at logical nodal points.  A conscious decision was made to locate key service and communal spaces along the central spine created by the internal street, linking the Perry Street entrance to the centre of the site.  These included entries to the rehearsal spaces, workshop, change rooms, the green room and educational spaces to create a naturally active spine reflecting the notion of a village within a village.

The two new performance and rehearsal spaces are entirely contemporary industrial structures built of steel and clad with Bondor panels.  They rise up through the centre of the building, encircled at high level by the administrative offices, creative team offices and green room with the performance related change rooms, props store and band room at floor level.  Tall windows punctuate all sides, connecting the rehearsal space visually to the spaces beyond, allowing all members of the company to connect with the creative process as each new show evolves. This single gesture captures the truly democratic nature of the company, acknowledging that everyone has a hand in the creative process.  The company have used the surfaces of the walls encircling the rehearsal spaces to put on show their history through a collage of posters and ephemera, stamping their personality and irreverent take on the world upon the built fabric.

The ‘long life, loose fit’ approach taken on this project extends to taking a proactive and integrated response to sustainability. Where possible the natural insulation and purge characteristics of the original buildings have been harnessed to produce a highly efficient but comfortable building that can respond to user requirements.

As the site develops and the remaining buildings are refurbished and redeveloped it is hoped that this initial approach to retain and work with the finer grain of the suburb and site can be sustained, demonstrating that sometimes ‘as little as possible’ garners a far more durable and interesting outcome.