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Creating a village of the arts

11 May 2017

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As has been the trend over recent years, more exciting transformations are currently unfolding at the University of Melbournes’ Southbank Campus home to the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and soon the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM). To gain a deeper insight into its current projects, we sat down with Dean of the Faculty of the VCA and MCM Prof Barry Conyngham.

Prof Conyngham said: “The big picture as I put it is that we’re kind of a building site at the moment, which is both exciting and challenging just because we’ve still got 1600 students and staff trying to do their jobs here.”

In many ways the VCA represents the epicentre of Southbank’s thriving Arts Precinct. Not only does its produce some of the best and brightest of Australia’s future artistic talent, it does so right in the heart of the precinct.

Once home to the Victoria Police Depot, as well as a range of industries, including a postal workshop and a radio-manufacturing warehouse, the VCA’s buildings are a reflection of Southbank’s diverse historical past.

Since occupying the site since the 1970s, the VCA has been no stranger to transformation. A good example was the conversion of the old police hospital on Southbank Boulevard to offices in 2015.

However, Prof Conyngham explained that, while the need to modernise for the sake of enhancing education was always the primary rationale, increasingly important was also the need to embrace the local community and the wider public.

“The philosophy of all of the development going on is this notion of being public and being a village and the architects have been good at responding to that,” he said.

“I think what’s been done in the thin alleys in the CBD is fantastic and I think there are very few cities that have similar appeal. What they’ve done in Melbourne is recover the sense of being a city of pedestrians.”

While having received a great deal of philanthropic support, the University of Melbourne has invested close to $200 million of its own money towards three exciting projects that will help realise this vision.  

The Michael Buxton Centre for Contemporary Arts (MBCOCA)

Currently under construction at the corner of Southbank Boulevard and Dodds St, Prof Conyngham described the new gallery as an “extraordinary gift”.

The result of a $26 million donation from Melbourne property developer, philanthropist and collector Michael Buxton, the gallery will house Mr Buxton’s private Australian contemporary art collection.

His collection includes works from some of our country’s most significant artists such as Howard Arkley, Ricky Swallow, Tracy Moffat, Patricia Piccinini, Emily Floyd and Bill Henson.

And not only that, the works will be housed in a brand new state-of-the-art gallery, creating a link between the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts (ACCA).

“It will bring us a high-level intense Australian visual arts facility that will have a great impact on our visual arts students,” Prof Conyngham said.

“Because it will be a part of our campus, it will be very much reflected in the students using the collection and using some of the lessons that come from that it will be very important.”

“I would think for us there will be some considerable research and writing about art and we will be interacting a lot with that.”


The Mounted Branch Police Stables (featured image)

Home to Victoria Police’s horses and riding school since 1912, the site only changed hands to the Faculty  with the help of the State Government at the beginning of 2016 when the horses were relocated to Attwood.  

And while Prof Conyngham admitted there was some sadness surrounding the departure of the horses, he said the idea of sharing an arts school with a stable as “a bit crazy!”

While heritage controls have presented some significant challenges for architects, the $42.5 million transformation will ensure the heritage value of the stables is protected while creating a multi-purpose space.  

What was formerly the dressage area will contain a sprung floor for dance, movable seating for performance and flexible spaces for rehearsals and exhibitions, while the hexagonal atrium will be transformed into a central meeting place.  

“I keep making jokes that it will become a bit of a tourist attraction because it’s been very cleverly designed,” Prof Conyngham said.

“Where you put a horse, it’s not totally ridiculous to think you can also put a visual artist, painters or drawers. There will be a lot of graduate students in there so the horse stall becomes a small studio. How they looked will remain and that’s been very much the architectural challenge of the whole project.”


The Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM)

Perhaps the most exciting project of the lot, the new Melbourne Conservatorium of Music will see the construction of a brand new $104.5 million building on Sturt St.

Having been located at Melba Hall in Parkville since 1914, the MCM has long outgrown its current home and Prof Conyngham said the need for a new conservatorium had been earmarked for some time.

The world-class conservatorium will feature 10-storeys of soundproof rehearsal, performance and teaching spaces and is highlighted by an overhanging 400-seat auditorium that will be available for a range of uses.

“There isn’t a music space of that size in the precinct. We don’t regard this as a concert hall only. In fact, it’s more of a teaching space for us,” Prof Conyngham said.

“This will be used as much for lectures and rehearsals as it will be for performances but, boy, it will used for a lot of performances.”

Another exciting aspect to the MCM building is that underneath the overhanging auditorium, a new public linear park will connect Sturt St to Dodds St.

In conjunction with the City of Melbourne’s transformation of Southbank Boulevard and Dodds St, Prof Conyngham said it represented exciting times for the campus, the Arts Precinct and the Southbank community.

“It’s fantastic timing,” he said. “The bit of Dodds St that dissects the campus will become a street full of action and pop-ups. The whole place is going to be really buzzing.”

“The idea of Melbourne being a people city, which seems to be one of the things that’s causing that attraction and growth this is just another part of that puzzle.”

The Buxton Gallery and new look Mounted Branch will be open for use in 2018, while the MCM will commence its first classes in 2019.

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