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Vertical learning.

Designer Lisa Horton reminisces on Morwell Park Primary, benefits of good design & the sites she'd revitalise.

Nov 8, 2017

Words: Gippslandia

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Do you remember the space you sat in while reciting the timetables? Was it an old timber schoolhouse, a bland brick box or maybe a trusty demountable building, placed on-site until enough funding came through?

Coming from The Boulevard in Morwell, Lisa Horton now designs and facilitates the creation of Australia’s next generation of schools with the leading design practice, Hayball. In winning two awards at the 2016 World Architecture Festival for Australia’s first vertical school in South Melbourne, Hayball and Lisa are improving the quality of education through more considered spaces. Lisa kindly chatted with us, reminiscing on Morwell Park Primary, explaining the benefits of good design and sharing the Gippsland sites she’d most like to revitalise.

Can you please describe growing up in Gippsland? What are some of your favourite memories of the region?

Having just moved house, I’ve been reminiscing and laughing over old photos from time in Gippsland. I spent the first 21 years of my life living in the same house in The Boulevard, Morwell. I look back on those years and feel incredibly lucky to have grown up in a neighbourhood where families knew each other and the kids played together, often down by the creek behind our houses. With just my sister and I, we’re a pretty small family. Luckily for us, we grew up with our neighbours, the Collins, for almost all of those 21 years. They were our first friends and are still friends today, despite the different paths we’ve all taken along the way.

I went to the local primary school, Morwell Park. Knowing what I know now, I have the realisation that I had some incredible teachers who instilled a real belief that I could achieve anything. I still remember so much of Grade 5 & 6, with my amazing teachers, Mrs May and Mr Credlin, who did so much to connect our learning to the real world, making it engaging and authentic.

Following my sister’s footsteps, I went to the Catholic Regional College in Traralgon, sadly leaving most of my primary school friends. I found high school a little more challenging! Whilst I always did reasonably well, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do afterwards, so I think that made it hard to really love what I was doing. I made some great friends and had a lot of fun, mostly on the M5 bus trips to and from Morwell every day!

I have so many great memories of the Gippsland region, but I think what really stands out is the diversity of the environment, both natural and built. Each town in Gippsland has its own unique character, and with family and friends in Morwell, Churchill, Yinnar, Moe, Driffield, Sale and Traralgon, there was always somewhere new to explore. Weekends and holidays were spent riding motorbikes and catching yabbies’ on the farm in Driffield, fishing off Port Welshpool or Lakes Entrance, riding bikes and go-karting at the track in Morwell – good times! As I got older (and got my license) there were loads of road trips and many lazy summer afternoons at the Mirboo North pool – still one of the best outdoor pools I’ve ever found.

What was your introduction to interior design and architecture? Where did you pursue your studies?

My first memory of encountering architecture was when I was in my late primary school years. My Dad would be working through sets of architectural drawings, pricing the windows and doors, and creating technical shop drawings for them by hand. I was fascinated by the drawings, but also by the triangular scale ruler and mechanical pencil. There was something about the precision, the detail and figuring out how things went together that really drew me in. I spent many hours in the shed building things with Dad, although I’m not sure I was actually of much help at the time!

I pursued drawing through high school, particularly graphic communication, but let it go before VCE (something I still regret today), leaving me with a bit of a question mark over what I wanted to do. My family opened a small retail store in Morwell and through that process, I really got to engage with design, drawing and making again. I then enrolled to study a Certificate of Interior Design and Decoration at Central Gippsland Institute of TAFE (now Federation Training), where classes were held in buildings shared with the workshops for different trades. This fuelled my curiosity for design and construction even further.

Halfway through my TAFE course, I wanted more of the architectural side of design and I really wrestled with my next step. A friend at Monash Uni in Churchill mentioned a new course being offered at the Caulfield Campus, a Bachelor of Interior Architecture – reading the course description, I knew it was for me. Four years of study, bridging the traditional architectural and interior design degrees, to produce graduates specialising in the architecture of interior space, both technical and experiential – I was hooked.

Moving away from home was occasionally challenging with moments where it felt all too hard - but graduating in 2006 (eight years after finishing high school) is still one of my most memorable moments. The course was tough, but the experience that I had gained at TAFE was invaluable. We covered basic drawing skills, presentation techniques, technical and construction knowledge, all integrated into design studios and projects. I honestly don’t think there could’ve been a better preparation. Uni not only gave me a solid base for the design industry, but also a fantastic network of like-minded, creative people across multiple design disciplines, many of whom have become friends, colleagues and mentors over the last 11 years.

You’ve been involved with the design of educational facilities; can you explain what a well-designed school entails? How can the design of school spaces stimulate learning?

Australian schools are moving away from industrial era school model of lock-step learning (students all learn the same thing at the same time and pace) to a more collaborative process that caters for individual students’ abilities and interests and emphasises a more collaborative process that creates new knowledge and ideas. With more research being done to understand how we learn, a new type of school has become necessary.

Schools can no longer be supporting a single mode of operation. Instead, they must provide multiple modes of working and organising people, simultaneously. It’s a significant challenge, but one that provides incredible opportunity to create spaces that can really impact on a student’s experience. Designing in this way requires a deep understanding of a school’s culture, community, teaching and learning models. Hence, we often immerse ourselves into the schools we are working with to really understand the learning communities.

Whilst space can make a difference to a student’s learning, it can’t do it alone. The real magic happens when you combine great people and practice with diverse and purposeful learning spaces that support and work with the values of the school community.

Can you please describe the award-winning South Melbourne vertical school project? What are the benefits of the verticality? What were some of the design innovations that made the project so notable?

The new government primary school in South Melbourne has been an incredible project. Opening in January 2018, it’ll be home to 525 primary school students and 44 children in an early learning centre integrated within the school building. The project brief was really progressive, describing the aspiration to create an education facility for the whole Fisherman’s Bend community, not just the primary school children and their families. In an area of high-density living, the school provides community spaces not otherwise readily available.

Community function and meeting rooms, library spaces, a café, maternal and child health care facilities along with the early learning centre really provide a birth to Year Six facility. The small site has been maximized to create a large public forecourt, which connects the school outdoor play spaces with neighbouring community green spaces. Being unfenced, the open outdoor areas will be accessible to the community, strengthening the concept of the school as a community cultural centre.

It’s the first of five vertical State Government schools that respond to the changing demographics of the city and inner urban areas, and the increasing education demand. The challenge of designing schools is to deliver the complex and ambitious brief of a contemporary school, within the constraints of a very compact site.

Key to the development of South Melbourne Primary has been ensuring that students have access to the same experiences and opportunities those with larger sites in the suburbs. The project has reconceptualised the way a school can be organised, by providing four scales of operation. The first is the idea of a home base, which is a more standard group of 25 students and one teacher. There are three home bases in a learning neighbourhood (i.e., 75 students with three teachers) and two learning neighbourhoods connect to create a learning community. Each floor of the building supports a learning community with the central piazza space connecting the communities together to create the school. The group sizes are derived from long-standing theories about how people interact and the amount of meaningful connections an individual can maintain. When you combine educational and social theory with architectural design, the outcome cannot be anything, but a really exciting space to be working in!

Gippslandia #4 - People - Lisa Horton

Have you seen architectural/design projects in Gippsland that have inspired you? What do you think the region is doing well?

There has been some really interesting work happening in Gippsland over the last few years, mainly focusing on community and cultural facilities. The recently completed Frank Bartlett Memorial Library in Moe is a great example and seeing the project receive a commendation in this year’s Victorian Architecture Awards was really exciting.

As a student, I worked part-time for Philip Harmer Architects, who were then completing the Wellington Entertainment Centre in Sale. My experience there really enhanced my understanding of how space and place can impact people and the important role it plays in bringing people together. Every element contributes to creating memorable places for people and the process of how Gippsland is now making new places, and revitalise old ones, is generally amazing.

Recently, I’ve been really excited by the regeneration of some of the older buildings in Gippsland’s town centres. Seeing buildings restored, with new life and purpose, while retaining their history, is becoming a real strength of the region. Places like The 3844 in Traralgon and The Courthouse in Warragul are great examples. They show how the region is evolving and looking for greater diversity, unique character and quality experiences.

If there were one Gippsland space that you would love to redesign, renovate or re-engage, what would it be?

There are quite a few places I’ve dreamt of working on, but right now, it’s hard to go past the Hazelwood Power Station and Open Cut Mine. Given the history of the Valley, the power station’s closure is a significant moment for our region and it feels like all eyes are on the site, watching and waiting for an announcement. I’d love to see a huge scale redevelopment of the entire precinct – one that creates the sustainable future it deserves. It’d be a massive undertaking, but could really shape the future of the Valley and showcase us to the state and beyond!

On a smaller scale, I’ve long dreamed of playing a role in any kind of redevelopment or refurbishment at Morwell Park Primary School. I’ve been a specialist in the area of Educational Environments for almost a decade and I’d love the chance to work alongside the educators, students and parents of my old primary school. I have such pride of place and would love to be able to give something back to the communities that shaped me.

How do you see interior design and architecture progressing in the future? How will our schools and public spaces look in 5 -10 years time, and how will we engage with them?

The way we engage with our community and public spaces is changing and I think it’s for the better. Recently, it seemed everyone was fixated with what technology could do for us, and whilst that is true, I don’t believe that technology can build sustainable communities alone. Architecture and interior design are about creating places for people, enhancing the way they live, work, learn and interact. Hence, I think we’ll continue the shift towards a more community-focused architecture, which is widely accessible and highly engaging.

What are your design goals now?

Whilst all areas of design are of interest to me, I plan to continue with my specialisation in education environments as I really believe in the power of education to create real change in communities, helping break cycles of disadvantage and inequity. I’m passionate about creating inspiring learning spaces for people, whether in schools, museums, galleries, libraries or other community facilities.

Could you please provide some advice to others that wish to pursue a career in design?

The best piece of advice I’ve been given in my career so far was a lecturer at the university, who encouraged me to stop with “all the doing” and to learn to sit with an idea for a while. I can honestly say when I’m on a deadline it can be terrifying, but over the years I’ve come to really understand the value in what he was asking me to do.

The creative process can’t be easily forced – it’s a process! Developing and learning to trust your own process - and that of those you are working with - is key.

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