Mum, I love it here. Do I have to go home?”

Schools today are very dif­fer­ent from what they were in 1886 when MLC was found­ed in Bur­wood, Sydney.

Rote learn­ing with chil­dren arranged in rows of desks fac­ing a teacher at a black­board have been replaced by flu­id envi­ron­ments where chil­dren are encour­aged to learn by direct expe­ri­ence and col­lab­o­ra­tion with others.

By the 1960s, the MLC School was out­grow­ing the sub­ur­ban block it was found­ed on. Res­i­den­tial sites were pur­chased on the oth­er side of Park Road to the east of the main cam­pus where a swim­ming pool and gym was built in the 1960s. In the 1970’s, a hock­ey field was built above a car park to the north. 

In 2003, a new Aquat­ic Cen­tre designed by Lipp­mann Part­ner­ship was com­plet­ed which replaced and expand­ed on the orig­i­nal out­door pool. Based on the suc­cess of the devel­op­ment, MLC approached Lipp­mann to review their mas­ter­plan with a view to design­ing a new junior school for 300 girls to the north of the hock­ey field to book end the aquat­ic cen­tre. This east­ern precinct of the school now bears Lippmann’s dis­tinc­tive stamp.

From the out­set, the direc­tion of the project was led by the then School Prin­ci­pal, Bar­bara Stone, an edu­ca­tion­al vision­ary. Stone was a pro­gres­sive edu­ca­tion­al advo­cate and at the fore­front of trans­for­ma­tion learning’.

She pro­vid­ed the brief and encour­age­ment for Lipp­mann to study the lit­er­a­ture and vis­it the town of Reg­gio Emil­ia in North­ern Italy. Here, he absorbed the ped­a­gog­i­cal con­cepts devel­oped by Loris Malaguzzi in the 1940s. Stone also impressed on Lipp­mann the role of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies and their rel­e­vance and impor­tance for young peo­ple liv­ing in a new age.

Stone cham­pi­oned the con­cept of learn­ing stu­dios’, rather than tra­di­tion­al class rooms’. The library’ was renamed an infor­ma­tion hub’ and the dread­ed sick room’ was renamed a well­ness cen­tre’. These terms became com­mon­place in schools in years to come but Stone’s rad­i­cal approach went con­sid­er­ably fur­ther. Unlike many schools who talked about trans­for­ma­tion learn­ing in a flex­i­ble envi­ron­ment, she chal­lenged Lipp­mann to dis­pense with inter­nal walls and cre­ate an envi­ron­ment where chil­dren could inter­act with one anoth­er in a more social con­text and one that would be high­ly stimulating.

The con­cept for the new school was a vil­lage for children.

An entrance for drop­ping off and pick­ing up, a piaz­za’ or pub­lic gath­er­ing space for chil­dren, par­ents and teach­ers to gath­er, an inter­nal street with stu­dios’ for learn­ing and play­ing to the north­ern side, and small­er spaces to the south for more inten­sive con­cen­tra­tion. Grow­ing up in this envi­ron­ment would pre­pare chil­dren for the big world to come, but they would be in con­trol of their destinies.

Lipp­mann deliv­ered the unen­cum­bered open stu­dios’ that Stone was advo­cat­ing, loose­ly defined by join­ery such as stu­dent lock­ers. Where walls were includ­ed, they are mere­ly slid­ing glass doors or oper­a­ble screens cov­ered in fab­ric for acoustic con­trol. In both cas­es, acoustic con­trol is avail­able, though rarely sought — the acoustic ceil­ing and car­pet­ed floors suf­fice. And rather than tra­di­tion­al school fur­ni­ture, such as desks ori­en­tat­ed to black­boards, there are a series of play­ful ele­ments, includ­ing vibrant oval-shaped rugs, referred to as mag­ic-car­pets’. Chil­dren can lie down or recline in bean­bags, couch­es and arm­chairs akin to a liv­ing room envi­ron­ment or use the more con­ven­tion­al tres­tle-style tables and chairs. 

The exter­nal land­scape was giv­en equal pri­or­i­ty with grass cov­ered mounds and out­door seat­ing (broad tim­ber stairs) cov­ered by shade struc­tures. The ubiq­ui­tous wi-fi sys­tem oper­ates inside and out so there are no bound­aries to the learn­ing envi­ron­ment. Whilst com­mon­place today, this con­ve­nience was inno­v­a­tive in its time.

On the south­ern side of the street are the small­er spaces – staff offices and meet­ing rooms, group learn­ing cubi­cles, wet areas, stor­age and toi­lets. But even here many of the walls are oper­a­ble, enabling chil­dren and staff to recon­fig­ure them as desired.

Nat­ur­al ven­ti­la­tion and light­ing, com­mon fea­tures for Lipp­mann, are embed­ded in the DNA of this build­ing. The bright­ly coloured trans­par­ent lifts and stairs cel­e­brate the thrill of move­ment, while pro­vid­ing views and ori­en­ta­tion for those who use them.

Piv­otal to the design of the MLC Junior School is the piaz­za’ and infor­ma­tion hub’. The piaz­za, derived from the north­ern Ital­ian town Lipp­mann vis­it­ed in his ini­tial research, is con­ceived as the vil­lage where chil­dren can enjoy sit­ting in the café adja­cent to the cen­tral atri­um. Used as a main thor­ough­fare, this atri­um space is also used for assem­blies, events, or sim­ply an addi­tion­al play­ing area dur­ing inclement weath­er. Out­door space was at the fore­front of our minds,” says Lipp­mann, point­ing out the ter­race on the first floor and the roof ter­race that also dou­bles as anoth­er area for school assem­blies. Bring­ing the out­doors in, via rich­ly coloured sky­lights, ani­mates the indoors and offers anoth­er stac­ca­to visu­al ele­ment. The infor­ma­tion hub, like the piaz­za, is the cen­tre of the build­ing and acts as a cen­tral meet­ing place and des­ti­na­tion for knowl­edge seekers.

For Lipp­mann and his team, the pri­or­i­ty was not only to cre­ate func­tion­al learn­ing spaces fol­low­ing a new ped­a­gogy but also to pro­vide an envi­ron­ment that was child-friend­ly and con­ducive to young minds. Praised by the then Gov­er­nor Gen­er­al Quentin Bryce at the offi­cial open­ing in 2009, Lipp­mann savours the com­ment of a nine year old girl to her moth­er at the end of her school day at MLC: I love it here, do I have to go home?’

By Stephen Crafti

Project details

  • Loca­tion
    Bur­wood, NSW
  • Client
    MLC School
  • Key con­sul­tants
  • Builder
    Hook­er Cock­ram Projects Pty Ltd
  • Pho­tog­ra­phy
    Willem Reth­meier