Date: July 30 2012
THE Centre for Neural Engineering, in Bouverie Street, Carlton, looks like a brand new building. But, behind the glazed facade and perforated-steel screen are the remnants of two late 1960s warehouses. The two forms, previously separated by a lane, are barely detectable. ''The warehouses were fairly basic, but we were able to retain a number of walls, as well as the sawtooth ceiling,'' says architect Michael Bouteloup, senior associate with Paul Morgan Architects.
The two warehouses, previously used by Melbourne University as an electrical engineering laboratory, is now one building with one use. Having been converted with federal government funding (Educational Investment Fund), the building now contains highly elaborate equipment used by engineers and biologists to develop the bionic eye, as well as do bionic ear research.
''It's a unique interface between medicine and engineering,'' says Annie Rahilly, Melbourne University media officer. ''Five different types of research are under the one roof, including stem cell research,'' she says.
While highly specialised equipment had to be accommodated at the Centre for Neural Engineering, it was also paramount to black out spaces (blocking natural light), as well as providing rooms that were completely sealed. The architects have achieved this without isolating the building from the street.
''We wanted the design to showcase this facility. It was important for passers-by to see through the building and see the collaboration going on,'' says Bouteloup.
One of main changes to the property was to lower the floor level to Bouverie Street. Finished in bluestone, there's a sense of the laneway that once was. And although there are several meeting areas within the building, the architects deliberately ensured sufficient space for an open conference area immediately inside the glazed facade. ''We wanted the design to be permeable and to see people collaborating around a table,'' says architect Paul Morgan.
While the view of the park directly opposite the centre is engaging, the building's ceiling at ground level causes an adrenalin rush. Featuring 150 synthetic pipes, varying in length from 600 to 1200 millimetres, the design was inspired by the repetition of ''spiking trains'', a device used by neuroscientists to measure neurons. Many of the black pipes also hold sensors. Bouteloup recalls seeing a film by Robyn Boyd, produced in 1968. ''Boyd created this extraordinary exhibition at Australia Square [Sydney], where visitors could place their heads inside these domes and listen to the different sounds of the Australian bush,'' says Bouteloup.
Change in the scientific industry is one of the most critical features in designing high-tech buildings of this nature. Even though all the ''boxes'' were ticked in 2009 when the design was commissioned, a couple of years later modifications were required to suit the pace of research. While the open-plan offices to the rear of the building can easily be reconfigured for postgraduate research, other areas, such as some of the laboratories, have to be customised to suit the latest equipment.
The reception area, which is pivotal to the ground-floor layout, is now unattended. Rather than being used for reception, it is regularly used for informal meetings. ''Flexibility is a key word when you're designing facilities of this nature,'' says Bouteloup, pointing out a dividing wall between two conference areas that opens up to form one large room. ''That's just the changing nature of science,'' he says.
The architects planned as much for future change as possible, providing an additional 15 per cent plant area on the roof to allow for the needs of the industry.
This material is subject to copyright and any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.
[ Canberra Times | Text-only index]