The Old Melbourne Gaol, part of the RMIT University campus, was used for many years by Emily Macpherson as the university's fashion school.
Once this was relocated, the rooms within the monumental bluestone walls were used intermittently for offices, with rudimentary partitions delineating meeting spaces. Even the grand promenade leading to the security entrance had been boarded up and used as a builder's work area/car park.
"This area had been in abeyance for about 15 years; there was no sense of arrival," says architect Peter Elliott, director of Peter Elliott Architecture + Urban Design, who worked closely with project architect Sean Van Der Velden, an associate of the practice.
The original plans of the Old Melbourne Gaol, dating back to the mid-1850s, shows a clear linear path to the grand arched bluestone entrance, flanked by manicured lawns either side. So when the car park was removed, the architects reinstated a similar scheme, with a bluestone pathway bordered by lawns. A garden bed connecting to University Lane, coupled with some slatted timber benches, literally add a con temporary edge to the scheme.
While the forecourt to the jail required reinstating, the architects were fortunate to inherit a relatively intact bluestone building enclosing a central courtyard. "It's one of the most idyllic plans," says Elliott, referring to the generous light and views that enter the relatively narrow wings framing the courtyard. However, certain areas required tuck-pointing and an awkward verandah added to one wing in the 1920s needed to be removed to clearly articulate the jail's form.
"You can now appreciate the axial layout of the building," says Elliott, who created a new series of bluestone paths in the courtyard to link the three new entrances (clearly defined with glass doors).
For Elliott, who has built a legacy of working with heritage buildings, this one was fairly straightforward. "Once you've earmarked the lifts, stairwells and bathroom facilities, the spaces tend to come into their own," he says. He included a number of glass-enclosed offices, as well as those with an open-plan arrangement.
One of the most difficult spaces to rework was the area once used to check in prisoners. Relatively dark and cavernous, this area was redesigned to include four enclosed offices that can be used for meetings by anyone working or studying on the campus.
"We lowered the sill heights along the eastern wall to allow more light to enter these rooms," he says, recalling that previous changes had already been made to this wing.
The chapel, located on the first floor, was also lightly touched. With soaring ceilings, measuring almost 10 metres in height, it's now used as a flexible space. "We removed a stairwell to the side and reinstated a window in keeping with the chapel's original design," Van Der Velden says.
The architects also rationalised the external walkways connecting the three wings, with smoked glass replaced by clear.
One of the challenges in reworking heritage buildings is complying with current building codes. Corridors back in the mid-1850s weren't designed for wheelchairs and therefore disabled access to each entrance wasn't contemplated.
"We've gradually raised the courtyard to enable access by all," says Elliott, who used the change in level to include built-in bench seating adjacent to the lawns.
"We've really brought things back to the original bones of the building, removing most of the rudimentary additions over the years," he says. However, some features, such as a chunky 1930s balustrade in one wing have been retained, a reminder of the more recent past. "We've kept all the original detailing, but it's now equipped with 21st-century technology."