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A contest of ideas

A contest of ideas

How has Melbourne changed as a city during your career?

When I graduated from architecture in the 1980s, there was no sense at all that Melbourne was a design city. Now it is considered one of the great design cities, certainly in Australia and internationally it rates very highly.

That’s a culture that doesn’t happen by accident – it’s curated. RMIT can take some credit – they chose 20 years ago to make bold design statements about why design is important in Melbourne by commissioning Peter Corrigan (of Edmond and Corrigan) to design Building 8, as well as Ashton Raggatt McDougall to design the rejuvenation of Storey Hall; that’s a significant contribution.

On face value it’s a really obvious idea – we teach people to be exemplary designers, we promote really speculative design research, why would we not actually then translate that into commissioning the same architects to design the University buildings?


What is the story behind designing the Swanston Academic Building (SAB) – what was the thinking behind the building?

What’s unique about RMIT of course is that it is a city-based campus. We’re interested in exploring architecture’s relationship with the city.

When we were starting work on SAB, one of the early questions we asked as designers was, is RMIT this place in the city, or is the city somehow embedded in RMIT?

The idea of using a single large building to explore what an urban experience of university is, as opposed to your classic sandstone university, was a great starting point.

You don’t want students disappearing into the city – for example, leaving campus to go to Melbourne Central. So we made an experience on campus that they will like, an urban campus experience.

Instead of having one location for a student hub, we split student spaces over the 11 levels of the building and connected them all via escalators and stairs. So when you think of a student hub, the idea is more of a vertical campus. There is a sense of procession upwards in the building – we believe that adds to the perception of an urban campus.

We also connected the student spaces to the city. So even when you’re standing in the middle of the building, you always get the sense that there’s big views and connections out to the city.

The colours on the outside of the building were all derived from photos we took of the city and digitally filtered within a design process we created. So the idea is that the building is wearing a cloak of the city, partly disappearing into the city and partly asserting its strong presence.

The SAB is significant from the practice’s point of view. Besides being a major building in Swanston Street, it gave us the opportunity to be able to test a whole lot of ideas as a design practice.

RMIT City Campus is an urban campus – how will the New Academic Street (NAS) change the experience of being on campus?

RMIT encourages debate; there is openness to the discourse. And that’s how you advance a design discipline: through debate. Everyone respects the idea that there’s a discussion to be had.

Part of the design strategy of New Academic Street is to say: the city is about giving students choice and offering diversity. So if you could fold that into the campus, you’re bringing an idea of the city directly into the campus – tearing down the walls to let the city in and vice versa.

So for NAS, we’ve joined with five other practices also run by alumni, architects who have taught here and practised here in Melbourne, to create a diversity of spaces within NAS.

How did you build a successful architecture practice?

I’m a third generation architect – my father and grandfather were both architects. After graduating I worked around the traps, did a lot of travelling, saw a lot of buildings. Then my brother Corbett and I decided to found our own practice and straight away we won competitions to design major buildings, which got the practice off to a flying start. So we started out doing larger-scale project work.

Because we won major work early on, the business grew quickly. Within a few years we were employing 60 people; now there are more than 80 employees in the practice.

What’s the hardest part of being an architect?

Architecture is interesting because you’ve got the creative side, building ideas, and then you’re also running a business.

You are carrying a big responsibility – for example, SAB was the biggest-ever investment by the University in a single project. There’s a whole lot of process you’re juggling in terms of delivering a project on time and within budget, while at the same time, you’re being encouraged to create the most innovative building in teaching and learning in Australia, if not the world. On the one hand it’s the excitement of taking creative risks, on the other hand, the professional duty of care to manage all the project risks.

What makes a good architect?

You’ve got to have a love of the history of the profession – you’ve got to know what’s come before you, locally as much as anywhere. You also have to have a wide view of the world – architects design for a wider culture.

The traditional idea of an architect is part carpenter, part artist, part philosopher, part diplomat. There’s a bit of truth in that slightly worn idea – there is a diversity of skills, including taking on creative risk and helping manage risk.

What impact do you hope to make with your work?

Any architect will say the thing that’s impactful is that design matters. Designing with the idea of continuing to build a great local culture in Melbourne, around Australia and even globally, is about intelligent ongoing research in design, not just sitting back and assuming you know what design is all about.

So it’s important to always be challenging ideas – we would always say in our practice that architecture is a contest of ideas.

You’ve got to interrogate it, research it, think about it. Good architects will arrive at different ideas, but that’s what’s interesting to us at RMIT and around Melbourne – there’s lots of architects coming to different conclusions and all doing really interesting powerful buildings.

You donated a scholarship to RMIT to support Indigenous architecture students. How did that come about and what impact do you hope it will make?

The medical, health disciplines and the legal profession graduate lots of Indigenous young men and women, but in architecture there’s maybe a dozen graduates around Australia and only two in Victoria.

Architecture is very much a community building skill set, it’s a great skill set for young Indigenous people to bring to their own communities, as well as wider communities.

I wanted to understand what are the barriers for Indigenous people entering architecture. So we set up the scholarship to support smart young Indigenous people in architecture and start to lead a cultural debate about architecture in the city and across the country. It’s exciting to see what the next generation is doing, which will be different to what your own generation has done. So that cycle of regeneration in terms of design practice in the city is important.

What is something that has made an impact on you as an architect?

The ongoing debate and discussion in architecture. That’s a unique part of RMIT’s position and contribution in the Melbourne design landscape, promoting that discussion, discourse, debate.

Carey Lyon completed a Master of Architecture in 1994 and is a Professor of Architecture at RMIT. He has served as the National President of the Australian Institute of Architects, and the American Institute of Architects awarded him its Presidential Medal. He has also won more than 25 state, national and international architecture awards.


Top and insert: Carey Lyon pictured in the Swanston Academic Building, designed by his firm Lyons Architecture. Photos by RMIT alumnus Emma Phillips.

Background image: RMIT's Swanston Academic Building.

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