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Architectural balancing act: Kambri at ANU
South Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Media, Architecture
Philip Oldfield
Date Published: 
Architecture, Higher Education, Campus, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia, Mass Timber, CLT, P refabrication
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2020-08-30 19:41:55
2020-08-30 19:50:37
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John Gollings
The Australian National University (ANU) engaged BVN to design six new structures for its Acton campus in an attempt to strengthen its connection to the city of Canberra. The result is a precinct that feels like part of the city – an urban ensemble in which there is coherence in built form, but where buildings have individual identities.

The role of the university has always been about more than scientific advancement and knowledge exchange. Universities contribute to local communities by acting as a forum for discussion and debate, by hosting public facilities and events, and by providing skilled labour for regional economies. Yet, university campuses have not always been attuned to this dynamic, and with the increasing globalization and commercialization of higher education, these connections between the university and its local context are diminishing. Or, as Thomas Bender notes in The university and the city , “The university has always claimed the world, not its host city, as its domain.”

The Acton campus of the Australian National University (ANU) forms a major part of Canberra, occupying around one-third of the city centre’s land mass. A 2018 review by Turnberry Consulting found that, in spite of its size, the campus lacks strong connections to the city, is often experienced as “dispersed and disconnected,” and lacks a distinct campus identity. In response, a new campus masterplan was developed in 2019 by Arup, informed by a desire to strengthen the relationship between city and campus. BVN’s Kambri precinct, at the centre of the campus, predates this masterplan, but the project’s realization expresses many of the masterplan’s intentions in built form. Kambri is the first in a series of planned hubs that will form the campus’s structured public realm.

As part of a short design competition, BVN captured its intent for the revitalization of Union Court, as it was then known, through a series of visualizations. Often, a new campus precinct with multiple buildings is designed with a uniform architecture, a common material palette and language, or as a series of competing icons. BVN’s approach was to create something more organic: a precinct that felt like part of the city, an urban ensemble in which there was coherence in built form, but where buildings had individual identities. This approach clearly worked. Expecting to design one or two buildings, BVN was instead awarded a contract for all six.

The Kambri precinct accommodates a wide range of different programs, typologies and activities. To the north sits the Cultural Centre, housing large-scale flexible performance spaces, a cinema, a drama theatre and the Ambush Gallery. Completing the urban block, and partially projecting above the gallery entrance, are two linear wings of the Fenner Hall student accommodation, clad in textured brick and concrete, with shared kitchens and terraces above grade. At the centre of the precinct sits the Marie Reay Teaching Centre, an articulated box of formal and informal teaching spaces, with an expressed timber structure and glass facade. To its east is the Di Riddell Student Centre. This consolidates student services in a sleek white block, with a delicate steel colonnade defining retail spaces at the ground level. To the west sits the curving Health and Wellbeing Centre, its shape mirroring the bend in Sullivans Creek beyond it. A pool and gym building is tucked behind the health centre at the southernmost point of the precinct, housed in a sleek box of bronze aluminium cladding and flush glazing. Tying all this together is landscaping by Lahznimmo Architects and Aspect Studios, including a gently undulating gathering space, a tree-lined promenade and terraced steps to Sullivans Creek.

Such diversity of form, program and material could easily create disharmony. But the greatest success of Kambri is its careful architectural balance between coherence and variety. While each building has its own presence, subtle moves seek to tie the precinct together. In section, the public realm at ground level is supplemented by common terraces across level one, typically hosting shared student facilities. This provides activity above grade and fosters a dialogue between ground and upper levels. Porosity and connectivity are deftly handled. Cuts through the buildings – most notably a tall, gently curved slot where Fenner Hall meets the Cultural Centre – ensure ease of movement around the precinct, while a new bridge seamlessly connects the J. B. Chifley Library, completed in 1968, to the public realm, making the library feel like part of the cluster.

The precinct was gifted its name by representatives of the Little Gudgenby River Tribal Council, the Buru Ngunawal Aboriginal Corporation, the King Brown Trib

Organizations Mentioned: (4)
London, United Kingdom
Australian National University
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
Higher Education
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
London, United Kingdom
Management Consulting, Real Estate Development, Education, Sports