‘Reading Rooms’ Foster Culture of Collaboration

It came as a surprise, a while back, when a friend expressed to me her anxiety over an impending office relocation. She told me she had never worked in an open-plan office before. ‘So what?’, I thought at the time. Now, of course, I get it. The perception amongst many workers that the open-plan office format results in increased stress and distraction, and hence illness and reduced productivity, is not entirely unfounded. But as an architect I had never really known any alternative.
From early on in our education the architectural profession are encouraged to engage in ‘studio culture’. Sharing a workspace with others, it is thought, leads to the sharing of ideas, frustrations, breakthroughs and, often, breakdowns. Not to mention the pooling of resources and, thereby, the sharing of the myriad of ‘stuff’ that goes with the territory – drawing supplies, model-making materials and equipment, reference books and such. If you’re anything like me and my fifth year architecture studio cohorts, it sometimes leads to the sharing of a semi-regular pot-luck morning tea and mahjong tournament. Sometimes those spontaneous activities turn out to be so much fun that they get prioritised over attending lectures!

 It’s unfortunate therefore that, due to lack of space in the Curtin School of Architecture, the chance to cultivate such a culture in designated studio spaces is afforded only to fourth and fifth year thesis students. Perhaps then it is fortuitous that a second year Architectural Design unit is one that takes a unique approach towards nurturing students’ collaborative capacities.


Having just been successfully run for the third year since its inception, this design unit culminates in the production of the timber structures dotted around the Bentley Campus which will no doubt be familiar to many Curtin staff and students. These ‘Reading Rooms’, though borne via collaboration, are designed to facilitate this most solitary and introspective of acts. Bounds of 2.7m cubed and a democratically-chosen site on the Bentley campus were amongst the few restrictions informing the initial design exercise which students undertook individually. What followed next was the real ‘game-changer’.
In what was likely a first for most, the remainder of their workload required students to select a design from amongst their peers’ projects and bring it to life as a 1:1 full-scale realisation. Divided into teams overseeing different aspects of this process (‘PMP’ – Planning, Materials and Procurement’, ‘DME’ – Design, Modelling and Engineering and ‘FAB’ – Fabrication, Assembly and Building) the intention is that students take on the roles of Client, Designer, Engineer, Estimator and, ultimately, Builder in what becomes a simulation of the dynamics of a real-world construction project.


Apex Team
Tasked with finding ways to finance the project, ‘PMP’ teams organised fundraising initiatives ranging from sausage sizzles to crowdfunding drives. Some were able to secure sponsorship from corporate partners such as Bunnings Warehouse or community newspaper groups including the Fremantle Herald and Perth Voice. One team managed to successfully pitch their proposed design to architecture firm Woods Bagot, who then agreed to sponsor their project with a view to inheriting the final structure for installation in the foyer of their new offices. In this case Woods Bagot became the client for whom students were required to tailor their project accordingly.


Reading Room Sites

Map situating the Reading Room structures in relation to the Architecture Building (Bldg 201) Key: A – The Palindrome; B – The Nest; C – The Vortex; D – Apex; E – Cubed


‘DME’ student teams also assisted on the fiducial side of things by engaging in ‘value engineering’. Where they could be, designs were adapted to use fewer raw materials, thereby cuttings costs, whilst still delivering the original design intent. In collaboration with the ‘FAB’ teams they were also required to make sure their designs were adequately engineered structurally. In other words, they had to stand up. And at the same time the structures had to be ‘buildable’. Given some students’ very limited experience ‘on the tools’ this last task was perhaps the most difficult.

The resulting structures are testament to student’s tenacity, imagination and some very effective teamwork. Each one unique, they stand (for the time being) as ‘follies’ in the context of the Bentley campus, whimsically demarcating zones that staff and students alike are encouraged to inhabit for moments of respite, reflection or sun-worship. Curtin staff looking for an excuse to break out of their open-plan office should make time to get out in the open-air and check them out before they’re gone!

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