William MacMahon Ball Theatre
Commendation: Category 5 Education Initiative or Design Solution for an Innovative Program
Old Arts Building 149 University of Melbourne, Parkville 3010 Victoria
Ian Davidson, Architectus
In the ‘cold face of the digital age’, the William MacMahon Ball Theatre reconnects learners with their environment, their educators and each other. Since early 2014 the WMB Theatre has exceeded its intended use and its impact within the university and wider circles has been considerable. It has attracted enormous interest and significant visitors including teachers, designers, academics, educational leaders and facility managers. It was recently presented at the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Conference (31 September – 3 October, 2014) and published in Artichoke magazine (Issue 48, September – November 2014).
The theatre has found a place in the heart of its users who refer to it as the ‘Geoffrey Robertson Space’, ‘the United Nations Room’ or ‘The Forum’. Professor Philip Goad, from the University of Melbourne, describes his experience below:
“For me, the exquisite quality of the theatre’s natural light made me feel as though I could be teaching outside, speaking not just to students of today but perhaps in an echo of Periclean Greece, standing on its sandstone centre, somewhere in the Athenian Agora, rubbing shoulders with Plato and Socrates, and practicing the “dialectical method,” still the essence of first-rate teaching by reasoned argument, still the essence of today’s political debate.”
The WMB Theatre seamlessly integrates technology with face-to-face education and debate. On arrival, acoustically dampened entries offer a glimpse of activity beyond, without interrupting the occupants. Moving further inward, you might find a light filled forum or a darkened, electronic theatre. In either mode – or those between – the WMB Theatre is likely to be occupied by a cohort of future leaders: students of the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Melbourne School of Government.
You may see a three-way debate that fully utilizes the eight presentation points, projectors, writing and clipping surfaces. The acoustically contoured ceiling, both a light and sound diffuser, is critical in naturally amplifying the voice of all speakers and the natural sandstone of the inner floor, referencing the historic fabric of the Old Arts Building, also contributes to the acoustic experience of both voice and footfall.
The centre ring might be filled with objects from antiquity; students may be moving in the generous space, observing with care, curiosity or fascination. On another day it may be the stage for a group of students reenacting the 1975 Australian Constitutional Crisis. Students on the upper floor, working independently in an informal learning space, watch down through the skylight on the spectacle below.
The gently stepped floor increases the volume and creates uninterrupted sight lines, enabling the eyes of the speaker to align with those of the seated. The tiers also provide a low energy, silent and comfortable displacement air system.
The design achieves sustainability in the short and long term through modification and reuse of existing facilities with future proofing to meet the demands of tomorrow’s pedagogies. Sustainability is considered at all scales – from adjustability of natural daylight and lectern heights, to the specification of materials and fittings.