RMIT Design Hub, cnr Swantston St & Victoria Pde Melbourne (Image: Earl Carter)

The annual awards season is a good barometer of what the architecture profession thinks constitutes outstanding and exemplary design.

The Victorian chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects announced its 2013 winners on Friday night. The top gong – The Victorian Architecture Medal – went to the recently-completed RMIT Design Hub, designed by Sean Godsell Architects (in association with Peddle Thorpe Architects) – see first exhibit.

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The Victorian Architecture medal is awarded to a building of “exceptional merit”. It is the “most outstanding building of the entire field of entries”. It derives from the original ‘Street Architecture Medal’ which judged buildings on their “urban propriety and architectural etiquette”.

The choice of RMIT Design Hub suggests that exceptional architecture in 2013, at least in the eyes of architects, is mostly about form. According to the judges:

This unique building expresses the purity of an architectural idea in an elegant and harmonised composition: robust yet beautiful. The implacable form is bold and succinct, the whole wrapped by an impossibly intricate glass jewel-like double skin facade.

In a review titled Frosted iceblock of glass discs melts the heart of design purists, The Age’s architecture critic, Joe Rollo, says “Godsell’s architecture is one of object-making, and Design Hub is his biggest.” He goes on to say that it’s “as rigorous a work of architecture as you’ll likely see in a while – a frosted iceblock that will do no harm to his reputation as one of our most trenchant form makers”.

This is a gong that clearly tells would-be architects and the world at large, including clients, that appearances really, really matter to architects. And while appearances are inherently subjective, I think this is indeed a handsome building. From what I can gather most agree. Like an Apple Mac, it seems to be sculpted from a massive solid block of aluminium or magnesium alloy (actually, it’s steel but…).

Many Australian universities seem to be engaged in the high-risk business of marketing themselves by glamorous buildings (e.g. see Who needs a ‘starchitect’? and Is good architecture all about marketing?). UTS has its new ‘Gehry’ and Monash is building its ‘Safdie’. With this building, RMIT has at least won the endorsement of the local architectural profession, although whether that’ll translate to a commensurate increase in overseas “sales” is a moot point.

Design is always about trade-offs, so if RMIT Design Hub sends the message that exceptional architecture is about “object-making”, it also tells us what aspects of design aren’t given as high a level of priority (fn. 1).

One relates to what RMIT calls the building’s second skin. In the words of Joe Rollo:

The sandblasted discs wrapping the cube work as a “smart skin” to help control the building’s temperature and light levels, rotating and tracking the movement of the sun through the day.

The so-called smart skin is the raison d’être of the building’s external form. It strongly signals sustainability and technology. The judges who awarded the Medal describe it as “automated sun shading with the capacity for the entire facade to be upgraded as solar technology evolves”.

Yet as I’ve explained before (Are all green buildings really that green? and RMIT’s Design Hub revisited: is green turning red?), it’s open to question whether the building’s environmental performance is sufficiently outstanding to justify such a strong visual claim. It’s got a 5 star Greenstar rating of course, but so has virtually every other major education building.

None of the sand-blasted glass discs are equipped with solar collectors and none can track the sun. Three quarters of them can’t move at all and the other quarter only rotate on one axis. Nor is it clear how effective glass is at blocking hot summer sun on the building’s long west and east-facing facades.

The claim that the discs can be retro-fitted with solar collectors might be of limited value if few face north and they can’t track the sun. There’s also the issue of cost – practically anything can be retro-fitted if the will is there, but it’s never cheap compared to doing it up-front.

The building also won the important Public Architecture (New) Award and the Colorbond Award for Steel Architecture. However despite being one of six finalists from 240 entries, it didn’t win the Sustainable Architecture Award. Curiously, the Chair of the Jury in this category describes it as a “beautiful”, “precious”, “adventurous” and “flexible” building in his report, but makes no mention at all of its sustainability credentials.

RMIT Design Hub is also a building that stands alone. The judges for the Victorian Architecture Medal describe it, evidently approvingly, as “a building whose character is unyielding and demanding in the city context it inhabits”.

It stands apart visually from its immediate surroundings and is even at odds with the complex, playful and colourful architectural precinct RMIT has created in Swanston St. It puts me in mind of the ‘perfect’ monolith in the moon-scape at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Design Hub doesn’t engage well with the street either. It offers a solid wall to busy Swanston Street, the key public spine and tram line through the university precinct. As a commenter on one of my earlier articles noted, the Design Hub “makes a bold statement but it frustrates me that a university building in particular is so insular and fails to invite the public into the building space.”

Joe Rollo also subsequently picked up on this theme. He says it stands as:

a near-impenetrable bunker, with little relationship to the busy world outside its front door, seemingly shut off to all but its immediate users. The opportunity was probably there to have bands of clear glass discs at street level, to show the vibrant activity along its long, ramped entry. Maybe that is the price RMIT is prepared to pay to support Godsell’s quest for design purity.

It’s interesting to compare the Design Hub with another leading contender for the Victorian Architecture Medal, the refurbishment of Hamer Hall by ARM Architecture, which itself won three awards on Friday night. It’s a renovation not a new building so there was limited scope for exterior ‘object-making’; it’s self-consciously a collaboration between client, builder and design professionals; and one of its defining ‘ideas’ is to open up the building to the street and river (see Is architecture that simple?).

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(fn 1) There’s no reason to believe this building isn’t adequate at a cost and functional level. As I’ve noted before (Do awards tell us what good architecture is?), the way architectural awards are structured means they don’t take account of those sorts of seemingly fundamental considerations.

The monolith in the 1968 movie 2001: A space Odyssey