St.Bernards College is a Catholic boys school located in Melbourne’s inner western suburbs, Australia. In 2018 the school embarked on the first of a series of planned modernisation upgrades to the school buildings and grounds. The first of these is the creation of a new central chapel precinct at the heart of the campus comprising a new chapel building, spiritual centre, reflective courtyard and staff centre. The new spaces are intended to set the benchmark for the renewal of the campus, raising the quality of the school setting and architectural presentation.
The school campus is known as “the school on the hill” and is situated on a steeply sloping hillside overlooking the western slopes of the Steele Creek floodplain. Over years of iterative expansion and development, the school spaces have evolved as a series of diverse buildings, narrow alley ways, steep steps and severe level transitions. Improving this setting to create genuine, quality spaces for students and staff was a key component of the brief.
A mature existing Jacaranda tree, Jacaranda mimosifolia, is located in the centre of the project site. The tree is well known and loved by the school community and offers a stunning annual display of purple flowers each summer – a display our client was determined to retain.
The landscape response creates a new, formal arrival and welcome space centred around the preserved Jacaranda tree. Broad steps constructed from bluestone granite enable improved pedestrian access and the negotiation of the steep hillside level transition into the forecourt.
The forecourt, previously divided by a severe cutting, has been consolidated on one level: partly on natural ground; and partly on a suspended floor/roof structure over the building floor below. The newly unified space seamlessly connects the landscape with the surrounding architecture and vastly improves circulation. A broad expanse of permeable paving surrounds the Jacaranda tree, facilitating the protection of the existing tree root zone, enabling the flow of water into the ground below and the tree to flourish undisturbed by the functional, hard wearing pedestrian friendly surface above.
The curved, angular geometry compliments the sweeping architectural language of the new chapel building. Modern, in-situ polished concrete seating walls with integrated lighting meander along the forecourt perimeter providing further informal communal seating opportunities. The hillside landscape has been regraded and generously planted with Australian native species to provide a green, well vegetated backdrop to the forecourt. A bespoke, in-situ linear concrete seat rests beneath the tree, offering a simple sculptural gesture and the opportunity for quiet reflection and peaceful contemplation under the tree canopy.
The design also incorporated liturgical elements, developed in close consultation with the school cohort, and features key themes translated as landscape features including a stepped, meandering water feature that passes through one of the seating walls, paving details and lighting. This further enhances the role of the forecourt as a spiritual heart for the campus and the functions associated with the new Chapel.
The design is a strong example of Landscape Architecture working closely with Architecture to overcome and elegantly resolve a number of challenging design constraints within a relatively tight, confined space.
The final scheme, completed in 2018, is an understated Chapel forecourt space designed for quiet reflection and contemplation, accented by the stunning seasonal display of the Jacaranda flowers and immersed in an Australian native garden setting. The forecourt is a pleasant place for visitors, staff and students passing through or pausing for a moment’s peace and quiet.