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By Kim Aleksandrowicz 

Contemporary Urban Education

Working with WMK Architecture since 2014, International Education Services (IES) is a school which offers university pathway programs and cultural competency training to international students. In a dense urban setting, the campus is spread across three repurposed buildings in Brisbane’s Spring Hill neighbourhood, sharing the city streets with mixed commercial and highrise residential buildings. IES’ city presence annually sees over 1,000 foreign students with varying degrees of English competency embedded within Brisbane's community. To address this impact, IES embarked upon an outward display of community engagement aimed at directly addressing the school’s place, and the integration of their students, within the City of Brisbane and the broader Australian culture. 

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Art as a tool for education (art as strategy)

At the time of writing, IES owns 153 Australian indigenous artworks. The collection began in 2014, and is deliberate and strategic, playing a vital role in the school’s curriculum. It is the basis for the ‘Australian Studies’ syllabus, a platform from which to understand Australian Indigenous Culture, and by way of connection, Australian culture in general. For a school that exclusively educates international students, this is of vital importance. This is IES’ answer to their multicultural integration, the softening of their impact, and an outward display of synthesis with the community. For WMK, it resulted in a multidimensional design brief which would challenge the way we design spaces for learning, working, and social connection.

Taking the art off the canvas - in a school where the gallery is everywhere

WMK's design response was to facilitate a holistic inclusion of the art collection throughout all of the space types, providing equitable access to the collection for both students and teachers. Students are literally immersed in their curriculum, with the syllabus written on the walls. The design language for the interiors was drawn directly from the collection, providing a reference point for the colour palette and material selection. By way of complimenting the organic forms, colours and lines present in the paintings, inspiration was found in the natural Australian landscape. Ideas around caves and forests were reinterpreted into the built environment to act as screens and framing devices, defining areas, and providing hollows within which to hang works. To maximize the opportunity for display, a careful approach was applied to the space planning across the floor plates of each building, with consideration given to the framing of views as well as strategic light placement (WMK worked closely with BSE Services Engineers). Some of the art was transported off the canvas, becoming a specific part of the built environment. This was achieved with close collaboration and guidance from Michael Eather, Director of Fireworks Gallery, a curatorial associate of IES. In consultation with the artists, a choice of works were provided to IES for selection and subsequent purchase. These paintings were then digitally transformed into large scale prints in collaboration with graphic designer Angela Stefanoff, and applied to the vertical and horizontal planes of the framing portals built around the student collaboration zones. A convergence of art and decoration resulting in a new spatial experience.

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An alignment of vision, values, and purpose

IES are a client acutely aware of their own identity, and their own needs. They are also deeply passionate about what they do. In their view, providing education is a privilege. One of their greatest tools in this provision is the spaces within which it is facilitated - their buildings. So when it came to the refurbishment of these major commercial assets, IES' brief was that their cultural values be borne tangibly through the built environment.

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The first step in achieving this was to partner with a consultancy that understood, respected and shared their principles, and would approach the project with curiosity, a willingness to learn and the ability to educate. This was the beginning of a creative partnership between IES and WMK that has so far spanned six projects over five years.

IES see education as being all encompassing - it is a philosophy of theirs that everyone know more at the end of the day than they did at the start - and this idea isn't confined to the classroom, or restricted to their students. Each stage of each of the refurbishment projects provided opportunities to learn something new for both client and designer, and afforded a position of advantage from which to begin the next.

Designing spaces for working and learning

To facilitate effective learning, IES requires a complexity of space types. As a business, the school needs a diverse array of spaces to support its staff in working effectively. WMK were tasked with creating both, while keeping a connected identity throughout. A holistic approach to education design saw the design of environments for both didactic teaching and peer-to-peer learning. Lecture theaters, classrooms, computer labs and VBE rooms are supported by student lounges with focus nooks, communal study tables and booths.

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The workspace caters to IES' ways of working by providing enclosed offices, as well as open plan work environments supported by quiet rooms for focus, and collaboration spaces for team work. Every one of these spaces, whether for learning or working, has been designed to support IES' brand and values though a connection to culture and place.

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Understand Culture, Understand Place

The IES art collection is a true manifestation of the school's ethos. Through it, they are able to teach the importance of cultural understanding, and encourage critical thinking. It is an unabashed celebration of place and identity. What does success look like for the design of this school? Over five years, WMK have led the transformation of 10,287m2 of commercial office space into a successful international education environment capable of servicing a growing student cohort, within time and budget. The IES project has also seen WMK designing for social awareness - designing the built environment which facilitates IES' multicultural communication pathway: a two way street of community understanding, and understanding community.

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Spring Hill mural by Matt Adnate and Sheep Chen, honouring the multicultural identity of IES College, and the significant contribution of the Campfire Group to Brisbane’s cultural landscape.

Posted by Kim Aleksandrowicz

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