2012 Melbourne Design Awards

Key Dates

Photo Credit : John Gollings/Gollings Photography

Project Overview

Brownless Biomedical Library is an entirely internal upgrade to an existing 1960’s building at the University of Melbourne. The space has been completely re-invented to provide an attractive 24-hour student centre within the library. The old spaces transformed from worn, rigid and uninspired into a no-holds-barred new learning environment.

Project Commissioner

University of Melbourne

Project Creator

McBride Charles Ryan


Principal Architects: Rob McBride, Debbie Ryan
Project Team: Michelle James, Drew Williamson, David Neustein, Angela Woda, Natasha, Maben, Benedikt Josef, Marie Chen

Project Brief

Our role was to enliven the space – to take the Original 1960’s John Scarborough and Partners building and bring it into line with the requirements of a modern library. In the case of the Brownless Biomedical Library, this meant integrating the traditional library with an IT hub, comprising all the computers and services necessary to work and research in today’s university setting. The new library also required a whole spate of rich and varied learning spaces to accommodate the numerous, flexible learning modes. McBride Charles Ryan worked closely alongside both stakeholder groups and Dr. Peter Jamieson, a specialist in this field, to develop the form of these spaces. The result is sequence of outcomes ranging from more private places to read or study alone, workstations for small teams, right through to meeting rooms for large groups. A kind of reading ‘lounge room’ for students with tight living conditions was considered.

Project Innovation / Need

The existing rectangular plan was disrupted solely by an off-centre expressive spiral stair which ran through the three levels of the library. In response to this circular element, McBride Charles Ryan developed a family of forms to counter-act the rigidity of the original floor plates. As part of the University of Melbourne’s scheme, each library was to have its own personality, representative of its parent faculty. The curvaceous response therefore, reflects the organic qualities of bio-medical science.
Similarly the library’s palette borrows from the medical faculty. The cardinal red from the robes of its graduates, as well as the white and pinks of the human body. The use of strong contrast and vivid colours helps enliven the space creating a 24-hour dynamic environment; while the blush pink cladding enhances the drum of the spiral staircase, the original design generator.

Design Challenge

The largest challenge for the Brownless Biomedical Library was designing into the existing envelope, as this aspect of the building was unable to be modified. Therefore an economical solution needed to be provided to deal with the problems of a deficient ceiling height and deep floor plate. The radial tiling pattern which emanates from the staircase helps to counter-act these issues, by providing both light reflectance and acoustic dampening. The tessellated ceiling also further reinforces the circular geometry of the scheme while integrating services such as lighting and air conditioning into its pattern.


The Brownless Biomedical library extends the lifespan of the building it occupies. By recycling the entire envelope, and updating the student hub to meet current needs, this project preserves the existing fabric, saving on both the economic and environmental costs of demolition. Furthermore by creating a series of flexible learning spaces, the library is set up to cater for the continuously changing requirements of the future university curriculum.

This award recognises building interiors, with consideration given to space creation and planning, furnishings, finishes and aesthetic presentation. Consideration given to space allocation, traffic flow, building services, lighting, fixtures, flooring, colours, furnishings and surface finishes.

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