This is a building constructed around acoustic environments optimised for learning. The architecture emanates from the production of sound outwards. Every wall is placed, anchored and detailed to intercept, reflect and treat sound for the most enjoyable and effective experience of practice or performance. The Firbank Grammar ‘New Music School’ project enables the expansion of the school’s flourishing music program and is an unmistakably musical building.
Project Name: Firbank Grammar
Studio Name: Cox Architecture
Project size: 1030 m2
Project Budget: $5700000
Completion date: 2019
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Photography: Dan Farrar
Works comprise the refurbishment of ‘Firbank House’, the school’s foundational building and the addition of a new acoustically tuned facility for rehearsal, tuition and performance. The architecture combines high-mass masonry construction for acoustic isolation with complex interior linings engineered to produce excellent clarity of sound for learning and performance whilst maintaining spaces that are flexible, functional and inspiring.
The exterior of the building is wrapped on three elevations by a screen that is perforated to represent the school’s song, both figuratively and in codified graphic notation. Details reference different historical forms of music notation throughout the building, with music on show from inside and out through plentiful glazing and of course the sounds of voice, acoustic and amplified instruments.
The program consists of a large rehearsal room for a full orchestra, tuition rooms of various sizes, administrative spaces and generous circulation spaces that accommodate both social gathering and the manoeuvring of musical equipment. Glazed ‘gaskets’ sensitively connect the new-build to the Victorian era Firbank House and landscaping ties the new development into the existing campus with areas provided for play and socialising. The school’s brief favoured an atmosphere of aural connection over hermetically sealed practice rooms and natural light over complete isolation from the sounds of the campus outside. This encouraged an exploration of the play of light and shadows on the complex acoustic panelling used to create accurate reproductions of the tone of each instrument. The approach to this panelling differs depending on its specific acoustic function; the verticality of the reverberant choir room is accentuated by tall, thin panels, while the slightly drier orchestra rehearsal room is cocooned in twisting perforated plywood. Each space integrates teaching infrastructure such as A.V., writeable notation boards and mirrors in a way that suits the scale of ensemble or type of teaching while also considering the acoustic impacts of these everyday elements.
A light touch is given to the century old Firbank House, whose proportions and materiality are made acoustically pleasing with absorptive wall panelling integrated to maintain connections to the school’s past. Musical instrument lockers made from spotted gum plywood line the walls of the new foyer, which welcome outside visitors to performances; perhaps the only giveaway that the building’s primary focus is educational. Providing a refined environment akin to a concert hall communicates a message that music is valued, that the spaces provided to young musicians here are not only precise enough to cultivate excellent musicianship, but inspiring in their atmosphere and comfortable enough to encourage the hours of practice that will see students go on to become the next generation of Australian performers.