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The ‘ugly duckling’ transformed into the face of Griffith University

Nick Nichols | July 2020

The original building that housed the Student Guild’s Uni Bar at Griffith University may have been a victim of the utilitarian architecture that dominated the education sector of the 1970s and 1980s.

It had been variously described as an ‘ugly duckling’ and ‘soulless’. So, with the prospect of a new light rail station opening in 2014, the Griffith University Student Guild saw an opportunity for change.

Since the project’s completion at the end of 2015, the impact of the Uni Bar’s transformation has been more than cosmetic.

“The Griffith Uni Bar redevelopment is what could be called a place-making project,” says Associate Professor Karine Dupre, of Griffith University’s School of Engineering and Built Environment.

“It has become a true hub and a real entrance to the campus. It’s a place that is welcoming, where you feel there is an active life, a place where people meet and engage with each other.”

The benefits of the Uni Bar redevelopment can’t be underestimated. Under the control of the Griffith University Student Guild, this project was driven by the student body.

Dennis Bollington, the former commercial manager of the Student Guild, is widely credited for his efforts in ensuring the project was a success, seeking for the redevelopment to not only benefit students but also the wider university community.

Award-winning architectural firm Push was given the task of creating a space that was aesthetically pleasing and functional. The building had been a fixture of the campus landscape since the late 1980s, as part of the former Gold Coast College of Advanced Education complex.

In Mr Bollington’s words: “The space they had to work with included a soulless ageing cafeteria that was well past its used-by-date.”

Push director Paul Curran saw it as a golden opportunity to create a vibrant entry statement for Griffith University.

“It’s a dream commission for an architect to create a space that brings so many different people from the campus into the one place,” says Mr Curran.

“The university was about to have a new light rail station at its doorstep, and the existing Uni Bar was in a building with a glass wall that was quite close to the road. We saw a better way to treat the entry and to replan it.”

The work involved pushing back the Uni Bar’s interface with the street-front by converting much of the internal areas of the existing building into an active external dining area and landscaping the entry statement.

“Then we were able to create a walk-through across the space, although rather than walking into a building you would be walking straight into a university campus, through an area that was activated by cafes and food places,” says Mr Curran.

The Uni Bar itself was one of the major beneficiaries of the transformation, with the design creating a new outdoor terrace under an extended sculptural roof with a beer garden bar and a versatile new function room opening onto the terrace.

The redesign has received multiple architectural awards, including a commendation in the Gold Coast Urban Design Awards in 2017.

Awards judges noted that the Push architects had ‘exploited an opportunity to create a new, activated spine which is cooled by breezes captured through the manipulation of the venturi effect’, while integrating shopfronts into a ‘coherent and rich series of spaces that are suitably informal’.

Associate Professor Dupre sees the transformation in two ways – through the eyes of an architect by noting the dynamics of the black and white colour palettes and how they comfortably blend with darkened wood features, and as a member of the Griffith University community who enjoys the collaborative communal space it has created.

“The Uni Bar has always been active, but now it is 10 times more active and so much more attractive,” she says.

“What I have noticed is more staff engaging in the space, whereas before it was mostly students. The great benefit from this redevelopment is that it has significantly improved interaction between students and staff outside of academic areas.”

Submissions for the triennial Gold Coast Urban Design Awards are currently being accepted until 21 August. The winners will be announced on the awards night to be held on October 9.

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