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Murray River bends new Cobram library into shape

Moira Shire Council came across this site, which included the Cobram Civic Centre built in the 1970s.

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“There was something quite charming about the original building,” says architect Ben Cohen, director of Cohen Leigh Architects, who worked closely with life and business partner architect Clementine Leigh, also a director of the practice.

From the outset, the objective was to ‘plug onto’ the original single-storey civic centre, allowing this to be expressed, as much as the new contemporary library and learning centre.

Both sharing the same entrance, including the now updated original bathrooms, each one is clearly delineated in its architectural expression.

Rather than trying to mimic the 1970s, Cohen Leigh Architects took its cue from the Murray River.

At this point of the river, there’s an endless series of curves.

There was something quite charming about the original building.

Architect Ben Cohen

“We used these curves as a ‘template’, both in terms of a footprint and as an elevation,” says Cohen, pointing out the red timber-battened screens that wind their way around the new pavilion.

The zigzag glazed walls that form the perimeter of the library and learning centre not only evoke the river but, as importantly, create nooks within.

The one used as a children’s reading area leads directly to a small enclosed outdoor play area, with another occupying IT and desks for those requiring more solitude.

“We saw the undulating screens as similar to draping fabric,” says Cohen who, with his team, was mindful of the often-harsh weather Cobram receives, particularly during the summer months.

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“It has 300 days of sunshine each year,” he adds.

With a brief from Moira Shire Council and stakeholders, including the community, to create flexible spaces within the new centre, very little of the furniture is fixed.

Shelves can be reconfigured, along with tables and chairs, with the only built-in furniture arranged along the perimeter walls and the loans counter, the latter upon arrival.

“The idea was also to use the spaces for meetings and social events,” says Cohen, who included an enclosed meeting area, with its own kitchenette and bathroom at the tip of the floor plan.

One of the most dramatic interior features is the unusual organic-shaped plywood fin blades cut into the acoustically-treated ceiling, some up to 1.4 metres in width.

Used a wayfinding device, these panels are individually embossed with the names of locals who have donated to the building of this new centre.

“Often people donating purchase a plaque, but we thought it seemed more appropriate to create something that felt more integral to the architecture, rather than added afterwards,” says Cohen.

Fluorescent lights, concealed between these blades also create a sense of lightness to the interior.

The architects also played with the idea of change, just as with the flow of the river, allowing these blades to ‘morph’ into shelving behind the loans desk.

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Framed by established gum trees, the new Cobram library and learning centre feels integral to the place, rather than coming from somewhere else.

Cobram is home the Bega cheese factory and it has spawned a number of great footballers over the years.

A relatively modest-sized town, it also has a number of period buildings, including a pub from 1892 and, more recently towering silos.

“We wanted to build on this history, as much as create something that was contemporary and responded to the Murray River,” says Cohen.

The new library may be ‘plugged on’ to the original civic centre, but it also has its own voice, with the banks of the river as a backdrop.

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