“The circulation was also problematic, requiring a maze of corridors and stairs,” she adds.
One of the existing buildings, built in the early 1970s, was also completely reworked to allow for spaces that responded to contemporary learning (instead of the traditional format of the teacher standing in front of rows of students).
Now given over to physical education, art and music, the latter being on the top floor, the bones were kept, with new internal structures, including a new roof that allows natural light to enter.
“Our brief wasn’t the usual school brief to simply provide new classrooms. It was more to do with creating spaces that had more clarity and were conducive to contemporary learning,” says Neeson, who drew inspiration for the refurbishment of the ’70s building from the many arches in the school’s buildings, along with the school colours of mauve, navy blue and gold, reinterpreted in a series of exterior tiled walls.
“We also added a layer of green tiles to acknowledge the new landscaped areas,” says Neeson, who worked closely with landscape architect Sue Barnsley.
Other references for these tiles can be linked to the rugs used by architect Jorn Utzon for the Bagsvaerd Church in Copenhagen that dates to the same time as this original school building.
Pivotal to Neeson Murcutt + Neille’s design is the new bridge/link that allows students to walk freely through the cluster of buildings.
Referred to as the “spine”, with an undercroft area that’s popular in inclement weather, the faceted glass-enclosed bridge also references the arches of the old convent, named Aikenhead.
“There’s a logical progression of spaces that starts from the moment the girls enter the grounds. It was also important to create a level of transparency, allowing for passive surveillance,” says Neeson, who included areas on the upper terrace for students and staff to meet informally.
Part of the program also included reworking the school’s resource centre, as well as adding a completely new building that would replace the classrooms that were sacrificed by demolishing the Marion.
Constructed in raw fibre cement sheets and finished with galvanised screens for sun-shading, there are now not only the right number of classrooms for the 750 students, but also considerably more open space.
One of the site’s most established trees is now also visible, allowed to “breathe” among the existing and new buildings.
Neeson has a special connection to Bethlehem College, having been a student there in the 1980s. So returning to the school and conceiving a scheme with her colleagues for a complete revamp must have been a one-off experience.
“I’m obviously emotionally attached to this school. It’s also certainly a privilege to be able to come to a design for a building with this history,” says Neeson, who sees the special memories from the past adding another layer to this scheme.
“It has been more of a shift for the students who literally had to funnel their way to reach their classrooms or the amenities. The spaces have certainly been flipped but there still remains some of the wonderful buildings that inspired me as a student,” adds Neeson.