Highly Commended 2021

ACMI Renewal

BKK Architects / Razorfish / ACMI

ACMI Renewal was driven by passion for the city and desire to improve its connection with this significant cultural institution.

ACMI is the only museum of its kind and the most visited moving image museum in the world. The $40 million Renewal Project redefined the museum experience in Australia and demonstrates ACMI’s commitment to design culture and the digital experience. This project represents a shift in type and a shift in tradition, a proposition which bucks the trend of the typically static museum and is, now highly accessible and a multi-faceted contemporary experience. The ambitious new multiplatform museum model delivers a digital experience that transports visitors far beyond its home in Fed Square.

Design Brief

How does ACMI fit into Melbourne’s urban fabric given its importance as a cultural institution? The Renewal is a world-leading, performative restructuring of the static museum typology, into a multi-layered, physical, and virtual platform; to realise this vision, we developed a set of key objectives:

Connect the City and Museum
Bring the City into the Museum through the reinstatement of the original (internal) laneway.

Connecting Multiple Levels
Disconnected spaces were united and legibility improved through carving out the interior.

Strengthen Identity
Creation of a new ACMI identity, distinct from Fed Square, whilst maintaining respect for its significant location.

Dwell Spaces
Spaces were created to encourage patrons to pause and relax.

Editing as a process
Removing layers or repositioning elements of redundant space to reveal and amplify the best qualities of the original design.

Enhanced Learning
Spaces were created to support doubling of student numbers across essential and popular teaching programs.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

The Renewal was a collaborative process between BKK Architects, Razorfish and ACMI. A lengthy and rigorous consultation process took place during the Masterplan phase, which challenged previous thinking around design opportunities as well as organisational change.

A core part of this early thinking was the consideration of ACMI across a series of scales from the global to the local and how it forms part of Melbourne’s civic and cultural fabric.

This foundational thinking was conducted extensively through workshops, interviews, background research and site visits, cumulating in an agreed framework and masterplan. Consultation was an evolving process which became more targeted and focused with specific key groups as the design progressed. Continual, regular dialogue with both Razorfish, ACMI, and the wider consultant team resulted in a design which remained relatively unchanged and within budget until its completion.

To date, the design has met and exceeded many of the original objectives: staff and visitors can regularly be seen utilising dwell spaces. Revenue in the revitalised and repositioned ACMI shop was increasing prior to lockdown, the new event space had started to book out, legibility of circulation routes and high-quality wayfinding has resulted in less disorientation for visitors and a cross-pollination of ACMI’s diverse audiences.

As for visitor and education numbers, COVID has temporarily put a halt to any increased visitation, but our hope is that as things start to open again ACMI will come back to life.

The project to date has been recognised for its design excellence with several awards being won, including the Victorian Architecture and Melbourne Design awards. This is not only testament to a successful design process but also a high-quality built outcome from the team of Contractors.

Design Excellence

At the heart of the Renewal Project is a design which is driven by the user experience, something which was woven into the early stages of the design process. One of the key problems we needed to solve was how ACMI’s diverse user groups could better cross pollinate and discover more of its many offerings, to create an outcome where the user experience and exhibition design would operate interdependently.

Much of ACMI’s design excellence comes from functional thinking at the early stages of the project. Due to a constrained footprint the team had to interrogate each available square meter and challenge current spatial uses. Some of the original areas were removed and re-layered into existing spaces to functionally work harder throughout the day. Steps and stairs became seats, workspaces, meeting points, exhibition spaces and places for performance. The Urban Lounge now provides a space for respite, play and joy, as well as a useful briefing point. Its acoustics serving as a cocoon, making close speech possible in the cavernous atrium. This reorganisation of space can serve as a blueprint for museums worldwide in capitalising on the environmental constraints of a given space.

Aesthetically, the ACMI Renewal as much an example of editing as it is adding; ACMI’s original identity now shines through, sitting comfortably against Federation Square’s iconic (and heritage-listed) architectural language. Previously, ACMI struggled to convey its own character; patrons would often end up at exhibitions at Federation Square instead of ACMI due to a lack of presence, legibility around its entrances, and poor wayfinding. Warmer colours, softer tones, and fluid forms complement and contrast the existing architecture; fabrics reference the bygone age of cinema and the art of performance culture. Insertions like seating nooks provide moments of human scale contrasting against the vastness of the atrium.

Design Innovation

To achieve a successful outcome, the relationship between exhibition and architecture needed to be highly integrated and co-dependent.

This was achieved through a collaborative design process. BKK worked together with Razorfish and other design disciplines, as well as ACMI’s curatorial team, to develop the strategic design framework from the project’s outset. The result is a seamless and dynamic environment which intelligently traverses the traditional boundaries between the physical and virtual, between exhibition and public space.

ACMI now offers a truly democratic public space, a civic spine which connects multiple offerings to and from the city. More than a thoroughfare, it is part of the city’s walkable network that like many of its great laneways, offers respite, intimacy, and moments of stillness beyond the broad grid of major streets. This urban proposition manifested itself through the largest architectural gesture of the ACMI Renewal project; a grand timber stairway punching through the building to emphasise the principal axis within ACMI. It also serves to rationalise ACMI’s multi-level program into a space that feels legible and cohesive, providing integral visual and physical connectivity between lower and upper floors. Now exists, a symbiotic relationship which reinforces the institution’s social significance while fostering a greater cultural reach and digital curiosity.

Key to the new and improved ACMI experience is a ground-breaking exhibition device known as ‘The Lens’. This take-home object, in the form of a cardboard disc, contains an RFID chip that allows the visitor to collect and absorb content on their journey through the various museum spaces. This platform for exhibition engagement allows the user to modify their own experience, while allowing them continual involvement beyond the physical confines of the gallery itself. This allows ACMI the necessary flexibility and customisation opportunity essential to keep pace with the rapidly evolving digital and technological environment.

Design Impact

Social impact: The Renewal is a gesture of civic generosity; the public is invited to utilise the museum as a ‘third space’. Accessibility was a core aspect of our approach, and we worked with our DDA consultant and ACMI user groups to ensure staff and visitor needs were met. Increased and varied amenities (single sex/ gender neutral/ family rooms) were provided to cater to the broad spectrum of visitors.

Lighting can be fully programmed in the main spaces for sensory days that ACMI runs for children with autism.

A museum of moving image must strike a balance between appropriate lighting for exhibitions and adequate visibility for those who are visually impaired; this is achieved through clearly defined pathways and enhanced audio.

Commercial impact: The Renewal has been designed to meet ACMI’s ambitious target of more than 2m visitors annually and to cross-pollinate offerings for improved commercial outcomes. Given the spatial constraints the masterplan involved working closely with ACMI’s internal team to establish which spaces could be re-programmed into multiple functions throughout a 24-hour period. Cinemas have become educational briefing spaces; steps have become seats and studio theatres have become conference spaces; every square metre of available space was utilised.

Environmental impact: The Renewal is exemplary of adaptive reuse; ACMI refurbished their Federation Square home rather than relocate to a purpose-built facility, thus retaining embodied energy through reuse of the building shell. During demolition, items were salvaged wherever possible, and the builder committed to recycling around 70% of the demolition material. Durable materials that were hard wearing and easy to maintain were selected. Materials were also sustainably sourced and selected from Australia where possible. Water efficient fixtures and fittings such as sensor taps were specified and services such as lighting were upgraded to be more energy efficient.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

It’s not unlike a building of this typology and public regard to be built anew, however the ACMI renewal is an exemplary case of adaptive re-use. ACMI occupied a building which was not built for purpose and therefore was never going to achieve the level of contextual suitability as desired. Rather than relocate to a new, external facility, ACMI embraced the challenge of adaptive re-use. Buildings consume high amounts of energy throughout their life cycle, and new construction only compounds this output of energy. Working within the constraints of the existing built envelope allowed us to harness as much of the embodied energy as possible.

Further to adaptive re-use, salvaging and recycling were of paramount importance. During demolition, all salvageable items were retained where possible, while contractors committed to the recycling of approximately 70% of all demolition materials. Materiality often plays a significant role in a building’s economic and environmental footprint; therefore, the responsible selection of materials is critical. Durable and robust materials which will stand the test of time were selected in favour of those requiring ongoing maintenance and attention.

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