Finalist 2023

Forces Of Nature

Designed by He Huang and Zhengxi Xian / Commissioned by Lyons Architecture / RMIT University

‘Forces of Nature’ aims to create a diverse and inclusive educational building in Melbourne, offering engaging and inviting public spaces.

The architectural aspirations of this project, the Forces of Nature, involve creating a vertical university campus that integrates contextual considerations such as site, stakeholders, acknowledgement of indigenous culture, and the site's history into the design.

The main discourse of this project revolves around the extended roles of public building in enhancing user identity and cultural recognition while also facilitating public activities as integral components of city-making.

By embracing natural elements and incorporating woodworking techniques, the building achieves an iconic and responding architectural form by cutting, adding, interweaving, and ultimately realizing it in the form of a mass timber (CLT) structure.

Design Brief:

‘Forces of Nature’ is undertaken as part of RMIT's Master's design studio course, led by Lyons. The task involves crafting a hypothetical vertical university campus, Newpolis University, situated at Melbourne's geological centre, designed to house various public programs that promote collaboration, celebration, and engagement – crucial elements enhancing the city's vibrancy and benefiting its residents and community.

The building's design demands a seamless blend of programmatic and cultural expression, with particular emphasis on promoting informal and social learning spaces thoughtfully positioned alongside formal teaching areas; a permeable and dynamic ground plane should extend vertically, with the circulation infrastructure functioning as the heart of the campus; a vibrant hub for social learning that integrates socially interactive and functional forms of vertical circulation; environmental sustainability should also serve as a central focus.

Creativity and efficiency also need to underpin every aspect of the design, culminating in a participatory and inspiring educational environment.

This project was developed by:

  • Designed by He Huang and Zhengxi Xian
  • Commissioned by Lyons Architecture

Design Process

As the final project with a 6-week design period, we are in a group to participate in a design competition prescribed by studio leaders. The high level of execution of this project has been acknowledged by several senior architects and directors from Lyons, as well as the guests invited to our final presentation. They praise the seamless integration of various design elements and the excellent response to architectural functionality and efficient traffic flow, which aligns seamlessly with the content covered in Lyons’s weekly tutorials.

Throughout the project, we strategically complete weekly tasks while engaging in creative and critical conversations with Lyons's senior architects. Their guidance and feedback help us to refine our ideas to meet the requirements set out in the brief. These tasks include the identification of stakeholders, users and faculties; a series of urban analyses to inform our masterplan strategies and ideas; research into innovative timber structures to enhance our designs; and the linking of façade ideas to typology, program, narrative, culture, sustainability and stakeholder identification.

We organise the work according to three key environmental elements: sun, river and wind. The influence of the sun defines the volume of the building, while the river acts as a circulation system. Finally, the wind introduces the idea of thresholds inside and provides natural ventilation, allowing the building to 'breathe'.

Achieving such a harmonious integration of diverse design elements require constant and tight collaboration throughout the entire design period. This leads to spirited debates and discussions about whether to introduce gradual transitions or radical transformations in our designs. Overall, the experience has been both challenging and rewarding, pushing us to explore the limits of our creativity and developing a holistic understanding of the power of collective intelligence.

Design Excellence

Publicly accessible programs, such as service amenities, a library, a retail street, galleries, and exhibition spaces, are located on the lower floor levels. This strategic arrangement facilitates the smooth distribution of pedestrian flow as visitors approach the building. The design encourages people to use open stairs and escalators to explore the public programs. Meanwhile, students have the option to take the ‘Auditorium Express’ escalator, allowing them to reach the auditorium without being disturbed by public visitors. The vibrant energy and enthusiasm of the students can be observed by other building users through the gorge created by the ‘midday sun laser’ penetration where the escalators are located.

For researchers and members of the City Council, corresponding institutional programs are situated on the top few floors of the building, accessible via lifts from the ground floor level. This design ensures that they don't miss out on the opportunity to interact with the city and its inhabitants at the ground floor level. A public laneway seamlessly flows between the service core, connecting the commercial precinct from Bourke Street to Lt Bourke Street. This dynamic laneway incorporates essential urban infrastructures, such as public toilets, retail spaces, and food courts, making it a vibrant and inviting space for both building occupants and visitors.

This well-thought-out distribution and connection of the program strata is accomplished by implementing a comprehensive circulation system inspired by the five rivers described in the Kulin Nation Map. To aid visitors in navigating the building, the rivers are color-coded with identical looks, providing clear direction and allocation within the architecture.

Located in the heart of Melbourne's most inviting and busy commercial district, this building holds immense significance. The colour recognition system is designed to inspire visitors and users to efficiently explore the diverse thematic spaces and functional layouts.

Design Innovation

How can indigenous culture be represented in a piece of city-making?
The integration of Indigenous culture into city planning is a powerful endeavour that fosters diversity and inclusivity. In this context, we explore various aspects of Indigenous acknowledgment and culture, which enrich the city-making process.

Approaches to Incorporate Aboriginal Culture:
Through the generation of the masterplan, we employ a sequential design method that utilizes an Aboriginal map as a drawing tool. By tracing the contours of essential elements such as rivers, coastlines, and territories of different tribes, we create detailed and thoughtful plans.

We embrace the profound knowledge of the Indigenous (Middle Yarra region) by incorporating their unique calendar with six seasons in our design. This is achieved through vertically arranged programmatic strata, which also correspond to different stakeholders.

To add vibrancy and meaning to the cityscape, we employ color-coding techniques. Facades located in different seasons are adorned with colour swatches extracted from the representative features of each season.

Additionally, we draw inspiration from rivers, which hold immense significance for Indigenous communities. Analysing the five rivers described in the Kulin Nation map, we transform them into five major public circulation areas, each with distinct themes and functions. This innovative approach not only respects the site's historical context but also reflects the rich diversity of Melbourne's population.

The design also incorporates a plethora of diverse conceptual elements and design languages. Collectively, these elements contribute to an inclusive and welcoming space for the city's inhabitants.

Captions: Visualizing User Dialogues:
By engaging in dialogue between different stakeholders through captioning, we can ensure a comprehensive and well-informed approach. This allows us to imagine and speculate on how different users would use the designated spaces. In addition, the captions themselves have become a powerful medium, catalysing insightful perspectives and sparking meaningful discussions between different stakeholders.

Design Impact

Ground floor level:
"We aim to promote development that contributes positively to the public realm," said Nicholas Reece, chair of the council's planning portfolio. Melbourne's City Mayor, Sally Capp, further elaborated, "We strive for excellent design and functional, inviting spaces at ground level."

We stand on the same ground with one of our selected stakeholders, the Melbourne City Council Engagement Hub, in wishing to create a welcoming and valuable ground floor space. The sheltered walkway connects corners and serves as an extension of the tram stops. Colourful and striking building entrances help visitors find their destinations. Lampposts designed to resemble ship masts add to the bay's atmosphere and showcase various civic activities in designated plazas. The plaza offers stages for public performances, corner coffee shops, inviting lawns for seating, and essential amenities such as bicycle racks and water hydration stations, not to mention the streetlights.

A hub that catalyses interactive learning experiences and public engagement:
Three rays of sunlight attempt to penetrate this wooden block, with the hottest midday sunlight succeeding and forming a massive valley. The morning and evening sunlight, being cooler, fail to penetrate and instead create huge craters on the surface of the block. The river originating from the top of the building flows down along the inner wall of the valley, while the river flowing through the craters fills them up – forming a highly interactive and shared informal learning hub.

Escalator platforms: Informal Learning Nooks
Continuing the discussion from the lecture, the platforms are enlarged to hold informal seminars, known as the ‘Catchment of Yarra.’ This reveals the importance of evolving public engagement in school teaching by providing more opportunities for visitors to join conversations while passing by. The public conversations and dialogues would feed back into students' learning.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

The integration of ESD is strategically implemented in various aspects of the design. The principle of circularity is prominently displayed through passive solar control components, exposed structural elements and the use of mass timber to effectively reduce carbon emissions.

Passive solar control and solar panels:
The iconic look of the building is created through the concept of the 'sun'. Throughout the day, sunlight penetrates the building, bringing natural light to the surrounding area. This effect is achieved by creating penetrations in the building, symbolising the sun's rays burning through a piece of wood, resulting in charred wood. In particular, the 'charred' parts of the façade are proposed to be adorned with solar panels, emphasising the integration of sustainable energy sources. The general building façade plays a crucial role in shading the sun, providing passive solar control, reducing energy consumption, meanwhile providing natural light and views.

Natural ventilation:
Natural ventilation is also thoughtfully incorporated through the introduction of a 'breathing crystal' design, developed from the element of wind, which creates chill-out areas that maintain comfortable internal temperatures while minimising energy use, contributing to a pleasant office environment.

Inspired by the Loddon River, the building incorporates a series of gardens and vegetation. The floor slabs within the structure are transformed into sloping surfaces that mimic the meandering path of the river. This innovative design element results in a dynamic and flowing environment that reflects the natural curves and movement of the river as it traverses the different levels of the building.

These gardens play a key role in reducing the urban heat island effect, improving natural ventilation and increasing the productivity of occupants. They also improve the overall acoustic quality of the space and contribute to greater energy efficiency.

Student Design 2023 Finalists


Maneet Singh / RMIT University

SAF.ER - Solar Aqua Filter Emergency Response

Zoë Ryan-Ferdowsian / Chung Hei Heidi Chan / Kristian Slatter-Jensen / Zach Daniells / RMIT University

Ver - Post-op Recovery for Transgender Individuals

Lily Geyle / Swinburne University of Technology

Rift Snowboards - Sustainable Snowboard Design

Harvey Edmanson / RMIT University


Alessia Tsolakis / Monash University


Chetan Shastri / Alfred Health / RMIT University


Sam Quinn / Supervisors - Dr. Judith Glover & John Cherrey / RMIT University

Ngulu Djeembana (The Gathering of Voices)

Shao Tian Teo / Taylor Ristevski / Alexander Barr / Dr Christine Phillips (RMIT Design Studio Leader) / Stasinos Mantzis (RMIT Design Studio Leader) / Professor N'arwee't Carolyn Briggs AM (Boonwurrung Elder/RMIT Design Studio Leader) / RMIT University

A Speculative Circular Economy Innovation

Dawei Cao / RMIT University

Technology of Interactions (ToI)

Jian Shin See / Monash University

YANA: You Are Not Alone

Jacqueline Johnstone / Monash University

Kennett River Tower

Lachlan Hartnett - RMIT University, School of Architecture and Urban Design / Tutors: Mietta Mullaly, Jack Heatley and James Cosgrave

Project Shift

Trystan Paderno / RMIT University

The Homeless Project

Katarina Kopecka / Swinburne University of Technology


Sherine Yonarto / Elizabeth Amanda / Supervisor - Frank Feltham / RMIT University