Thomas Carr College Chapel


Location: Tarneit VIC

Function: School chapel

Architect: Smith + Tracey

Builder: Searle Bros

Structural Engineer: BDD Engineering

Bricklayer: Paul Phillips

Owner: Thomas Carr College

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What can a chapel and a Nautilus shell possibly have in common?

The name Thomas Carr College Chapel brings up visions of a reduced-scale Gothic-style church in a well-established private school. The reality is a strikingly contemporary design in a Catholic secondary school serving a rapidly-developing suburb in Melbourne’s outer-west.

The school originally proposed relocating a small, timber country church but cost and practicalities caused this to be abandoned in favour of a new build. The arresting striped pattern of the chapel’s curved facade –possible only with the modularity that is inherent in brickwork – has created a signature building at the gateway to the campus.

This is the third building designed by Smith + Tracey Architects for the Thomas Carr College campus. The company was founded in 1946 and is best known for its ecclesiastical architecture but is also involved in aged care and multi-residential design.

The two previous buildings, a Year7/8 middle school and a trade training centre, were similarly ambitious in their design and well received by the school community. “The school encourages contemporary architecture and we ensure our work meets their functional needs as well,” says the chapel’s design architect Stasinos Mantzis.

The chapel is relatively small, seating about 100, with a similar overflow into the courtyard if required. It was not designed as a whole-of- school space but as a place for individual reflection and contemplation as well as a teaching space for religious education. It isn’t intended for community use or for extra-curricular ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms or funerals.

Both internally and externally the building is intriguing in plan. “Essentially it’s one big room with a shape that is organic and free-flowing rather than rectangular,” Mantzis explains. This shape is based on the Fibonacci Sequence, named after a 12 th century Italian mathematician. The sequence is found widely in nature – the spiralling curve of the Nautilus shell is just one example – and in architecture such as the facade roportions of the Parthenon, and in the Golden Mean. It can also be present in music and poetry.

The chapel is located at the main entry to the campus, with the striped brickwork facade making its dramatic statement to the street. This face reaches up to five metres, a substantial height for what is a relatively small building. The rear facade, which faces the school buildings beyond, is clad in composite panels. The cavity brickwork is not loadbearing; a steel frame carries the structural loads.

“The placement and orientation of the chapel and the way you approach it was very much about coming from the street but also coming from the school,” says Stasinos Mantzis. “As you walk around the building the two sides give different experiences. I thought that was quite important in giving it a sense of ceremony.”

Why brickwork? “Brick was my first choice mainly for its warmth and the ability to play with colour,” Mantzis explains. “I think that was important and for its suggestion of solidity.” He adds that brick also “references and celebrates the suburban context. To the street it’s also a very solid material and slightly monumental.”

The remarkable diagonally striped brickwork is a reference to the tradition of polychromatic (multi-coloured) brickwork which appears widely in Melbourne’s colonial-era architecture such as churches, public buildings and housing, a prominent example being Rippon Lea mansion.

Mantzis chose Bowral Bricks Charolais Cream and Bowral Blue dry-pressed bricks to generate the contrast he was seeking. “We needed that strong contrast to bring out the pattern, for it to be really evident from a distance.” The Charolais Cream stripes break up the darker Bowral Blue background in the exterior, while the pattern is reversed on the interior.

Although the striped patterning looks complicated, the bricklaying process was relatively straightforward: three bricks of one colour to one of the other, offset by one brick as each course rises. A light colour mortar is used throughout the brickwork.

“I’ve done lots of patterns with bricks,” says Mantzis. “It does take more time but I have found that most bricklayers who enjoy their craft take up the challenge. They are proud of the fact that they were able to achieve the pattern. The chapel brickwork was beautifully laid. It’s perfect.”

The brickwork is punctuated by windows, sized to the brick dimensions and fitted with contemporary stained glass by Anthony Russo of Orchard Design celebrating the life of Thomas Carr, Melbourne’s second Catholic archbishop.

The internal layout is unconventional with the altar and lectern at opposite ends of the centrally-located worship space, all but surrounded by seating. This has more in common with a monastic layout than the traditional arrangement of rows of seating facing the worship area.

“The building is fantastic,” says Gerard Smith, director of Smith + Tracey and son of its co-founder Des Smith. “It’s come up really well. It is the first point of arrival at the school. As people come in they see the chapel, so it’s instantly recognisable as a Catholic secondary college, which what the principal was after.”

After a six month build, the Thomas Carr College Chapel was blessed and officially opened by the Archbishop of Melbourne in December 2014. The next phase of campus development is a performing arts centre.

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