On track to building educational success with the MIT train station campus

More than bricks and mortar, tertiary institutions shape the way students learn, how they perceive their experience, and influence the way students relate to their environment. Building a learning space is as much waxing philosophy as it is creating function, and marrying a transport hub with the Manukau Institute of Technology has been an endeavour unlike anything before.

The Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) building is just coming up to its one-year birthday, and its design of combining a train station with open-floor education is something that’s broken new ground.

The design firm behind the project, Warren and Mahoney, have recently claimed awards at the Auckland Architecture Awards for the project’s conception and its breakdown of tertiary education’s image of ivory towers.

Blair Johnston, of Warren and Mahoney, speaks with Idealog on the design processes behind the project, as well as the future of Auckland City.

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It’s that trend now, talking about overseas city-hubs, all these places such as Tokyo, Beijing, New York, producing incredible architecture, and Auckland is right up there.

I think you’re right. I think it’s a two-way thing; there’s a greater recognition of something we’re doing that’s unique, and that ‘something’ is often intangible to us because we live here. But I think there’s also a real newfound inner confidence here about our place in relevance to the world. I think that’s a pronounced shift, and certainly [Warren and Mahoney], we’re shifting our mindset from New Zealand – a regional mindset. Simple to say, but hard to do, and it’s a powerful shift in terms of thinking about the way you work, the way you collaborate, and the way you deliver projects.

Bringing it into context – the MIT project – is that a follow up on trends elsewhere internationally, or was the thinking behind it simply that it was such a good idea that it should be done?

I think the project's genesis is quite unique, and that building’s genesis is completely MIT’s mission in business and in life. It’s why we’re proud of the project – it has social outcomes at its heart. I think that sort of foundation underpinning it makes it quite a different project; it references emergent trends in education design, but it does it in a particular way. And secondly, to address a particular market – when you’re dealing with a problem, which is that the people of South Auckland take up tertiary education at a rate less than 50% of the national average, this building is part of the answer.

I think, though, the world is moving towards higher levels of integration and cross-pollination. I think the cross programming of buildings where you combine a transport interchange with a tertiary institution – those kinds of activities are becoming more common, because people are starting to see the opportunities that are inherent in those models.

You’re talking about hubs where people are coming and going, and there’s more opportunity for business, retail, a variety of things. Do you think that’s a way for the community to become engaged?

Absolutely. I think you see this in the work place as well as in tertiary education. Our work at MIT is this kind of ‘knowingly’ blurring of boundaries, between private and public domain. The creative tension that exists – inviting the public in – more and more work places want to engage with the public, so finding that in a transport interchange is a great opportunity. Finding opportunities to connect with the wider public are really important.

Britomart, for the first time for many Aucklanders, feel like an urban experience. The kind of experience you might have in other parts of the world, which, at the time, felt more desirable and glamorous. And MIT delivers another version of that. It’s probably one of a very small group of buildings you can arrive in via train from below, and emerge up into an exciting and uplifting space. That’s a kind of global urban experience and something that Auckland’s been short of until recently.

You said yourself that Manukau doesn’t exactly cater to people of relatively higher socio-economic standing. Would you say the MIT hub is a success in bringing in more education to that location?

I think it’s representing possibilities for a different life to a wider range of people. It’s making education more accessible – it’s the antithesis of an ivory castle. It’s tried to remove all of the barriers to entry, and that’s the fundamental measure of success for the project.

It’s [also] too early to say, right now, whether it’s been able to realise those [goals], as it’s been open for less than a year. I’m really confident that it will be a catalyst for education in that part of the community. Every single design decision has been tailored to that effect, to invite people in, to reduce thresholds, to remove preconceptions. Almost sublimely coerce people to enter into an environment they may not enter by choice. So if they’re going about their daily business, and traveling through the Manukau train station, they are exposed to the possibilities of learning. I think that’s tremendously powerful. I think it’s a very far-reaching project, in that regard.

Is it possibly too far-reaching or too idealist a point of view?

I don’t think it’s particular idealist at all. I think its ambition is to be highly accessible, to be open, to invite people in. I don’t see any of those as being idealist. I think it’s just a new way of looking at education.

And it’s important to recognise that MIT has a vocational model. They’re preparing people for the real world, and so this building is an attempt to prepare the students for the real world working environments. It’s pretty adventurous in its configuration of classrooms – there’s not many cellular classrooms; most of the teaching happen in open learning areas around an open atrium, where learning is on display and students are visible to each other.

Those are powerful signals to be able to send. The people can see their peers – those people they went to school with –  learn in that environment. I think that’s really powerful. It’s certainly ambitious. It shatters the paradigm, in many ways, and you never make those leaps without setting out with a really ambitious target.

On a national context, is this the model to go for public transport in the future?

There’s well established views of life that the place for increased density in development is around transport nodes, because it takes the pressure off existing road systems. I completely endorse that view.

I think MIT represents one tentative step, that’s now connected to the Auckland CBD in a direct manner via electric train. What it now needs is all the development to come beyond MIT. That means not only a bus interchange across the road, but also increased housing opportunities. People living in the main Manukau CBD – an increase there would be the greatest shift for that area.

This is a trend that we’re going to see more of?

Absolutely. Inevitably. I mean, it’s evidential, not circumstantial. You can look at any city in the world and you’ll find nodal developments springing up around places of transport density. So that will absolutely occur here.

I think there’s been a real attempt to leverage off the potential of [the MIT] train station. It’s clearly working.

The question then becomes whether we build transportation nodes around existing communities, or try to form new communities around new development areas. Which way do you think we’re going to go?

I think the unitary plan has attempted to strike a balance between those disparate views; my personal view is they’ve probably got it a little bit wrong.

And because I’m interested in living in a city, in the quality of life for the people in a city, I am interested in increasing density within the existing urban limits. It’s fundamentally easier to serve people with public transport and our existing infrastructure, and it provides a more connected contemporary urban society. That’s what I’m interested in.

On a global scale, are we playing catch up in terms of design and thinking to other cities who’ve been dabbling in this for two or three decades?

There’s a certain aspect of critical mass for all of these things, and when you’re talking about Auckland in particular, we’re approaching a scale now where certain types of investment are now required and justified because they unlock unrealised potential. I think that’s a natural transition that most cities go through as they increase in size.

Auckland’s projected to reach 2 million people just after 2033, so that’s a 500,000 increase in population. And there are a whole lot of things that go with that, and it’s both natural and inevitable. We’re not unique; certainly Australasian cities have traversed this territory in recent times, and we’ll do the same. I don’t think we’ll come up with our own bespoke way with constructing our city. We’ll follow established trends, and we’ll try to do it in a way that’s relevant to us.

Internationally, even though a lot of cities such as in Asia are building up and down, there’s a crawl sideways as the city limits itself grows. Do you think this something that will happen?

I think there needs to be a balance. The problem I have with this discussion is that it’s always presented as a binary discussion. It’s either up or out, and of course, it’s both. Up means different things, not just towers. Increased density. There are lots of good models of increased density that aren’t apartment towers, and I guess my fervent desire is to have a discussion that is more nuanced than the current binary one. I think it’s counter-productive because people react to it. Either because of the loss of productive farmland, or because of high-rise slums, and those are the kinds of two poles. The discussion needs to be more nuanced. It’s difficult.

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Blair Johnston is the the Auckland principal and executive director of Warren and Mahoney.