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State Library Victoria | Cultural and public architecture

Child’s play

In the early stages of a major refurbishment of State Library Victoria, the building’s smallest visitors contributed some of the biggest ideas.

When the State Library Victoria asked children to imagine the contents of their dream library, many quickly thought of worlds contained within the storybooks on the surrounding shelves, where magic plants grow through the clouds, stars light up the sky and children ride spaceships, dinosaurs and elephants.

“We didn’t want people to think about traditional library spaces, and the kids were great. They let their imaginations run wild,” says Architectus Principal Ruth Wilson.

Child's play at the State Library Victoria

The Pauline Gandel Children’s Quarter space spans two floors and features a two-storey climbing castle: the top floor is designed for kids aged 9+, and the lower level caters for younger children.

In the early design stages of the major refurbishment, the State Library Victoria engaged children and families in a series of co-design workshops, asking regular participants in their popular Storytime, Play Pod and Baby Bounce programs to weigh in.

While children drew pictures of their ideal libraries on paper plates, their parents, carers and guardians were asked to respond to three words – “story”, “family” and “play” – with ideas they believed would lead to the most engaging spaces for their children. Some got creative (“A giant fridge door to display artwork on!”), while others offered practical suggestions (“More things for under ones to do.”).

Over a week in July 2016 when the workshops took place, the Architectus team paid regular visits to the library where they spoke with the adults and children taking part.

“Many of the parents spoke about coming to the library during the school holidays with two children, a preschool aged child and a school aged child, who had different interests and needs,” says Architectus Principal John Sprunt.

“It was pretty clear that we needed two different areas so older children could enjoy the space as much as their younger siblings.”

As they pored over the feedback and children’s drawings produced during the co-design workshops, the design team observed some recurring themes between the children’s and adults’ ideas.

Zoned areas have been designed to cater for children as they grow and develop, with specific areas and activities targeted towards babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, primary schoolers and pre-teens.

Child's play at the State Library Victoria

“So many kids drew castles and treehouses and spaceships. What do those three places have in common? They are all fantasy settings, they have multiple levels and are places where kids can climb, hide, play and explore,” says Sprunt.

“This was consistent with the most popular request from their parents – that kids needed more room for physical play.”

“We learnt that children wanted a range of spaces, from reading nooks to places where they could run around, be a bit noisy and burn off energy,” says Wilson.

“The co-design workshops were one of the defining aspects of the project and heavily influenced the conception and design of the Pauline Gandel Children’s Quarter.”

The workshops inspired the design team to create the large timber castle that runs along an entire wall in the new Pauline Gandel Children’s Quarter. A defining feature of the space, the striking two-storey castle is interspersed with other features that that came directly from the workshops including, toy animals and quiet nooks for reading and imaginative play.

“The idea is that the older children can spend time on the mezzanine level. They are still in the kids’ space and their parents are nearby, but they have some separation from the babies’ and toddlers’ sensory play areas on the ground floor,” says Sprunt.

Child's play at the State Library Victoria

The Children’s Quarter provides space for children to run around in, be noisy and burn off energy.

The state-of-the-art Children’s Quarter also includes a storytelling area, a creative making space, a new children’s literature collection, a lounge area and an education zone for school groups.

Engaging with children and families was just one part of an in-depth and wide-ranging user consultation process undertaken in the lead up to the major refurbishment project that was completed in December 2019.

A wide cross-section of the Victorian community – including primary school and secondary school groups – contributed to this state significant project, which Architectus has designed in collaboration with Danish architects, Schmidt Hammer Lassen.

Child's play at the State Library Victoria

Encompassing a $88 million refurbishment of large areas of the library, including the historic restoration of the iconic Ian Potter Queen’s Hall, the project has increases public space by 40 per cent and considerably improves the building’s overall amenity.

Yet, of the many new and refurbished spaces, there can be little question as to which one will receive the most enthusiastic reception.

“We know that different children learn in different ways, so the space we created for them addresses the fact that there is no cookie cutter approach to designing for children,” says Sprunt.

“What we have now is an area that can be anything a child wants it to be.”

Child's play at the State Library Victoria


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