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Emily McPherson College, RMIT University


Building 13 (Emily McPherson) - RMIT University, Russell Street, Melbourne VIC, Australia


Exterior – Free to view

Interior – Access may be restricted

Accessibility – This building is accessible

Architectural History

This two-storey Neo-classical building was designed by Public Works Department architect Evan Smith in 1926. The rendered brick building was built by W. Bolger and features a prominent Doric portico. The Emily McPherson College is of architectural significance as a distinctive neo-classical building, the austerity and controlled simplicity of which reflected the kind of values to be imparted to the College's students. The building was awarded the RVIA Street architecture award in 1930, an indication of the esteem with which the design was held at the time.

The monumental Doric portico and classical composition emphasised sober traditionalism, appropriately enough for an institution of learning, while the regular colonial Georgian fenestration was reminiscent of popular domestic styles at the time, especially for the houses of the well-to-do in places like Toorak. The absence of extravagant ornamentation was most applauded, reflecting post-WWI trends toward more restrained and functional buildings but still maintained decorative details such as the saltire crosses on the windows and balcony, and Greek fretwork on the portico floor.

Social History

The building is a reminder of the philosophies surrounding the education of women in the early to mid-1900s. Domestic Arts education developed in the years before and after WWI, at a time when there was a wider concerted push for 'scientific' parenting education. It was considered that mothering skills were not innate and needed to be taught, in the same way that domestic skills needed to be inculcated at school. The College reflects a time when young women's access to post-secondary education was very limited, with a broader education largely only obtainable in the context of domestic training. The building is now a part of RMIT University.

Prompts & Activities

  • Why do you think the architect used Greek influences in this building? How does it relate to its purpose, and the people who would have occupied it?

  • In comparison, how is it used today, and is this thinking still relevant? Or does the modern use of the building subvert its history?

  • How many of the mentioned Greek architectural elements can you see? Can you count columns or other design features? Which types of columns are used, and why do you think this is?

  • Emily McPherson College has many interesting social history influences, with its architecture informed by attitudes towards gender at the time, and economic outlooks in the wake of World War I. How do you think this influenced the building design? Is this apparent when you look at it today?

  • What is your favourite element of this building? Does it have interesting ornamentation? What part does this element play in the overall design of the building, and why might it have been included? You might like to draw your favourite components! Observational sketching is a great way to get a deeper understanding of something.

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