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In Conversation with Kerstin Thompson, principal of Kerstin Thompson Architects

Following more than four years of planning and eight months of works, the adaptive re-use of the Convent’s Sacred Heart building was completed in March 2018. The project was undertaken by an expert team dedicated to the preservation of the building—including Kerstin Thompson Architects (KTA) and FDC Construction and Fitout—and with guidance from Heritage Victoria.

At the completion of the project, Kerstin Thompson, principal of KTA and design lead, spoke to us about the project and the art of balancing heritage and functionality.

The main thing to consider with a project like this one, where you have a very distinctive set of buildings that are already very rich with character and qualities, is how to both maintain their character and maintain their links to the past. Especially all of the kinds of traces that are embedded in the fabric of people’s lives that lived there, in the different uses—but also to bring the project up to meet current regulation and so on.

The key purpose of this work was to find ways to unlock the spaces so that new uses could happen in the existing forms and spaces, and to do that with a degree of modesty, but also delight.

These buildings were built some time ago, and for very different purposes to what we intend to use them for now. The history of the Sacred Heart building is an interesting one. It was one of the earliest buildings of the Convent, and it was originally an asylum for what they called ‘wayward women’. It was a place of protection in some ways, for women who’d had difficulties—so they were in part protected by this place; but it was also a place of incarceration. So that’s very different to what we now know this space to be—a place of openness, artistic creation and community generosity. So, how do you make the same buildings effectively fulfil very different purposes?

Also, with a project like this, especially when you have a very particular and determined sum of money to do it, a challenge is how to do as little as necessary to enable as many opportunities for the future. It requires lots of rigour and clarity of thinking around what really needs to be done, and how little one can get away with to increase the opportunities for the spaces.

For example, it was a pretty cold building—on a winter’s morning it was freezing, and in summer, it was really hot. So, upgrading the building to perform better in terms of its thermal qualities was key. And then there’s things like access. This was a building over several levels, and it relied on stairs. Now, we need to have buildings, and all spaces, be accessible for everybody. So, some of the key considerations were how to create that accessibility, in a way that didn’t undermine the original feel of the building.

That’s where something like the bridge came in, which is the most visible part of the works that we did. The bridge connects the east and the west wing to solve the access issue, but in a way that’s enjoyable to use. So, it was a sign of the change that had happened—adding this new layer of works and new layer architecture, if you like, to the existing one.

Within other parts of the buildings, there’s many things we left well alone. There are some spaces you can walk into, and honestly, the paint is as we found it. It’s probably had a bit of a rub down and clean-up on the walls, but it’s not trying to tidy it all up.

With a project like this we chose deliberately not to tidy up, for two reasons really. One was, of course, economy—it’s obviously a lot cheaper thing to do to leave it. But more importantly, it was a way to just allow the building’s history to continue to be evident in its spaces. As soon as you put the same paint throughout, you’ve lost a lot of the signs and the evidence of past lives and uses, and even changing fashions and qualities. Paint colours are a really big indicator, a record, of historic moments. It was really lovely to be able to leave those as part of the layered history of the building.

You’ll notice as you walk through the building, there’s little details. For instance, the fact that some of the spaces were used as dormitories where the women obviously stayed. And you’ll see that they had very kind of meagre bathing facilities. There is a little foot bath in one of the rooms. We’ve left a lot of the basins. And you’ll see patches of tiles and taps and so forth. You’ll see those dotted all the way through, and we felt they were important as a register of the fact that it had been a dormitory building where women lived and worked as well. The foot bath is particularly telling because it tells you just something of how women were not able to take a shower or (have access to) those basic amenities. It gives you a little insight into their lives and the ways they lived.

I think the naming of spaces is quite important too, and I hope the rooms become known by their names. The names for instance are things like the Oratory, the Asylum, the Refuge, the Refectory, the Laundry, the Dormitory, the Granary, the Infirmary, and the Attic; and they all tell you something about what the original use might have been. It allows us to then speculate on what those names mean now and how those meanings might change.

This is a courtyard building, so its courtyard is possibly the most important part of it—not just the spaces around it. And its yard was a space where we thought it was very important not to do too much. Partly because if we had over-landscaped it, and paved it etc, it would have lost what its original purpose was. It was an exercise yard, but it was also a space of confinement. Now it’s a space for events, markets, an outdoor cinema and so on. But we chose to leave it very much as we found it—quite lean—so that you have some sense of its earlier purpose, but also so that in the future, it can be very multipurpose and you can do whatever you like with it because it hasn’t been over-designed. That’s quite a deliberate approach with a lot of heritage projects—that you don’t do so much that you’re completely rewriting qualities and losing some of those links to the past.

When we were working out how much or how little to do, we set ourselves a few little rules to guide the work that we did. One was that we thought about how we looked at all of the different spaces, and we thought that some were sacrosanct, in that they were so special and significant within the building, that we would try to do nothing to those spaces other than conserve them. Then the spaces we thought of as more sacrificial or incidental were where we introduced more significant interventions like toilets and lifts and so on.

The building has got lots of little rooms, it’s not just one. It has some larger, longer hall type spaces, but there’s also many smaller rooms. Each of those has a slightly different proportion and quality, and we wanted to make sure that they continued to be distinctive in their characters, and again, not try to homogenise them all.

Also, that you might like the green room, or the pink room, or the one that’s up in the attic, or the one that fills down on the ground. They all have their different qualities, and that gives people a nice choice of the kind of space they’d like to choose to work in.

We think of Sacred Heart as a sort of veritable palimpsest of the various histories of the site, and we love that a printmaking studio might now occupy what was a former dormitory, and that you still see those traces on the walls, so that practises of long ago are still somehow evident in the new lives taking place there.

Finally, to finish, sometimes the best thing you can do in architecture is to leave (things) well enough alone, so just don’t do very much at all. That can be a very powerful move.

Kerstin Thompson

Thank you!

The Sacred Heart building restoration project was made possible with government, philanthropic and community support. And in 2019, the Sacred Heart restoration won the John George Knight Award as winner of the Heritage category of the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architecture (AIA) as well as a National Commendation at the (AIA) National Architecture Awards. Discover more about the restoration project and the history of the Sacred Heart building on the Convent website.