McBride Charles Ryan


Through a clever juxtaposition of style and materiality, McBride Charles Ryan has executed a stunning example of contemporary archiectural design in Ivanhoe Grammar School’s Senior Years Centre. Here, Debbie-Lyn Ryan, Firmer Owner, delves into the importance of using form, space and colours as a way of inspiring inquisitiveness within the minds of young people.

Words: Emily Sparshott. Photography: John Gollings

Ivanhoe Grammar School’s Senior Years Centre (Plenty Campus) is a buildingthat encompasses both simplicity and complexity through the use of distinctive shapes and statement colours. Combining classical and abstract styles, this project is a wonderful example of Melbourne-based architectural firm McBride Charles Ryan’s ability to create a space that’s not only visually stunning, but also integral to the education and growth of the people who inhabit it.

Consisting of owner Debbie-Lyn Ryan, Director Robert McBride and a well-established team of architects, McBride Charles Ryan has amassed an impressive portfolio of completed projects, which are all tangible representations of their unique ideas and designs. An amalgamation of commercial, contextual and historical interfaces informs the firm’s design choices and paves the way to clear architectural concepts. With its strong focus on the power of architecture to generate meaning and value, it’s not surprising the firm was awarded the 2005 Victorian Architecture Medal – a symbol of recognition for their impact on the Victorian architectural landscape.

At the crux of McBride Charles Ryan’s projects is the view that architecture can be personally relatable and inspiring for users, visitors and passers by. This is an ideology that seems to spurn from Ryan’s own sensory experiences of the spaces around her as a child and the impact they’ve had on her work as an adult.

“As a young person, I was exposed to many different architectural environments due to the nature of my father’s work. Our family was constantly on the move and I can count [living in] fifteen houses in three states by the time I reached thirteen years of age. My mother was a dressmaker and eventually the family business was in Manchester. Our new house, fabric patterns, colours and textures were topics of contemplation and discussion. So perhaps it was this combination that laid the seeds of interest,” says Ryan.

While the family occupied many different residences, the individuality of each home has stayed with Ryan her entire life.


“I have a photographic memory of each new house [with] its own individual character. In Whyalla, we had a stone house made of big blocks. It had velvet curtains, which divided the lounge from the hallway. We held performances there. It had violets in the front yard and an enormous backyard, which went on forever. Renmark was a mean house probably made of asbestos and its only redeeming feature was its proximity to a weigh bridge where we would take a bucket and fill it with stonefruits or grapes. [It also] had a large front lawn where we would run under the sprinkler,” Ryan explains.

“I remember our house in Shepparton [as it was] our introduction to the modern speculative house … [My] school in Bunside, Adelaide was an experimental school with sea grass matting and operable walls. I still can smell our trips to the city. We would stay at Victoria Hotel in Little Collins Street. It was exciting; I remember the foyers and sensed the age of the building and that part of the city,” she adds.

Once Ryan had established foundations of her own in Melbourne’s CBD, her work began to flourish. She describes the late 1980s as “heady days” for the industry, where anyone with a little talent could make his or her way into the architectural world. It is here that McBride Charles Ryan was born.

“I had a lot of freelance work, which I did from a studio in Little Bourke Street. I had so much that I got Rob McBride and Tony Charles to help me [and then] I suggested we should have our own business. We started in Rob’s and my apartment … I had a drawing board in my bedroom … representatives had two hundred steps to climb with samples,” Ryan says.

“I started McBride Charles Ryan by designing sets for exhibitions and photographic shoots. I supplemented this with sub-contract work for people like Ian McDougall and ARM Architecture in the early days to help get by. Very slowly we graduated to real work: cafes, small houses and extensions. We have humble beginnings – small jobs that led to larger jobs, but we still keep doing the smaller, interesting ones! We have had to earn our stripes.”

More than twenty years on, McBride Charles Ryan has headed the architectural design of many exceptional public spaces and institutions, including NGV Melbourne Now’s Community Hall, as well as a multi-residential block at Monash University’s Clayton campus. However, the Ivanhoe Grammar School’s Senior Years Centre could well be the magnum opus of the firm’s stunning portfolio.


Set within a rural landscape, the newly erected Senior Years Centre stands as a focal point of the campus. Tall eucalyptus trees and red river gums are dotted around the grounds and provide a native, almost nostalgic character to the property. The challenge was to create a building that not only complemented its landscape, but was also ambitious in design. Ivanhoe Grammar School acknowledged that to provide a personalised and tailored educational experience, they needed a design that incorporated a variety of general learning areas and separate spaces for senior year teachers, as well as a science centre to be used by younger students too.

What followed was what Ryan describes as a lengthy planning process that involved the added input of those who would also be utilising the building. Consisting of School Principal, Deb Sukarna, the Facilities Manager and selected staff representatives, Ivanhoe Grammar School’s planning group met with McBride Charles Ryan throughout the development of the project. As well as this, the group visited varying teaching spaces to get a feel for the design of other educational centres, including the La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science and RMIT’s Swanston Academic Building. An array of planning models were developed and analysed as a result.

The collaboration between the two parties proved to be a boon during the design phase, because as the collective team discovered from their research, they needn’t rely on traditional teaching spaces to create a truly dynamic educational facility.

“The building was to have a science focus so we analysed that activity. Science was found to be about experimentation, analysis, reflection and display. We could separate these activities and make use of the space more efficiently. We aimed for fresh air and access to views since they were naturally magnificent. We wanted access to outdoor learning, as well as some spaces to be multi-use and some to be focused,” Ryan explains.

“We discovered that similar sized rooms were not required for a lot of activities in a senior school and a variety of spatial types would be a more efficient way to use space. For example, some languages in senior schools may only have six students; therefore a 50m x 70m2 classroom (the norm) is not required. An intimate space would be better and could be used as a break out space at other times.”

“The physical connectivity and proximity of the variety of spaces was considered in great detail. It was acknowledged that the teaching of any one class would occur over a variety of connected or nearby spaces. This would allow the intensive teaching of small groups, student collaboration and individual contemplation to all occur simultaneously,” she further adds.


Having taken almost two and a half years to complete, the Senior Years Centre is a marked success for McBride Charles Ryan. While its civic exterior is circular in form and moulds with the bush landscape, the interior of the centre houses a geometric overlay that clearly defines the separate working spaces of the building, whilst symbolising the labyrinthine nature of human intellect. As Ryan describes, the contrast between the exterior and interior encapsulates contemporary pedagogical approaches by teachers to provide a well-rounded education.

“It is another exploration of an ideal educational model. The circular plan is an alluring one for architects. Clearly, it is a definitive human mark upon the landscape, and yet its many precedents – from Stonehenge to indigenous gatherings – show that it can, perhaps paradoxically, coexist with and not disrupt a native landscape. The interior of the facility, with its complex geometry laid over the pureness of a circle is an apt metaphor for the encouragement of curiosity and the wonder that a study of science can reveal,” Ryan says.

“This geometry was used to define the central courtyards, the light wells and a mosaic of learning spaces. A series of indoor courtyards were designed within the facility to enhance cross ventilation, light and aspect to the rooms. The largest of these, the central courtyard space, acts as an adjunct to the ground floor teaching spaces and provides a central recreational and meeting place for the students. One of the many breakout spaces sits within the courtyard and can fully open to provide a focal point for presentations and lunchtime concerts. Staff areas are peppered throughout the facility to enhance access by the students and to encourage collegiality. Locker areas that are open and light-filled are similarly scattered. They are designed as highly visible social areas,” she adds.

For a project such as this, materiality is highly important, and McBride Charles Ryan’s use of colour, texture and natural light is a nod to the contrast between decorum and playful experimentation. “We call the project a ‘mosaic’ of learning spaces; it is like a kaleidoscope. As you move around the building, the coloured geometric pattern continually changes. The ambition is to open students’ minds to a multitude of possibilities,” Ryan explains.

“Roof cladding was used as a wall cladding in combination with timber and planting. Used in circular form rather than the typical shed structure, the [exterior’s] dark material not only enhances the natural Australian landscape, but acts as a foil opening to the rich mosaic of colour on the interior.”

As well as the use of varying colours and materials, encouraging natural light and ventilation was extremely important in reiterating the incorporation of the building with the school’s landscape.

“The learning spaces have been configured to generally maximise both light and shading through upper level walkways. Large, easily operated sliding doors are included to encourage the staff to maintain connectivity between the inside and outside and reduce the reliance on conditioned air. Most spaces are configured so as to maximise the opportunities for cross ventilation to the learning areas,” says Ryan.

Since its completion in late 2015, Ryan says seeing the Ivanhoe Grammar School’s students interact with the space and using it exactly as the firm intended has been McBride Charles Ryan’s proudest moment. Following on from such a monumental achievement, McBride Charles Ryan looks forward to many more exciting projects, including a masterplan for a university, as well as a welcome arch for the Vietnames community in Footscray.

In Ryan’s words, “you have to be passionate about what you do, or you will find it difficult to survive. Where there is a will, there is a way.” This catchphrase has certainly provided the modus operandi for McBride Charles Ryan. From starting out by creating sets for exhibitions on a drawing board in Ryan’s bedroom, to designing an awe-inspiring hub aimed at enhancing learning and creativity, the company has certainly found its footing within a difficult industry.

The Ivanhoe Grammar School’s new Senior Years Centre takes the most contrasting of ideas, materials and colours, and utilises them to turn the space into a visual splendour.

While its kaleidoscope of colour and fluidity of form stands out in its rural setting, McBride Charles Ryan has made it seem as if it should have been there all along.