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Matt Gibson Architecture + Design


Derek Swalwell

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St Mary’s Narthex is sensitively designed to respect its sandstone neighbour and suburban streetscape.


St Mary’s Narthex is a contemporary addition to St Mary’s Parish and Primary School in Malvern East, Melbourne and you could say the Narthex practices what the Bible proposes, which is to “love thy neighbour.” Designed by Matt Gibson Architecture + Design (MGA+D), the Narthex is a sensitive approach to the surrounding architecture with zinc-coloured bricks that respect the Barrabool sandstone of its ecclesiastical neighbour and reinterpret the red bricks of it California bungalow streetscape.

St Mary’s Narthex was completed in 2015 and marked the centenary of St Mary’s Catholic Church. The parish room and pastoral centre located on the narrow section of land between the church and presbytery is used as a gathering space outside of the church: as a venue after weddings, funerals and special occasions; as a spill-out space when the church is full; and as an additional learning and assembly space for the primary school. “St Mary’s wished to create a statement for the future as a means of integrating and including new and current parishioners into one community,” says Matt. “Architecturally the building ultimately needed to be a functional, comfortable and a heritage-sensitive addition connected to the church.”

MGA+D creates buildings that emphasise the experience of space by addressing people’s instinctive attraction to light, material and pattern. “This requires close attention to scale, surface, threshold and junction and the rigorous exploration of the zones between what has come before and what is new,” Matt explains. This is visible in the design of St Mary’s Narthex as its form and materials clearly define what is new and privilege what it is old. In doing so it makes two buildings, separated by a century in age and mere metres in distance, work contemporaneously.


The Narthex has a rational and symmetrical form that is restrained, robust and rigorously detailed. “The form references ecclesiastical buildings of the past with a row of cloistered openings maintaining the solidity of the object whilst allowing views to and from the church,” Matt explains. A similar colonnade of shelved bays on the western wall mirrors those openings on the eastern wall. The roof gradually declines from front to back and a cantilevered canopy extends over a timber-lined deck to open indoor and outdoor space.

A glazed roof connection in the interstitial space between the Church and Narthex sensitively fuses the new neighbours and allows for interplays of light. “The existing fabric of the Church takes on greater clarity with the exposed texture of the Barrabool sandstone exterior (now internal) becoming a feature throughout the day and evening,” says Matt.

The design team carefully selected the material palette of the Narthex to complement the Church while ensuring it wasn’t upstaged. MGA+D selected Austral Brick Metallix in Zinc as a suitably modest material with a contemporary look and feel. The colour palette references the Church’s copper and bronzed metal detail and slate roof; their form helps to assert the solidity and robustness of the Narthex’s geometry; and they are a harmonious and modern reinterpretation of the red brick California bungalows that line the suburban street.


The contrast between the bricks and sandstone establishes a dialogue between the Church and Narthex as the darker and smoother surface contrasts and showcases the lighter, textured sandstone surface. Salvaged cream brick pavers contribute to that dialogue, particularly in the interstitial space where the sandstone blocks, cream paves and zinc bricks meet in close proximity, bringing a mix of textures, colours and blockwork patterns to the narrow light-filled corridor.

Bricks have proved their versatility and power to unite at St Mary’s Narthex. Through close attention to scale, surface and colour and by sensitively considering past and present, MGA+D has created a contemporary building that respects it heritage neighbour and twentieth-century streetscape. And much like the ambitions of the parish for the Narthex, the result integrates and includes the new and the existing into an interconnected community.


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