24 Aug 23

The colours and contours of Country: Rio Tinto headquarters

Woods Bagot exchanges the sobriety of the conventional corporate fit-out for an expressive, textured and surprising interior space driven by meaningful narrative, sculptural elements, and moments of wonder.

For Rio Tinto’s new Melbourne headquarters, the client sought a humanised, deeply tactile and immersive workspace, part office and part museum. With narrative and user experience driving the design response, the space becomes a living canvas for the company’s values, its stories and its connection to place.

“We did a deep dive into the way they work, the materials they mined, and how all those metals and minerals are generated into forms – that informed the materiality,” says design leader Marcia Ascencio.

“The company wanted to showcase a shift in their approach and commitment to change, while educating people about who they are and what they do. With a focus on the four main minerals and metals – aluminium, bauxite, copper, and iron ore – the arrival space provides investors, clients and school groups with a true insight into the organisation.”

For Rio Tinto, occupational safety, cultural safety, and knowledge sharing are key company priorities, and these touchstones are resounding in the design. 

In the arrival space, the materiality generates a sense of warmth, with finishes evoking the textures of sand, clay, rock, sediment of Country. “We worked closely with Rio Tinto’s Indigenous representatives in the arrival sequence to determine how we could best visually represent Country,” says Principal Bronwyn McColl.

Studio Ongarato designed privacy decals across the glass doors, creating opacity through fine-lined abstractions of the landscape.

“The design team explored the idea of deconstructing references to the land, striation and geology and that Rio Tinto works with, and abstract these concepts in the design to represent Country in a more metaphoric way.”  

Undulating curves, soft edges, ochre tones and rough finishes emerge from this abstraction, with colours and contours guided by the textures and terrain of Rio’s sites across Australia. Ascencio conceived the idea of using copper wire to depict the landscape, draping it from a cavernous space in the ceiling to create an expressive sculptural gesture and striking focal point.

“The ceiling responds to two of the design criteria: copper is one of their core materials, and it also depicted the relationship to Country, creating something tactile, dynamic and immersive,” says McColl.  

The fabric is a semi-translucent mesh made from threads of copper – it is soft to touch, but holds its form when moulded. The texture was achieved by hand, with Ascencio directing the installer onsite, who manually manipulated the pliable fabric to create the impression of peaks and ravines.

Steel plinths with hand-sanded finishes touch on the raw material iron ore, another of the key materials identified in the brief. On these plinths, drill heads sit like sculptures – the largest of which weighs 110kg – recovered from decommissioned mine sites in Western Australia. These interactive displays enhance the practice of knowledge sharing and education, encouraging visitors to the space to engage with Rio Tinto’s history.   

The space features interactive touchpoints for visitors to learn about the company history.

Monolithic stone reception desk.

Iridescent copper curtain around breakout zone.

Rendered concrete walls in the arrival space resemble bauxite in texture and tone, a reddish-brown sedimentary rock, while a monolithic stone reception desk offers a decisive arrival touchpoint. Woods Bagot created 3D templates of the reception desk and worked closely with a stonemason onsite to create the different finishes on each flat face, every one individually honed, leathered or sandblasted to reference the raw rock element.

The space is designed to feel light and transparent, while in the meeting rooms, Studio Ongarato designed privacy decals across the glass doors, creating opacity through fine-lined abstractions of the landscape. The designs represent a vertical cross-section of the earth, the linear etchings representing the strata of rock and sediment.

Colour becomes a navigation device, with the graduating colours of raw minerals helping to move users through the space. “It starts with warmer mineral colours in the entry and that folds into the executive lounge,” says Ascencio. “The colour is a gradient as you move around the floorplate, transitioning from warm ochres into blues and greens, layered in together.”

The blues and greens draw their origins from the metal oxidation process, and around a breakout table, a copper oxide partition curtain hangs, its iridescent finish changing colour from orange to purple as the light moves across it.

“The deeper tones create a calming work environment that sets the tenor for quiet activities, where the workplace is more focused,” says Ascencio. “The dark around the core is to facilitate that quieter zone; it really creates a soft interior that draws people from home after COVID,” says Ascencio.

The Rio Tinto headquarters incorporates expressive gestures, organic geometry, and materials that highlight the potential of metals in various forms. Through graduating colour and meandering form, Woods Bagot creates a dynamic and metamorphic spatial journey, connecting users with the lands on which they practice through immersive design.


Media enquiries
Isla Sutherland
Content and Communications Specialist (Australia & New Zealand)

Latest from the Global Studio