Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
EVEN now, architects of the XX chromosome inclination have occasionally, teeth-grindingly, to field comments of the “that’s-nice-dear-you’ll-be-good-atdesigning-kitchens-then-won’t-
you ” kind. And, while reasoned responses range from withering scorn to precision violence, the question remains. Hypothetically and without prejudice, what difference might it make, if any, for a building to be designed by women instead of men?
Would our gorgeously phallic downtowns, say, have arisen otherwise (no pun intended) under female design provenance?
The answer is unknowable and in any case unvoiceable. But Sydney now has at least one building from a predominantly female design team (out of a dominantly male practice and still overwhelmingly male profession). Fortunately, the building is terrific.
French is the other epithet that leaps irrepressibly to mind. Not as in kissing or bombs. Nothing rude or racist about it. The new International Grammar School (IGS) building simply reads as a fragment of inner-arrondissement Paris dropped unsuspecting into Kelly Street, Ultimo. Goodness knows, Ultimo could do with a leg-up in the chic department.
IGS is an independent arts-based establishment, pre-school to 12, with a strong emphasis on music and language teaching. All pupils, age three up, study (and study in) at least one extra language. The commitment is serious: hard-won funding dollars go to provide language labs and solo practice rooms. It makes for an unusual school community, united not by class, expedience, faith or even parental ambition so much as adherence to a broad but intensely humanist tradition. This, roughly, was the brief to the design team, led by Peddle Thorp and Walker’s Diane Jones, and it is this sense of humanism, cultivation and optimism that quickens the architecture.
The school had long sought new premises, having been divided from birth between its Balmain-based high school and the rest, in the old Elizabeth Arden factory in Surry Hills. This was always a less-thantenable situation. The split was uncomfortable, the buildings unsalubrious and the council unhappy because of constant complaints from neighbours-with-voting-rights about parents parking and kids using the local park as a playing field.
The school was committed to an inner-urban existence but its search was strewn with disappointments, including the old Blackfriars buildings in Chippendale and the Police Academy in Bourke Street, Redfern. So when, eventually, a search party watering at an Ultimo local happened on the burnt-out Dalgety’s woolstore, owned by South Sydney Council and needing a good home, it must have seemed meant.
The school and the council struck a deal. Vacating Surry Hills, the school would consolidate temporarily in another of the council’s vacant Ultimo woolstores. Meanwhile, the council would spend whatever it took (it took $12 million) to renovate Dalgety’s according to the school’s brief, and rent it to the school on a 20-plus-20 lease.
It was an irresistibly win-win proposal. The school got an affordable, purpose-designed building: the council got to heal a weeping political sore, solve a property problem and establish a healthy income stream, all in one hit.
The result, 3 1/2 years on, is a vibrant, sassy reworking of the stodgy-if-handsome woolstore, its new, lithe transparency radiating virtual space through Ultimo’s overbuilt corridors. And, while the result is unmistakably an education building, its cool, tall glassiness and unforgettable use of colour align the new IGS more as some ambulant lyce’e than any relative, however distant, of all those earnest, quasi-domestoid brick-and-tile jobs out in the Sydney burbs.
Jones is very matter-of-fact about her design objectives: ensuring right-height furniture and fittings, articulating corridors to avoid a sense of endlessness, striving for daylight in the interior; that sort of thing. It would all sound convincingly obvious and utilitarian, except for the equally blinding fact that this is no regular design job.
The essential strategy, on a limited budget, was simple: stick to basic forms and materials – concrete frame, brick infill panels, paint, render, and aluminium windows – all within a small family of simple rectilinear shapes. Add formal interest with occasional projections (balconies, eaves and even a hall elbowing through the base envelope), the odd, whimsical cut-out (such as the perforated metal rooftop sunscreens). Above all, add colour.
Half in and half out of the old Dalgety’s shell, the building forms a tight U around its sunny north-facing court. Primary and pre-school occupy the western wing, high school the east, while the cross-benches, so to speak, house shared facilities such as library, art rooms, music rooms and administration. Linking the lot, east-to-west, is a generous circulation bridge, with balcony above and courtyard below, which offers a range of sun-warmed activity spots, from lunch-crannies to open bays for impromptu class celebrations.
As school campuses go, it’s not generous. But it works. All rooms have opening windows; some have air-conditioning as well. All are glazed also to the corridors, which open in turn to the outside, giving the interior an unwonted spaciousness and lively interconnection. Bubblers, benches, lockers and learning spaces in the primary wing are all designed for small people, but with a sophistication of colour and form that entirely eschews any implied condescension.
Ground level provides play space for preschool and quite a decent tuckshop area for the rest. The roof has a basketball court and a second play space for the littlies, while balconies opening off classrooms, art rooms and science labs offer spill space for sculpture classes, horticultural experiments or simple visual extension. Wentworth Park, just over the road, and Victoria Park pool accommodate the more seriously space-hungry activities.
So, is there a gender difference? There’s nothing soft about the building. Nothing girly or emotional or under-disciplined. No insistence on curious curvilinear forms or homespun detailing; no deep enveloping womb-rooms or primary kiddie-time colours. Nothing at all to give the game away, unless you count a pervasive sense of delight.
The use of colour is particularly special. Startling but not in the least vulgar, bright but scarcely childish, the IGS palette proffers a brilliant salad of black-olive, ochre, teal, magenta, moss-green, hot pink, taramasalata, bright orange, burnt orange and naples yellow, to name a few, on
a ground of white, silver and charcoal black. Throughout the building, inside and out, ambushes and adjacencies of colour demonstrate the continuing joy of out-thinking the rules.
Even on a grey winter’s morn, when the hordes of invading LandCruisers (so useful to whisk the wee ones through the puddles) jam Ultimo’s intricate laneways, the new International Grammar School building offers a hopeful beacon to one of that precinct’s better possible selves.
South Sydney Council, assisted by the school and the designers, has produced a smart deal and a sprightly piece of architecture. A similarly vivid outcome for the rest of the council’s sizeable local property reserves is devoutly to be wished.
Illus: Rising to the occasion … the new International Grammar School at Ultimo, designed by a predominantly female team.
Photograph by JAMES ALCOCK