Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Totally zappy Downs
IF, FOR the sake of argument, one accepts the university as society’s knowledge nest egg, then a university’s library must be its symbolic heart. So, what should a library be, physically? Standard images range from municipal drear to dignified immensity – think British Library Reading Room, think New York Public, think Asplund’s wonderful drum bibliotheque in Stockholm. Of university libraries, the most memor able is probably Wren’s at Trinity, its processional plan and iambic daylighting suggesting both serenity and purpose, in the best traditions of scholarship.
But such hushed, meditative images draw on a bookish idea of library which is obsolescing just slightly ahead of the monkish idea of university from which it came.
As libraries creak and skitter between paradigms, from the old musty acreages of stacked volumes to disembodied online cyber-service, and as universities themselves are boiled down into market-driven learning-marts, all parameters change. How, in these distinctly interesting times, might one design a completely new library for a university which is itself all but brand spanking, on a campus that was growing sugar cane until just the other week?
I exaggerate, of course. The University of the Sunshine Coast, on an old cane farm at Sippy (pronounced “Zippy”) Downs, 10 minutes south of Maroochydore, was a couple of years old when the library commission came up for grabs. A very respectable Mitchell Giurgola Thorp (MGT) masterplan and two solidly purpose-built buildings were already in place, to dispel any lingering existential anxieties.
But the image question was still open-ended, as indeed is the resulting library building, the university’s third. Produced by a joint Lawrence Nield-John Mainwaring design team, this sprightly edifice has brought multiple awards to its architects (including most recently the RAIA’s top gong, the Sir Zelman Cowen Award) and, it seems, nothing but joy to its users.
Nothing accidental about the symbolism, either. The MGT campus masterplan for the new USC had been modelled, like so many others around the world, on Jefferson’s for the University of Virginia, with buildings arranged symmetrically either side of a wide lawn and a central notional axis. But, where Jefferson’s axis terminated in the traditional, introverted rotunda of the main university library, MGT’s plan made the library more transparent and the axis more extensive, a standing invitation to both community and landscape.
The library was still central, and although the Nield-Mainwaring team (call it NMt) had no quarrel with this in principle, its first move was to shift the building slightly off-axis. In this way, rather than terminating the vista, the new building was threaded upon it, leading the eye beyond itself to the future lake at the end of the campus, and national park beyond.
Small shift, major change in perception. What the MGT masterplan had begun gently to pry open, NMt, in giving form, had confidently extrapolated. Already the new library was shaping up as distinctly linear and directional, a passage rather than a full stop, cultivating a sense of openness which its architects felt was essential not only for the symbolism and not only to pull the punters, but also in the interests of being palpably south-east Queensland.
Queensland, for reasons which remain obscure, is the only State with an identifiable climate-based architecture. Scoff if you will at the traditional Queenslander, with its stumpy legs and veiled features. It’s true that few of that State’s legendary development fraternity have availed themselves in recent times of the poetry or appeal inherent therein, generally preferring the dead-hand hermetically-sealed brick-‘n’-tile approach.
But it’s also true that Queensland qualities of heat and light up-value shade, breeze and dappled light to priceless treasures, sought for their sheer animal pleasure, quite apart from the visual appeal. Translated into a design vocabulary of verandas and breezeways, screens, filters, overhangs and louvres, and honed by a thriving tradition of fine architecture from the offices of Gabriel Poole, John Mainwaring, and Lindsay & Kerry Clare, this has created a recognisable local language. It’s a language which NMt has exploited con brio in the new building, despite the obvious library demand for wall-to-wall air-con.
Architectural collaborations are not always rewarding experiences. In this case, however, the valley was fertile and the fruit even better than expected, with Mainwaring’s practised feel for the local climate and Nield’s long experience in library and university work combining to exceed expectations. In essence, it’s a three-storey, steel-framed shed, hugely enlivened on the one hand by a series of light-and-climate-modifying devices which include perforated metal shades, timber-louvred screen-walls and a wackily multi-pitched saw-tooth roof and,
on the other, by a generous and sophisticated handling of space and form.
Entry to the library is at the middle level, via the splendid double-height timber veranda, which runs, on-axis, along the building’s entire northern face. This is one of Queensland’s unforgettable spaces. Wholly screened to the north by timber louvres, articulated by steel columns, flanked by hardwood seating in the Doric manner and punctured by palm trees, here at last is an institutional space that is absolutely rooted in its context and culture. Soft but dignified, warm but grand, friendly but also uplifting: this space alone justifies the building’s place on the planet.
And the inside is good, too. Virtually fully glazed within their protective sunscreening, the interiors are light and joyous, the layered semi-transparency a constant, pleasurable reminder of one’s tropical environs.
For Nield, libraries are still about books. Characteristically romantic, he likens the building to a woolstore, with the wares habitually brought up from storage below-decks for inspection in the light tion in the light. Hence the need for the saw-tooth roof, its strong, uniform (UV-filtered) light sustaining a calm reading-room environment.
The lowest, ground floor houses separately accessible staff offices and seminar rooms, as well as the shady sub-veranda “stumps” area, traditionally popular for summer afternoon parties.
Throughout these simple, confident spaces, with their occasional use of strong colour and overriding humanist conviction, are references to Nield’s earlier works – the Ultimo Community Centre, the library extension and Graduate School of Business at UTS, the AGSM at UNSW. There are also clear traces of external influence, especially, in the canted structural forms and raked roof/walls, from a library in Munster designed by expatAustralian architect Peter Wilson and his German partner, Julia Bolles. But the new library’s zesty presence is all its own. Totally zippy downs.
A tiny but elegantly self-possessed sports and union building, by Lindsay Clare, is nearby, recently completed, and immediately west of the library, a Daryl Jackson-designed science building will be ready for occupation any moment. That makes five, and although not all have quite the vivacity and charm of the Nield-Mainwaring building, there is a remarkable family likeness, bringing a surprising coherence to so raw a campus.
An arts building by Bligh Voller’s Brisbane office should complete the picture for a while, although if the university’s wild growth continues, all bets are off.
The image question and, so far, the campus itself, remains open. Universities have traditionally striven to convey a sense of permanence but with the future of post-secondary knowledge transfer now less predictable than ever, one thing is for sure; it’s all about openness, adaptability and change.
Chances are, in this fastest-growing region in the country, that NMt’s tropical permeability will prove an enduring and appropriate metaphor.
Two illus: Essentially a fabulous shed in an old cane field, with a wackily multi-pitched sawtooth roof and, left, “a vocabulary of verandas” …
the library at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
Photographs by JOHN GOLLINGS