Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
The orange and the green
E. M. FARRELLY
FEWER than the fingers of one hand are master-plans which have made any tangible difference to their subject piece of the world – be it city, town or campus. Plans which have changed things for the better are less numerous still. Yet the University of NSW’s master-plan is one such, kept on track by huge investments of energy, cash and determination over a few short years. And its latest built product, designed by Mitchell/Giurgola and Thorp (of Parliament House fame), is one of the finest pieces of architecture to hit Sydney for some time.
Schools of architecture, under the cobbler’s shoes principle, traditionally inhabit the most God-awful building on campus. UNSW was no exception, until last week’s opening of its new Built Environment Faculty building. Gobstopper of a name, but the building is a joy. Confident, airy and green in spirit, if orange in fact.
The new building, known locally (and even more absurdly) as the Science Precinct Development or SPD, is stage one of a $26 million development which will eventually house not only the Built Environment disciplines (architecture, planning, building, landscape and industrial design) but also Maths and, next again, the university’s International House. Very Important Territory in an institution which owes an annual $70 million to $80 million to the beneficence of its overseas students.
It all started like this. Not so very long ago the UNSW campus was a memorably soulless place where the wind was always chillier than elsewhere. Buildings were scattered apparently at random, with huge areas devoured by roads and car parks. Since 1990, under John Niland’s vice-chancellorship and David Chesterman’s vigorous master-plan, all this has changed.
Chesterman’s great coup – obvious in retrospect but distinctly courageous at the time – was to ban cars from the campus centre, closing roads and constructing peripheral multi-level car parks. Suddenly, there was some 30 per cent more space on campus, available for pedestrian ways, landscaped courts and, above all, new buildings.
The pedestrian system was to comprise a dominant axial spine, running east from the old Western Gate on Anzac Parade, with an informal network of more casual courts and gardens woven around this. Half a dozen new building sites were identified at points which would both help define these new links and bring at last some coherence to the place.
Several of these buildings have since been completed; Lawrence Nield’s Madison Building and AGSM extension; Andrew Andersons’ Quadrangle building; student housing clusters by Philip Cox and Daryl Jackson respectively, and extensive landscape work by Conybeare Morrison. Two more buildings, both to open by the university’s 50th birthday in 1999 and both won in limited competition by MGT, will complete the club.
The second building of this MGT pair, soon to begin construction, will be the University Centre. And, cheap jibes about lacklustre naming habits notwithstanding, this title is at least appropriate, since the building will be in many ways the most important on campus. Housing a large ceremonial hall as well as multipurpose performance spaces, the centre will occupy the knoll at the end of the new pedestrian “street”, formally terminating the axis and marking the campus’s spiritual heart – now that it has one. PRECEDING this, the SPD sandwiches narrowly between the Old Main building and the new Science Square, soon to bloom on the grave of a former car park. Sitting astride the old and consensually unlovable architecture building, it will soon envelop that structure completely, with the entire 150 m length of new pedestrian “street” clad in thousands of beautiful terracotta tiles, shipped all the way from Florence for the purpose.
Designing a school of architecture should be pure pleasure. One of the few professions still taught primarily through the time-honoured communal “crit” method, architecture requires large, simple studio spaces flooded with even south light. A definite improvement on your average classroom. Subtly flavouring this chalice, however, is the fact of an inchoate, many-headed client, including scores of academics of whom many, if not all, could undoubtedly – nay, indubitably – do a better job themselves.
Despite all this, the building’s parti, or central idea, has emerged into reality little changed from the earliest competition sketches and to generalised acclaim.
In line with the best Modern traditions, of which Aldo Giurgola is an undisputed world-master, the idea was essentially an idea in cross-section. The building’s workaday areas would be stacked in three central levels, with academics’ offices serried along the building’s northern face and classrooms/computer labs to the south. A dual corridor system, with translucent glass walls, planes of colour and inter-connecting voids would tune this spatial system to bring light, privacy, vitality and communion as required. Sitting above and below this central stack, the studios would occupy the most privileged spots: rooftop glory on the one hand, and piano nobile on the other.
This section, and the plan which supports it, is disarmingly simple. The surprise comes in the magical way the elevation pulls it all into the third dimension, cutting away that orange frontal plane to reveal the transparency beneath, the extraordinary slimness of the site and the activity within.
From their earliest competition proposals, MGT were quick to exploit the potential of so attenuated a site for natural light and ventilation. And the university, to its credit, supported their pursuit. Ideas like this are two-a-penny and organisational lip-service to sustainability isn’t exactly rare, either. Making it work is the hard bit, and both MGT (in particular project architect Richard Francis-Jones) and UNSW, as well as their engineers, Arups, deserve the heartiest for having converted idea into fact.
In the entire building, only the computer labs are air-conditioned. Offices, studios, library and even a 150-person lecture space are naturally ventilated. Intake louvres feed hidden shafts which rise towards the dozens of cowl-topped flues that fringe its northern parapet. Energised solely by sun and wind, the steel flues heat during the day, drawing cool air invisibly through the building from ground level, with dampers automatically adjusting airflow to temperature.
Sunlight penetration of the building is restricted by external louvres which track the sun, but south light is maximised with full-height glazing, so that only on the darkest winter days, according to the best computer-modelling, will students need artificial lighting in classrooms or studios.
The offices enjoy two strips of north-facing windows, with solid wall (an extra book shelf, on the inside) between. This is a device Giurgola has used before: the upper sill is finished in a light material, to bounce light into the interior of the office, while the lower sill is dark, minimising glare.
In this way the building has been filled with light. The double windows halve the perceived scale of the building, exaggerating the solidity of the terracotta wall and, by contrast, the delicacy of the great glassy opening at ground level and studio protrusion above. The light-soaked interior gives transparency to glass which would otherwise read externally as black, revealing the life of the building in a way which many architects dream of (and draw), but few achieve.
Sure, it’s not perfect. Some of the detailing is sloppy, the entrance space is less generous than might be and the skyline of spinning chimneys may spell pollution to the uninitiated, not its opposite. Further, the whole would be enhanced by an extra million or so in the finishes. But this is Real Architecture nonetheless, an even rarer thing than commonsense, and a gripping experiment to boot.
Will it work? Can you have north-facing offices, west-facing glass stairwells, 150-person lecture theatres, in Sydney, without artificial air? The computer is on side, but can it be done in fact? The answer at the moment can only be: come back early March and find out. Wisely, the architects have allowed space and plumbing for retro-fit air-conditioning, just in case. In the meantime, though, it all seems to be working a breeze.
Illus: UNSW’s revolutionary new Science Precinct Development …
its archtiects hope it will not have to use artifical light or air-conditioning.
Photograph by JAMES ALCOCK.