The Concourse combines a concert hall, theatre, public library, exhibition and retail spaces with FJMT's trademark precision and theatricality. Awarded at the 2012 NSW Architecture Awards, this civic-minded building re-imagines the role of monumentality in public architecture.
In October 2002, architecture academics and professionals came together in Sydney at a conference initiated by Richard Francis-Jones of FJMT to discuss and exchange ideas about monumentality. Many of the presentations suggested that there is no room for monumentality in the public arena today. This is in contrast to ideas promoted in the postwar era, such as those of Louis Kahn and Sigfried Giedion, which called for a merging of civic and what was called monumentality to produce a collective expression of the then-permeating and rising consumer culture.
In retrospect, the Sydney symposium overlooked the significance that architecture can have in the civic realm. This oversight might have had to do with the prevailing confusion in architecture about what constitutes a public building today: a commercial development such as a shopping mall is in a sense both public and private. Perhaps it was also one consequence of postmodernism, which would typically disregard a building’s purpose and instead would dress it up with architectural idioms of the past. Still, in those days, the architectural scene of Sydney, for example, was mostly confined to the design and construction of single villas located outside the CBD. With a few exceptions, one could say that the shift to campus architecture, which has proliferated in major Australian states during the past couple of years, was not yet available, and that the present attention to campus-type architecture is one consequence of the economic shift from capital investment to educational and public works such as The Concourse, Chatswood, which is under review here.
The complex is designed by FJMT, a Sydney-based firm with considerable institutional commissions in Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Like most of the firm’s projects, this one is conceived with the intention of changing the urban fabric, this time in Chatswood, which has the third-largest CBD in the greater region of Sydney. The site is located along Victoria Street, the main thoroughfare of the suburb, and has direct connection to the train station, which was recently transformed into the Chatswood Transport Interchange designed by CoxDesignInc, a joint venture between Cox Richardson and DesignInc. An infrastructural facility and a cultural one add an urban and civic dimension to the Chatswood “mall.” The ambition of FJMT’s design does not stop at highlighting the suggested urban axis.
What stands out in the design is what should be considered the most distinct architectonic element of a civic work, i.e., terrace-making, or the earthwork, because it physically elevates the edifice and therefore its importance. The idea of putting important works of art, sculpture and buildings above a pedestal goes back to Greek temples; however, Gottfried Semper, the nineteenth-century German architect, also had some ideas on the subject. Semper’s radical re-articulation of the idea of monumentality took place at a time when architects were not yet able to articulate the architectonic of monumentality using materials such as iron and glass. Semper believed the earthwork and the framework to be the basics of the tectonics. From the point of view of contemporary architectural praxis, the earthwork should be considered the strategy by which the building attains its ground. (This is not your phenomenological grounding!) So, how the building is grounded is not only embedded in the act of the construction and transformation, but also in the preparation of the site wherein terrace-making is integral to the overall image of the project.
Of these considerations, the placement of the massing of the Chatswood complex should be noted. In addition to Chatswood Library, the design accommodates a thousand-seat concert hall, a five-hundred-seat theatre, performance and exhibition spaces, and restaurants and shops. The overall geometry of each volume of the complex is defined by its orientation towards a portion of the open public terraces. Like the extended balconies of the concert hall, these external dividing walls embrace and exceed their geometric massing. One is reminded of the brick walls of Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House (1923), where the tectonic of theatricality is sustained by walls extending beyond their load-bearing function as well as demarcating the internal/external boundaries. The suggested tectonic of theatricality is indeed a recurring theme in most of FJMT’s projects, starting with the firm’s proposed addition to Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In the design of Chatswood, the wall spreads out to overcome the compositional coordinate of the grid. The apparent expressionism of the complex is sought in tectonic mode wherein the element of wall plays a major role in deterritorializing the orthogonal grid and the geometry of the site.
Each pair of two walls frames a view of the internal volume, making a gesture towards the adjacent street. Thus a coordinate of two pairs of this configuration extends to the intersection of Victoria Avenue and Anderson Street. Another one looks into Endeavour Street, offering access to the complex’s office box. A third one, at a diagonal with the previous two, defines the main entry to the complex. These expressionistic devices are sought in tandem with the design’s inclination to reconfigure a rectangular ground through the insertion of several layers of terraces, the ascending posture of which are held in place by monumental stairs (Sydney Opera House), and an L-shaped volume housing both performing and theatre arenas.
Instead of highlighting the massive architectonics of these regularly conceived blind box-looking spaces, the architect has taken advantage of the figural protein of the element of wall, and terrace-making. This much is clear from a section drawing of the complex that discloses the design’s topographic strategy of grounding. It reveals, among other things, the ways in which daylight is brought into the library through a pond placed deep into the ground, almost flush with the library’s floor. These are convincing tectonic strategies that avoid the current fashion for biomorphic forms that more often than not privilege cool-looking objects over tectonic figuration.
In this project, FJMT should be credited for taking a bold step towards redefinition of the civic language of architecture – one that does not aspire for monumentality in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, the design establishes a possible rapport between civitas – a sense of collectivity – and “urban” architecture. This is important, because while the task of the architect is also the embellishment of construction and turning dead material into a cultural product, this transformation can be problematic. Now that the cultural has been merged with the aesthetic of commodities, the architectural itself has lost the resisting moment, coded in the Miesian tendency for the architecture of almost nothing: a civic monument without popular symbolism of any kind. The Concourse, Chatswood and other recent projects of FJMT demand a discussion of urban and civic architecture beyond its image-making. It is time for another conference to get together to construe the tectonics of civic architecture one more time.