Frank Gehry opened his first building in Australia on 2 February, 2015, giving guests and media a glimpse inside the University of Technology Sydney’s new business school - many of whom, like myself, approached it with scepticism, arriving with a desire to dislike it.
Much of the launch presentations focused on how the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is emblematic of The University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) local and international vision, with buzzwords like “masterpiece”, “technology”, “flagship”, “creativity” and “innovation” being tossed around with abandon. I sat down later with UTS Dean of Design, Architecture and Building, Desley Luscombe, to get under the skin of these characterisations (setting aside Christopher Pyne’s claim to it being an icon of university deregulation in his speech at the launch). The aim was to trace these notions back to design intent, process and execution.
Luscombe said that while the building stood to become a landmark for UTS, its design resolution was ultimately a spatial response to the identity of the business school, its priorities and how it would like to develop in the years ahead as a space for collaborative and transparent learning.
While the treehouse analogy Gehry orginally proposed to UTS now seems a little loose, the idea of the architecture working to facilitate social engagement is born out in the building. In plan, the program forms a loose radius of stacked shapes, enabling fluid movement between and around rooms, which are wrapped externally in the infamous “brown paper bag” brickwork. The resulting interstitial pockets, edges and voids make for a fractured network of social and collaborative spaces. Features such as the oval classrooms are formed from large stacked glulam blocks and engage the students in face-to-face contact while providing framed glimpses of the educational process from without.
The use of brick externally provided an opportunity to avoid producing another titanium-clad building, yet mimics titanium’s ability to master the fold: a pursuit Gehry has been finessing for many years, which Luscombe remarked harks back to his obsession with Italian Baroque architect, Bernini. Further to this, the brick would help form an urban relationship with the other large brick structures that dot the Ultimo landscape. Yet with the neighbourhood developing rapidly, this may end as more of a nod to a past material condition than a means of aesthetic urban integration. The building is a map of Gehry’s personal budgetary hierarchy, advancing experimental programmatic and structural feats, prioritising features over finishes.
From the exterior, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building presents two distinct and dramatic faces, each flanked by key public spaces. Approaching from Harris Street to the west, the fragmented curtain wall façade is pulled back from the street and framed by a large forecourt, a demolition void between two four-to-ten-storey buildings. The future potential of this space and its adjacent “Building U” to the north, reflects Luscombe, has the capacity to establish a dialogue with the new Business faculty through two potential programs. One, being the re-use of the forecourt as a bar that provides an alternative environment and aesthetic for students; the other embodies again one of the goals of the business school: to strongly engage with small-to medium-sized businesses. Luscombe explains “Building U is becoming what’s called The Hatchery, where little businesses started by students can be mentored up through the process. They’ll be in the basement, which connects with the café space of Gehry’s building.”
To the east, the renowned brick façade greets the future Goods Line, an elevated public domain designed by ASPECT Studios and CHROFI, which will in turn establish a pedestrian connection between the new business faculty and Central station, as well as other UTS facilities, Darling harbour and the ABC headquarters. The building will in time front onto this space with a break-out student lounge and café. Currently, however, the occupation of these social spaces is left to the imagination.
At the opening, Gehry was asked if he was happy with his building, to which he candidly replied: “I’m pleased with it but I haven’t seen it in operation yet, I haven’t seen the kids here or witnessed how its being used.” It can be said with confidence, though, that the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building by Frank Gehry understands exactly what it wants to be.