Jones coulter young’s latest building for curtin continues to develop the campus palette while exploring the university as a site of urbanity and sociability. Review by lee stickells.
PHOTOGRAPHY PATRICK BINGHAM-HALL
JONES COULTER YOUNG are back at the Bentley campus of Curtin University, completing their third building there, and continuing a process of reconfiguring the campus palette (aesthetically and architectonically) that they began with the New Technologies Building of 1993. The Curtin Business School and School of Physiotherapy (CBS & SOP) represents a continuing evolution in both the architectural language of the campus and its envisaged role in the wider metropolitan landscape.
The building expands the existing facilities of the Curtin Business School (already on site at Bentley, Curtin’s major campus) and relocates the School of Physiotherapy from the suburb of Shenton Park. The new building provides more than just the essential teaching and office space – it attempts to maintain the sense of community already established within each school, and to ensure that the relocation is advantageous to both.
Sited at the northern end of the campus, the building wraps around a shared plaza that is bisected by one of the university’s main pedestrian spines. The Business School is located in the north–south arm, while the School of Physiotherapy runs east–west.
A shared foyer is inserted at the corner of these two blocks. A lecture theatre extends from the Business School’s southern end, with a cafe and further commercial space attached to this, and a movement analysis lab is connected to the western end of the physiotherapy arm. The northern edge of the building defines the entry to the campus from this side: a roundabout and setdown area in front terminate a campus entry road.
The adjacent thermal water tank, servicing the campus’s chilled water requirements, marks the entry. Also designed by Jones Coulter Young (JCY), this very utilitarian object is developed as a poetic landmark gesture.
Visually, the most prominent aspect of the CBS & SOP building is the set of precast concrete panels, featuring complex relief patterns. The panel imagery is drawn from Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase; the subject and style neatly reference the activities of the School of Physiotherapy. This painting was also a source for the form of the two large, splayed panels that frame the foyer and Business School boardroom: these emerge from the main body of the building like the legs of Duchamp’s nude.
Campus life and campus style. Recognising significant changes in the academic and economic landscape of tertiary education, Curtin University has taken a consciously entrepreneurial approach to its more recent development. This has manifested itself in a number of ways. The most distinct are the use of buildings to provide a marketable, innovative image, and a future planning framework intended to reconfigure the university as a place to live, work and play, as well as study.
Curtin’s early building stock, with its Modernist character, and often Brutalist use of red brick and off-form concrete, is viewed with much less reverence than, say, the sandstone and terracotta buildings of the University of Western Australia (particularly the Romanesque campanile of Winthrop Hall). This general lack of sentiment has allowed JCY to profitably subvert accepted notions of campus style in their work at Curtin. The New Technologies building was a testing ground. There, a concrete frame supported non-structural, polychromatic brick facades. The brickwork was striated in seven shades of “Curtin red” and punctured by large geometric openings referencing the mathematics and science studies within.
Ten years on, masonry and concrete remain dominant, but the palette has become further abstracted. The face brickwork still appears, in tones of red and orange, but the concrete is now utilised in textured and coloured precast panels. The “honesty” of the early academic buildings’ off-form concrete frames, and their heroic massing, has given way to a more layered approach that collages the various materials and assembles them in order to enfold the spaces of activity. Indeed, a strong concern for spaces of social and visual interaction characterises the design of the CBS & SOP, which is itself a programmatic assemblage. JCY display an interest in what a building does, as much as what it looks like. This tendency suggests a useful comparison with Bernard Tschumi’s interest in the importance of action, event and program for architectural form, and his recognition of the rich and complex relations between spaces and events that occur within. Tschumi uses terms such as “crossprogramming,” “transprogramming” and “disprogramming” to strategise the merging of unprecedented programs and spaces.
He proposes a rejuvenation of architecture through a renewed concentration on the combination of events, spaces and movement – evoked in his provocative images such as “the football player skates on the battlefield”. These ideas have been most effectively realised in projects such as the Parc de la Villette, with its scattered folies of varied function, and the Le Fresnoy Centre for Art and Media, with its inhabited roofscape.
Combination and contamination. In a much more modest sense JCY’s design of the CBS & SOP building demonstrates a similar approach to the programming and articulation of spaces (the combination of a business school and physiotherapy training already seems Tschumi-esque). Throughout the building, conscious, considered gestures are made towards the physical, visual and social interrelation of spaces.
The articulation of these gestures has a strong impact on the formal articulation of the building and subverts the expression of more expected gestures of entry and axis, served and servant space.
The locus of this merging is the plaza, which is primarily an informal space for meeting and relaxing (adjoining the cafe), but also sees the interaction of a range of spaces and activities. On the ground floor the cafe and informal student work areas frame the southern and eastern sides of the plaza. On the northern edge, entry to the campus is gained by passing under the School of Physiotherapy. Rather than create an enclosed entrance, JCY have formed the space as a sheltered adjunct to the plaza. This also functions as the foyer to a number of classroom “pods” which appear like immense, squat piloti. Sitting on the western side is a movement analysis lab whose twenty-metre entry-runway extends into the plaza. There are also visual connections from plaza to building through a glazed stairwell that projects into the plaza and runs up the southern side of the physiotherapy block, and through a number of communal terraces on the upper floors of the Business School that overlook it. This combination and contamination of spaces and functions is the most concentrated example of an overall approach to the building’s design that privileges spaces of connectivity.
This strategy has a significant impact on the building form, and is legible in the way that the project can be read as a series of elements cradling the space of the plaza. It also gives rise to the “fingered” Business School wing that provides interpenetrating views from all the offices, bridged connections to existing buildings, and the upper level terraces that open out from meeting rooms and lounges. Internally, this approach produces elements such as the joint foyer and circulation space serving the two schools, the double-storey volume of the Business School reception, and glazed meeting rooms that penetrate circulation and reception spaces.
Rather than reducing all academic accommodation to a battery of cellular offices and classrooms, JCY have attempted to provide at least some spatial engagement with other aspects of campus. The overall organisation and articulation seem concentrated on the provision of spaces that encourage the sociability of academic life, the exchange of ideas, and the display of these things. In the plaza particularly, this strategy has created a lively, vibrant atmosphere despite the fact that the building is not yet fully occupied.
Meet you at the tank. As an adjunct, the thermal water tank continues the process of inserting this building complex into the wider life of the campus. Its scale has ensured a landmark status (it is already a reference point and meeting spot) and the treatment of the skin generates some distinctive visual qualities.
The stainless steel cladding – a panelled skin rippled by the liquid foam insulation it contains – has a changing sheen depending on the time of day and the quality of light. It has become a temporal marker, its appearance shifting over the course of the day. Like a gasometer, its structure and silhouette are constant, but the visual character reflects a daily cycle – the rise and fall of a diaphragm is replaced by the change in hue of the cladding. With the completion of the CBS & SOP, the tower now has an additional steel frame supporting a screen of colourful steel fragments (also derived from the Duchamp painting) that float like clouds over the skin.
The CBS & SOP building and the water tower both contribute to a sophisticated rereading of the possibilities of the campus materials palette. More importantly their formal qualities relate strongly to an overall sense of the university as an urban site where active and communal spaces need to be fostered.
Lee Tickells is a Phd candidate at the University of Western Australia and an architect with Woods Bagot.
CURTIN BUSINESS SCHOOL AND SCHOOL OF PHYSIOTHERAPY
Architect Jones Coulter Young – Architects and Urban Designers—project director Elisabetta Guj; design director Elisabetta Guj, Paul Jones; project team Scott McConn, Brett Chandler, Paul Steed, Melinda Payne, Brent Aitkenhead, Joe Chindarsi, Rob Corker, Kevin Kiddy, Phay Hen Wei. Client Curtin University of Technology. Builder BGC Constructions. Precasters John Holland Precast.
Structural Consultant, Civil Consultant Bruechle Gilchrist & Evans. Electrical Consultant, Communications Consultant Wood & Grieve Engineers. Mechanical Consultant BCA Consultants. Quantity Surveyors Ralph Beattie Bosworth. Landscape Architects Plan E.
Acoustic/Environmental Consultants Gabriels Environmental. Hydraulic Consultant AJ & V Cartwright.