Denton Corker Marshall has navigated the challenging requirements for a new embassy in Jakarta, creating a forthright yet finessed complex that successfully evokes a sense of “Australianness.”
The Australian Embassy in Jakarta designed by Denton Corker Marshall (DCM) confronts functional complexity, from the simplest row house to the most challenging secured office space. It reconciles the demands of security, sustainability, seismology, culture, diplomacy, politics and business. And it encapsulates and expresses a whole culture, didactically to its hosts and sympathetically to its residents. The design is exceptional in its assimilation of potentially conflicting requirements and succeeds in an evocation of “Australianness” for disparate audiences.
The project had its nascence in the bombing of the former embassy in September 2004. The new compound, with a larger and better defensible plot, was to be “even more impenetrable,” to quote the Sydney Morning Herald,1 while seeming “open and friendly” (the brief). The design and architect were selected by invited competition in 2009.
The site planning of Australia’s largest mission reveals a gradient of accessibility from controlled to restricted. At the southern end of the parcel, embedded in a residential neighbourhood, a recreation centre serves personnel, families and the wider diplomatic community. Staff housing is positioned south central. The Executive Residence then cleaves the land east–west, separating residential from institutional, with the chancery in the north bounded by commercial properties and the new British Embassy. A basement carpark connects all zones within the compound.
Entry to the chancery is through an undercut of the perimeter wall, suggestive in colour and shading of Western Australia’s Wave Rock – a foretaste of the geological massing of the building. Credentials checked, visitors cross a sheltered plaza, its light frame to be filled out, in time, with vines, toward the sheer face of the skewed lobby block.
Outsider access is limited to areas proximate to the lobby, a principle of “defence in depth” from the military world now adapted to design. Admission is stratified horizontally and vertically, with the most open functions (meeting rooms, consular services) near the double-height foyer.
An inner courtyard sheltered by a swell of ETFE connects on the long axis to a multi-function hall. The room may be staged theatre-style, or the tiered seating retracted into a Corian box to make flat floor space for banquets, voting, exhibitions or cultural performances. The Tasmanian oak wall lining is lanced with a graphic developed from images of the Bungle Bungles, the most recognizable landscape feature of the room’s namesake, Purnululu National Park.
A cafe addresses the courtyard on the western side, coffee-fuelled meetings spilling through a stone-clad arcade into the space. Open to escorted visitors and the usual arrival point for on-site staff, the canteen connects to the external landscape through another bower of greenery taking root in the lee of the building. The cafe is hard-surfaced, with sound dampened by perforated panels representing Victoria’s Twelve Apostles.
The remainder of the fitout is simply rendered office space: pale painted walls bouncing the limited sunshine admitted by the window perforations punched through the facade, power poles from the earthquake-rated pan ceiling punctuating the space. Departments flow around the courtyard, footprints restrained by the bounding corridor but not isolated from one another. Clefts, deep-seeming on the outside, are soft notches of filtered light in the interior.
Volumetrically, the chancery is reminiscent of Australian landforms, a metaphor explicit in Barrie Marshall’s sketches. Its facade conjures up images of the country’s underground assets, being realized in five indigenous metals: zinc, copper, brass, steel and aluminium. Square windows of thick glass are impressed deeply into the massive walls. Smaller glazed punches, blind panels and debossed patterns obscure floor levels and reduce apparent scale in a manner recalling DCM’s own William Street building of the mid-eighties.
The punched-card patterning of the chancery is further elaborated to code the elevations of the terrace housing. Windows twist in dark bands over two floors, the cipher integrating and obscuring the rectangular glazing to create a variety of expression independent of the standardized floor plans. Front and back facades are similar, differentiated only by ground-level treatment, with privet on the approach side and low-walled patios to the central common. Roofs are green-planted to soften the view from the chancery and to slow the run-off of equatorial rain. But this is not “tropical modernism” by any stretch; the need for security has trumped any desire for airy and open living. The result is compact, cosy and inner-suburban.
The Executive Residence is hedged in by high walls, a visor of salt-sparkly slabs all that peeks over the ramparts. The home serves a triple purpose as dwelling for a senior diplomat, venue for cultural and business exchange and accommodation for visiting guests; plan and mass are resolved accordingly. The square motor court, pond and foliage focusing the circulation are scaled down to an internal quad, the device of light-bringing well thus recurring in the three principal buildings of the complex.
The reception areas are decorated plainly in grey neutrals. Feature walls and furniture in a rich red burlwood, salvaged from a Queensland gum grown around a barbed wire fence, give warmth and a talking point. In the wider landscape, the relocation by hundreds of metres of four banyan trees is also remarkable.
The last piece of the composition, the recreation centre, buttresses the housing block. In structure it is similar to DCM’s Melbourne Museum, the regimented frame of its verandah suspending an aluminium blade of shelter, a beam of building spanning behind. As occupation is transient, design limitations were fewer and large areas of glazing visually connect the pool to the games room.
Across the compound DCM has redeployed its arsenal of scaffolds, slabs and slits. The architects have referred to their own playbook, both formally and functionally (programs not changing radically from the days of Beijing and Tokyo). This is credible. The architecture of DCM is the architecture of Australia. It is strong and forthright, yet finessed. Its abstract physicality invites interpretation but sidesteps the minefield of storytelling.
1. Michael Bachelard, “Jakarta embassy bombing: Threat has faded but memory remains ten years on,” The Age website, 9 September 2014, smh.com.au/world/jakarta-embassy-bombing-threat-has-faded-but-memory-remains-10-years-on-20140908-10e1yf.html (accessed 30 November 2016).