Even without the clarity of hindsight, it is not foolhardy to suggest that the mid 2000s in Western Australia will be remembered as a period of unprecedented investment in public architecture and infrastructure. The felicitous combination of a second-term Labor Government with decisive and ambitious ministers, a booming resource-driven economy and a highly regarded Government Architect with a mandate to improve architectural quality in the public realm has resulted in the initiation of three major projects within the Perth CBD. More are to follow.
As well as embarking on the largest public transport infrastructure project ever undertaken in Western Australia, the government has commissioned significant commercial, cultural and sporting projects such as the Multipurpose Indoor Entertainment and Sports Stadium (won by an ARM-led team) and the refurbishment and extension of the colonial era Old Treasury Building by Peter Elliott Architects, Donaldson Warn, Sandover Pinder, and Palassis Architects. Under Government Architect Geoffrey London’s regime new approaches to procurement have been developed, with the open design competition and architectural “equisse” preferred over the previous methodologies based on experience and fee bidding.
The most recent commission is Kerry Hill Architects’ design for the new Performing Arts Venue, the first purpose-built theatre in Perth for thirty years. This was won through a competition that sought to address Perth’s impending lack of a lyric theatre as the Peter Parkinson-designed Playhouse reaches the end of its functional life. The widely canvassed brief to cater to a diverse performing arts community called for two spaces: a 600-seat Main Theatre and a smaller 200-seat Studio Theatre as well as the attendant functional, administrative and public spaces.
The site is on the south-west corner of the Cultural Centre containing the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA), the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), the State Library and the Western Australian Museum as well as smaller organizations such as Art on the Move and the Blue Room Theatre. Despite the creative and intellectual vigour of these institutions the urban space they inhabit is one of the least inviting in Perth. In addition to the explicit demand for a theatre to “provoke and stimulate” there was an overt requirement for the project to engage in broader urban design questions, particularly the engagement of the theatre site with the Cultural Centre and its role in reconciling the design issues that beset it.
The two-stage open (rather than invited) competition initially attracted forty international and Australian entrants, all of whom were aligned with a Perth architectural firm. In the spirit of the open design competition all stage-one entries were exhibited on the Department of Culture and Arts website at the conclusion of the final judging process. This broad field was whittled down to five shortlisted schemes who were invited (and paid $40,000) to develop their schemes further.
These were submitted six weeks after the announcement of the finalists.
John Wardle Architects’ developed scheme sought to engage with associative as well as the physical qualities of the site more rigorously than their stage one entry.
Cultural memory is explored with a programmatic evocation of the now-demolished Governor Broome Hotel in the location of the theatre bar, and the existing nineteenth-century buildings are literally claimed as backdrops to the first-level outdoor cinema. The urban morphology of Perth’s arcades is alluded to through the use of a new cranked internal street that cuts through the back of the existing building and connects Roe to James Street. This generates a series of tapered volumes that reoccur in the building above, projecting the theatre out into the busy intersection. These fractured geometries are articulated in the most malleable of spaces – entries, foyers, bars – while the rectilinear spaces of the theatres and ancillary facilities allow a compact plan. The result is a robust aesthetic, challenging and awkward. It is an appropriately brute and satisfying response to the urbanity of the site.
The Johnson Pilton Walker and Utzon Associates scheme’s linear plan is appealing in its organizational logic and clarity, expressed as a stepped platform that links William Street and the much higher level of the AGWA plaza. Strikingly similar to the artificial ground created at Bennelong Point as the podium for those famous sails, this new platform accommodates increasingly larger volumes (such as rehearsal studios) as it steps up towards the gallery. Its paved surface then stretches out from inside the building to claim the ground of the Cultural Centre. The proposal engages sensitively with the historic buildings and a central atrium brings light into the office wing wedged between the two theatres.
However, the clarity and persuasive logic of JPW and Utzon’s planning isn’t manifest formally. An encompassing architecture and the potential of the “wall” are eschewed for an unarticulated glass box between the roof and stepped platform. The softly billowing sinusoidal roof form, inspired by the photography of Eadweard Muybridge, is too subtle a gesture to compete with the context (or other schemes) and the fly tower resorts to articulation by pattern.
The scheme prepared by Kohn Pedersen Fox in association with Perth firms Hofman and Brown Architects and Crawford Rattigan & Associates proposes a similar connection eastward to the AGWA with a stepped plaza that slowly draws the patron down from the Culture Centre into the heart of the theatre. The sophisticated urbanity of this gesture is undermined by the scheme’s fundamental misunderstanding of other urban and climatic aspects of the site.
It proposes a main foyer off the inhospitable Roe Street, tucked up next to the Art Gallery multistorey car park, while locating an open plaza on the south-west (windward) corner of the busy intersection with William Street. The scheme’s singular and iconic “egg” (which contains the main theatre) overwhelms the scale of the “pergola”, which otherwise engages subtly as a thin datum with the site’s varying built context and levels.
PTW and Jones Coulter Young’s scheme responds more vigorously to the busy intersection and articulates the corner by enclosing it as the main foyer space.
A series of folded sunshades clad this curved glass box, animating it to the passing motorist. PTW and JCY introduce linear hard and soft landscape elements to connect the scheme from Roe through to James Street.
Like the JPW andUtzon proposal a single wing contains the artists’ accommodation, lined with landscape courtyards.
The winning scheme by Kerry Hill Architects distinguishes itself through a singular architectural gesture. By stacking the two theatres Hill liberates the ground plane and forces the ancillary functions of the theatres underground. This raises a series of intriguing spatial and architectural possibilities that engage with the broader historical precedents of theatre design absent from the other schemes. A series of staircases and voids alludes to the traditional theatre spectacles of arrival, viewing and promenades. This allows the opportunity to indulge in the almost poetic spatial experience, a theatrical descent through space illuminated with light cast across the in situ concrete and timber of the main theatre and boiler plate of the studio black box; alternately brute then refined.
The most formally abstract of all the schemes, it engages with its context through the formal layering of abstract boxes that increase in scale from the two-storey street to that of the institutional buildings. These abstract cubic volumes are articulated by light – diffused, striated, absorbed and projected – and are transformed at night.
The fly tower glows as an incandescent and minimal lantern. Shadows curl up internal curved ceilings while the fritted glass volume announces the entry on a crepuscular William Street. Louvred daylight, cast down the timber-clad drum of the main theatre, is eventually absorbed by the basement black box of the studio theatre. The result is space that is abstract and contextual, luminous and mute, robust and refined; an empty vessel waiting to be further articulated by its performers and audience.
Hill’s scheme is the least concerned with the urban design issues afflicting the Cultural Centre. A thin outdoor corridor and landscape courtyard is all that links the amphitheatre to James Street while the rest of the complex turns its unarticulated back on PICA, AGWA and the Blue Room.
A colonnaded footpath that ameliorates the potentially hard edge with Roe Street is compromised by the presence of the loading dock.
The emergence of the open competition as a process for procuring significant public work is a welcome and overdue change in Western Australia. As well as its potential to expose new and unexpected design proposals from a wide range of architects, it should also be recognized as a method for interrogating and testing the veracity and robustness of the brief manifest as a work of architecture. It is recognition of this fact, rather than a belief in the absolutism of the brief, that has lead to a fine building being proposed for an empty car park on a busy intersection in Perth.
Published online: 1 Mar 2006
Words: Philip Goldswain
Architecture Australia, March 2006