John Wardle Architects has completed three new buildings at the UniSA’s City West campus, which seek to connect the campus to the city while providing robust education spaces for architecture and art.
<b>REVIEW</b> Scott Drake Gini Lee <b>PHOTOGRAPHY</b> Trevor Mein Sam Noonan Toby Richardson
One of the first visitors to the Kaurna Building at the University of South Australia’s City West campus was Richard Florida, author of the best-selling book The Rise of the Creative Class: and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. Florida, Professor of Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University, celebrates the economic significance of creativity, generated by a growing “class” of professionals such as scientists, engineers, writers, artists and even architects. He argues that the creative class is attracted to regional centres by a combination of economic and lifestyle opportunities; good companies, yes, but also good education and entertainment through access to creative arts. One of the main ingredients in any such centre is the intellectual and cultural diversity that only universities can provide.
Florida’s argument has arisen in response to the mobility of the American workforce, and to increasing opportunities for creative work in the US economy.
In Australia, the relative absence of regional centres, college towns, and Silicon Valley-type industries makes the trend less noticeable, but the principle remains.
Yet the current Federal Government’s focus on the tertiary sector as a training ground for industry has overshadowed its contribution to intellectual life and to the urban fabric of our society.
The Kaurna Building is one of four new works at the University of South Australia, by John Wardle Architects in association with Hassell, which mark the latest step in that university’s promotion of the sort of creative economy that Florida describes. The decision to move to City West was made shortly after the university was formed, under the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s (from a merger of the South Australian Institute of Technology and the South Australian College of Advanced Education). With the existing Frome Street (City East) campus too cramped – and too easily mistaken for part of the University of Adelaide – UniSA elected to step across North Terrace into the city grid, joining the ranks of other “city” campuses such as RMIT in Melbourne and UTS in Sydney. The move was intended to revitalize a largely disused industrial area occupied by the Fowlers Lion Flour Factory, which had for many years been the venue for the Fringe Festival run alongside the Adelaide Festival of Arts. The brief for the City West campus (designed by Guy Maron Architects, completed in 1996) even included a 400-square-metre performance space to be made available for Fringe events, although the Fringe moved to the opposite end of town before this was completed.
The initial process of acquiring land for the City West campus was partially thwarted by the owner of a narrow site running the length of Fenn Place from North Terrace through to Hindley Street. This meant that the dominant geometry of the original scheme – a series of Tendenza-style buildings running east-west in rows stepping back from North Terrace – was temporarily bisected by a red-brick, saw-tooth roofed warehouse running in the opposite direction.
The eventual acquisition of this site enabled the second stage development – four buildings, three of which are now complete. The first is an addition to the library located in the existing Catherine Helen Spence Building; the second, a new workshop facility for art and architecture students known as the Dorrit Black Building; the third, a new building for the Louis Laybourne Smith School of Architecture and Design and the South Australian School of Art, known as the Kaurna Building; and the fourth, still under construction, the as-yet-unnamed home for the Chancellery, Art Museum, and Hawke Centre. The latter two buildings will link north to south, providing a new face for the campus at both North Terrace and Hindley Street.
These new buildings are an exciting addition to the West End. Readers may recognize familiar themes from Wardle’s previous work, such as the playful use of precast concrete, the expression of detail, and the building as a kind of “extrusion” with glass-covered ends allowing views to the interior. These themes are used here in an inner-urban context, applied to the complex problem of housing a school of architecture.
For this task, the buildings are more instructive than polemical, providing a clear demonstration of their own fabrication, and of the creative potential inherent in repetitive, economical and robust construction techniques.
The library extension, for example, picks up the concrete grid of the original building, partially inverts its colour scheme, and then works both within and around the grid. On one elevation, aluminium panels provide a colourful infill alluding to the shelves of books within, while on another, precast concrete panels are suspended over the laneway making reference to the building opposite. To the south, the double-storey window reconnects the library to Hindley Street, making a display for pedestrians out of the activity of study groups and their reading materials and, in turn, giving students a view of the very context in which their knowledge ought to find application.
In the workshop building a tight plan leaves little room for internal dynamics. Instead the different lighting conditions required for the various spaces – from glass blowing kilns to drawing studios – find expression in the external fenestration: precast concrete panels alternate with planes of glass separated into narrow panels by regular mullions. At ground level, the glass steps back, providing a view into the architecture workshop, and setting up a contrast between the cantilevered panels above and the bunker-like forms of in situ concrete below. This ground-level topography seems to rise back up the building at each end in the form of an external fire stair, the dynamic geometry continued by a handrail spanning from the top of the stair to the outside edge of the landing below.
The most dramatic and complex of the three completed buildings is the Kaurna building. This is organized around a foyer space that opens onto Fenn Place half way along the eastern facade, with an oversized concrete stair and elevators leading to studios above. Along the western edge, teaching spaces for the art school open out to a courtyard, bounded by a high wall adorned, at least at the time of my visit, with drawings in chalk. At the northern end of the foyer, a display cabinet for the Architecture Archive conceals storage and restoration space behind, while a yet-to-be-fitted-out cafe promises to one day dispense the caffeine-stained froth that seems essential to any creative activity. To the southern end, a gallery space cuts into the ground until it is almost a full level below Hindley Street, providing good hanging space, as well as interesting views between gallery and street.
The first floor provides office space for art and architecture staff, arranged in open plan form around central meeting rooms and other facilities. (To my knowledge this is the first purpose-built open plan office for academics in this country.) The second floor provides teaching and office spaces, as well as postgraduate laboratories, while the top floor is devoted to studio spaces for architecture, interior, and industrial design students.
The Hindley Street elevation repeats the theme of glazing held by galvanized steel over a building cut in section, appearing even lighter as it forms the handrail of an upper level deck. The sectioning effect is emphasized by the upturned concrete edge beam that lifts at each end, making it look like a half-built hull in a shipyard. Along Fenn Place, the elevation is made up of precast panels with vertical fins suspended over the edge beam and strip window at first floor level. Viewed obliquely from either end of the lane, the tight, irregular rhythms of this facade hint at the complexity of space and activity within. On top, the elevations step back into a series of angled and folded walls covered by a saw-tooth roof, reading in part as artists’ garrets, but also referring to the warehouse that inadvertently made this building possible.
As an architecture school, the work avoids issues of representation that have marked other ventures by Melbourne architects into Adelaide. Instead it offers a demonstration of the process of its own making through exposed and playful details, and an exploration of the possibilities inherent in frame and skin construction. Many of the details arise from treating problems as opportunities, such as turning up a corner to allow head-height clearance, or folding metal sheet across another corner to meet the council requirement for a canopy at street level.
The strategies used by Wardle make even more sense in this tight, inner-urban location than they do on the suburban campuses, which were the site for the practice’s earlier institutional works. Here, they result in a building that both responds and contributes to its urban context. Worth noting too is the quality of light in the studio spaces, which will improve even further with additional shading to the west, and with the completion of the Chancellery building to the north.
The university’s move to City West was an important one, although the perceived dangers of Hindley Street led to a somewhat defensive approach in the original campus design. With these new buildings, the university’s commitment to connection and revitalization in the area has at last been made explicit in its architecture. Florida’s visit was a welcome reminder of the economic importance of creativity, and of the quality of education that makes it possible. Universities are essential, not only as providers of education, but through the contribution their campuses make to the urban fabric of our cities.
Wardle’s designs provide an excellent example of how a university can put its creative faculties to good use. SCOTT DRAKE IS A SENIOR LECTURER IN ARCHITECTURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE.
WHEN IS IT GOING TO BE FINISHED?
I recall standing in the cavernous, partly subterranean gallery space of the Kaurna Building at the official opening of the new facilities at UniSA, when Lowitja O’Donohue remarked in her opening address that she was excited by the architecture as a place for learning but would like to come back when it is finished.
Having lived with the making of these buildings over a number of years, my amusement at Lowitja’s tongue-in-cheek comment was also tinged with satisfaction – a very particular aspiration for our new studios, exhibition spaces and work areas had been publicly recognized.
We wanted our spaces to be sensorially incomplete. We saw these purpose-built architecture, design and art buildings operating as laboratories, where students could explore qualities of building and detailing. We collaborated with John Wardle and Hassell in conceptualizing buildings where the planning and vertical circulation elements would be visibly expressed so that students could occupy spaces that were functional and informative and that were also places for invention and interaction.
We negotiated for the bare bones of the services and structure to remain exposed, something that became a particular challenge for the builders and required close attention to detailing, but which meant that our students could see the consequences of design decisions in the ways that buildings work. We accommodate the often-unappreciated sounds of water rushing through exposed pipes during meetings and appreciate the ability to occupy unprescribed places as temporary exhibition or critique spaces. And despite misgivings from some, we academics have returned to the studio – we operate in purpose-built workstations where most of our books are housed, and now have communal meeting and marking spaces where the chaos of student projects coincide and enable uncontrived interaction across our three disciplines.
The buildings support coexistence. Functional spaces transform into exhibition spaces, living spaces and meeting points within an aesthetic that is simultaneously rough and finely detailed. Our students are developing a new appreciation of the architecture’s attributes, and they are often reminded by visiting tutors, academics and professionals of the exciting qualities of the buildings. We now invite more people in as the spaces accommodate informal talks and presentations and the professions and artists of the city come to us because they can.
The project was also conceived to contribute to the hybrid city environment of Hindley Street in Adelaide’s western end and the internal laneways of the City West Campus. The opportunity to embrace the urban qualities of the “other” end of the city, and to house design students in a design school that looked like one, freed us from the need to reinforce existing campus identity, allowed experimentation with new form and materiality and achieved a shopfront that challenges the street.
Making experimental and robust buildings has required thoughtful research and ongoing interaction with people. John Wardle and I have discussed his intention to design buildings with a level of incompleteness built in, an offer to us academics and students to complete our spaces over time and changing circumstances, a constant challenge for all design schools. Sorry Lowitja, the buildings won’t be finished very soon. GINI LEE IS THE PAST HEAD OF SCHOOL OF THE LOUIS LAYBOURNE SMITH SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN AND WAS CLOSELY INVOLVED IN ITS INCEPTION AS PART OF THE CLIENT GROUP. SHE NOW WORKS AND LECTURES IN THE KAURNA BUILDING. SHE ACKNOWLEDGES THE SUPPORT OF HER VICE CHANCELLOR, PROFESSOR DENISE BRADLEY, WHO HAS CONSTANTLY CHAMPIONED THE EXPERIMENT.