Launceston’s new ‘living room’, by David Travalia, Richard Leplastrier and team, is set to become the centre of the city’s cultural and intellectual life.
THE NEW PUBLIC GALLERY for the Design Centre – Tasmania, in Launceston, is an extraordinary achievement on several levels. This immensely impressive building has been designed to house the Tasmanian Wood Design Collection, an idea developed by Gary Cleveland in 1991 as a means of promoting the appropriate use of Tasmanian timbers and an understanding of the importance of design, and to “create an identity for Tasmania” overseas. The Wood Design Collection is a non-profit public company, occupying council-owned land and buildings on the edge of City Park. These include the 1895 Price Memorial Hall (formerly serving an adjacent Congregational Chapel), which accommodates a shop/gallery selling Tasmanian design products. Operating since 1976, this funds the running of the public gallery.
In addition to displaying Tasmanian work, the gallery will show national and international exhibitions, the first of which was Finnish Design 125. It will also host a range of other art, design and performance events, as well as lectures, discussions and formal gatherings, so that it can become a forum for the city’s intellectual and cultural life. The creation of such a public building in a city of 70,000 is truly remarkable and an expression of great optimism in the future of the State.
The client’s expansive educational and cultural mission is mirrored in the architects’ design process and spatial concept. The commission was won by David Travalia, Richard Leplastrier and team through competitive submission and interview, assessed by a committee including architects Glenn Murcutt and Bruce Goodsir (whose furniture also features in the collection). David Travalia conceived of the design process as an educational as well as a design opportunity. He set up a design team with one of his architectural mentors, Richard Leplastrier, and invited three younger designers to join them – two recent architectural graduates and his son, a talented furniture designer.
Thus, the design process not only benefited from this mix of age and experience, but it also became a vehicle for the passing on of architectural understanding.
The architects extended the mission of the Design Centre, envisaging the new gallery as a “living room” of the city and imagining that items in the collection could be used, on special occasions, “to furnish the life of the city”. From the first, the building was seen as formally deferring to the heritage-listed Price Hall. Early designs show a grand public room, segmental in plan, separated from the hall by a linear foyer and entry spine, entered from the rear through the existing “Dutch” and “Senses” gardens which occupy the site of the former chapel, school and pastor’s house. In the next stage, rooms for the collection were cut
into the slope to the south around this curved space, but it became clear that there was insufficient site area. An extension of the site up to the corner of Tamar and Brisbane Streets was therefore negotiated with the City Council, taking in a small triangle of grass and small trees added to the park in 1964.
This resumption of an area of the park for building was understandably opposed by some citizens, but, in this writer’s view, was absolutely appropriate. Tamar Street has formed a built edge to the park from colonial times, the site extension being formerly occupied by nineteenth-century cottages. For this reason, this area of the park was specifically omitted from the Register of the National Estate. Further, the additional area allowed for the creation of a tree-shaded courtyard, which not only enhances the gallery, but also provides a usable hard-landscaped extension to the park. This allows the new public building to have a fine interrelationship with its landscape context.
Finally, the stepped rooms of the gallery form a memorable and rich spatial sequence at this important entry to the park, close to the city centre.
In the final scheme, the galleries form a stepped sequence around the courtyard, using a uniformly spaced cross wall and beam structural system on a 300 mm grid, which allows economical repetition and prefabrication of parts. The grand public room has become the first large gallery space, parallel to the street and buffered from the noise by storage and service areas, and a substation. Now entered directly from the street, the foyer forms a glazed link, neatly distinguishing old from new, with an elegant suspended roof. The formerly somewhat dark Price Hall has been opened up to the Senses Garden and the park by the addition of a beautiful simple room with bifold casement windows on three sides. Now, in summer the openings are free of mullions or transoms and frame the lush foliage beyond. The connection between the hall and the new foyer has been simply achieved by lowering the sills of existing window openings, thus retaining the spatial integrity of the old building.
The new building is retiring from the street. The horizontality of the low timber-clad box of the storage and service areas sets off the upright Dutch Renaissance facade of the hall, and masks the bulk of the concrete gallery structures behind. Perhaps this street front has been too much underplayed and it is unfortunate that the flat roof is visible from the opposite street corner. The curious inclusion of local red bricks, a contribution in kind to the project, also detracts from the simple austerity of the street front. The side and rear of the new buildings, however, settle gently into the park and provide a beautiful enclosing backdrop to the Senses Garden. The courtyard awaits the growth of the single Chinese elm tree, which will eventually dominate and shade the space. Although it may need to be softened with further planting, the courtyard forms a wonderful transition between building and park.
After the modest street front, the grand scale of the big first gallery is astonishing and seems to be part of a different building. There is a Kahnian sense of calm, almost classical monumentality, which evokes the idea of public space. This is a room of real civic dignity that has to be lived up to – a room for exhibitions, concerts, lectures or formal receptions. The remaining galleries subtly and irregularly decrease in height and scale as they step towards the park around the courtyard, the beautifully nuanced daylighting changing by the hour. Each gallery is fully glazed to the courtyard, generally with folding doors – but, in one case, with a generous seat and windows – so that all spaces can be fully opened up in fine weather. This gives an unprecedented sense of openness for a public art collection. The galleries also receive light from the rear, where they are built into the slope. The height of clerestory and sill, and the degree of transparency, vary subtly in each case, providing controlled glimpses of treetops and sky. Tiny low-level windows with glazing face-fixed to the external wall, inspired by Sigurd Lewerentz, provide close-up vignettes of foliage. Daylight also enters between the shallow diaphragm beams, which incorporate profiled plywood ceiling panels. Light passes through strips of clear Laserlite in the roof and glass laylights below, and is then reflected up off flat ceiling panels onto the adjacent curved underside of each beam.
Fluorescent lighting is also concealed in each beam. This prefabricated assembly clearly continues Jørn Utzon’s many experiments with precast beam systems that allow penetration of daylight. The use of plywood forms recalls Utzon’s work on the Sydney Opera House and designs for his own house at Bayview (1963–65), for which Leplastrier did many of the drawings. Thus Utzon, too, is part of the mentoring process carried through in this project.
The concrete block cross wall structure supports massive precast concrete gutter beams, which in turn support the prefabricated 250 mm deep x 1200 mm wide diaphragm beams whose composite timber spines slot into recesses in the concrete.
The walls are finished with unpainted, greyish hardset plaster with a beautifully fine, rich surface, that consciously emulates Carlo Scarpa’s Canova Museum, Possagno (1955–57). The clear-finished plywood ceilings give contrasting warmth to the space; and the fine local Nunamurra sandstone floor slabs, set out in a simple pattern to mirror the ceiling panels, are also a warm buff colour. The structural clarity, the monumentality and the contrast of concrete and timber recall the work of Kahn as well as Utzon. The walls are constructed to form U-shaped alcoves under the zone of the gutter beams.
These are intended for display or even storage of items from the collection, or other exhibits, and incorporate hanging rails and lighting track.
The key word for the clients was flexibility. The architects
have responded by creating a wonderful suite of fine rooms of varying scale and size, unspecific in their function, divided by double-glazed doors that recess into adjacent walls when open.
All except one can be entered independently from the courtyard, giving great functional flexibility. At present the end room is used for quarterly board meetings and the adjacent gallery acts as an office. This prevents the public from experiencing the full sequence of rooms. When fully open, there is a wonderful journey from the grand first gallery to the cross-axial connection to galleries two and three, and then on to the stepped enfilade of galleries three, four and five. The sequence finishes with a large frameless Lewerentzian window looking onto the park, which ties the building firmly into its Arcadian setting.
This new gallery is a very fine building, constructed for only $1,200 per square metre. It demonstrates the continuing vitality of an architecture that values serenity and a sense of continuity with the past, while seeking to make a place that nurtures the ongoing public life of the community.