A playful ideal: East Sydney Early Learning Centre

An existing building, playground and laneway have been radically recast and creatively integrated, thanks to Andrew Burges Architects’ design for a new childcare and community facility in the densely knit Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst.

Among the early explorative drawings for the East Sydney Early Learning Centre, large-scale urban mappings were prepared alongside collage-like diagrams of “play space.” The maps are precise and analytical, the diagrams intimate and speculative. The maps discover and reveal local patterns, searching for qualities to endorse or reshape. The diagrams layer and interweave enclosure around children, furnishings, greenery and toys, in active constellations. If the maps promise to invest architectural form with an urban experience, the diagrams enliven, even exaggerate, this ambition. Working to invoke the city in the spaces for play, Andrew Burges Architects has transformed a 1920s building and adjacent playground into a spirited new childcare and community facility. Conceived as a miniature city, the project amplifies the urban condition and its potential to support imaginative play and learning.

The original 1920s building has been recast as a masonry shell, with a softly aged patina, enveloping the radically adapted interior.

The original 1920s building has been recast as a masonry shell, with a softly aged patina, enveloping the radically adapted interior.

Image: Peter Bennetts

Developed by the City of Sydney, the brief proposed the relocation of an existing childcare service to a nearby four-storey masonry block, perched on a corner site within the densely knit Darlinghurst urban grain. The once-industrial architectural envelope had immediate proximity to the John Birt Memorial Playground, the lush garden already in use by the young patrons, and could further host new accommodation for a multipurpose community facility. Such integrated renovation of heritage fabric, urban infrastructure and civic programs has been a hallmark of the council’s development agenda, whereby architects are called to reinvigorate the relationship between the city and the community. Strategic procurement processes, such as invited competitions, have secured the participation of emerging offices, enlisting fresh contributions to the public sphere. For Andrew Burges Architects, the successful bid to design the East Sydney Early Learning Centre was significant. With the practice predominantly honed on refined residential projects, the commission extended the architects’ approach in the context of an educational program and intricate urban setting.

The relationship between the three pre-existing elements preoccupied early design proposals: the building, the playground and the laneway in between. How to integrate architecture and landscape across public land and passage? Directed by the project brief, the closure of Berwick Lane was initially considered, with the site resolved as a definitive end to the block of tightly packed row terraces. Following urban analysis and community consultation, however, the scheme was reworked to maintain public access. Andrew Burges credits the City’s Design Advisory Panel for its agency in the revision. Attentive to inner Sydney’s pedestrian framework, the panel endorsed an overhead pathway, between the building and the playground, above the lane. The strategy neatly resolved the programmatic distribution: community spaces on the lower-ground level, fronting and activating the laneway, and the childcare facility housed across the upper three levels, with independent access. Through the introduction of two new urban components, a rear lane “shopfront” and a bridge in the air, the tripartite urban site was thus effectively integrated.

The building and playground are linked by a partially obscured overhead pathway, with an existing, and now activated, public lane underneath.

The building and playground are linked by a partially obscured overhead pathway, with an existing, and now activated, public lane underneath.

Image: Peter Bennetts

Stripped inside and out, the brick building was recast as a bare rhythmic masonry shell with expansive punctuated openings and a softly aged surface patina, at once more elemental and expressive. Capped by a single pitched roof, it presented a unifying envelope for a radically adapted interior. Numerous study models visualized the new order as a tightly packed network of functional modules, mediating paths and greenery. Teaching and play spaces, kitchens and bathrooms were individuated, scaled relative to their use and clustered. Varied in height, several units tapered up and past the roofline to funnel in light and air. In later iterations tapering forms were more vigorously deployed, the play spaces now resolved as hooded pods, small, medium and large “houses” with house-like conventions: angled roof, doorway and windows. A generously scaled circulation network interlaced the architectural matrix, while the gentle rotation of the initially rectilinear pods relative to the outer envelope resolved these transitional spaces as diverse and fluid. The revitalized John Birt Memorial Playground was to loop the network. Here a perimeter ramp nestled among greenery framed a new figural and episodic landscape: a floating pavilion anchored at a tree, a triangular patch of sand and cascading perimeter concrete steps.

Brightly coloured sprinkler pipes and greenery playfully punctuate the consistent palette of timber, concrete and white surfaces.

Brightly coloured sprinkler pipes and greenery playfully punctuate the consistent palette of timber, concrete and white surfaces.

Image: Peter Bennetts

The design process evokes a twofold approach to the representation of the “city,” whereby a concentrated and abstract urban pattern is overlaid with a whimsical rendition of urban elements. One privileges a field-like and systematic organization, the other the semantic richness of urban figures: a house, a hall, a plaza, a street, a tower, a garden, an amphitheatre. In one, architectural form is de-emphasized; in the other it’s invested with meaning.

Material details support the interplay between field and figure. Timber, concrete and white surfaces set a consistent palette throughout. Architectural motifs are in turn introduced through conventions of assembly. Horizontal “weatherboard” cladding and timber decks add vernacular references, while brightly coloured sprinkler pipes signify infrastructure. Singular planes of framed glass are set afloat within the masonry portals and recede to maintain the naked masonry character. Subtly varied in their detail and operability, they animate the facade via sensitive particularities.

On the upper floor the roof is partly cut and peeled back to create a walled garden. Unglazed, netted perimeter openings capture expansive aerial views of the surrounding nineteenth-century urban fabric. Directly ahead is a frontal perspective of Sydney’s CBD, a striking compilation of urban artefacts, one layered over another. The image is poignant, as if composed as a clue to the design impetus. Burges describes the project as a counter to the overt transparency and regularized order of contemporary childcare environments. His position recalls the postwar critique of mainstream modernism in which reference to the spontaneous and festive dimension of street life was deployed as a motivating force for the revitalization of the rationalist order. Children’s uninhibited and creative interactions with urban territory were here valorized. The city and the urban situation, it was argued, offered the greatest hope for the realization of a liberal life. In this work of adaptive re-use, the relationship between the child and the city has informed an exuberant architectural transformation, literate in conception, carefully fabricated and delightfully occupied. The power of this miniaturization lies in a heightened representation of the real towards a playful ideal.


Andrew Burges Architects
Surry Hills, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Project Team
Andrew Burges, Alex Wilson, Jo Tinyou, Celia Carroll, Anna Field, Chris Su, Chris Mullaney, John Nguyen, Louise Lovmand, Nadia Zhao, City of Sydney project team Elizabeth Sandoval (senior design manager), Wendy James (design manager)
City of Sydney
Acoustic consultant PKA Acoustic Consulting
Builder Belmadar Constructions
Electrical and lighting consultant Floth
Heritage consultant John Oultram
Landscape consultant JMD Design
Mechanical engineer and ESD Consultant Steensen Varming
Signage Design by Toko
Structural engineer SDA Structures
Site details
Category Commercial / public buildings
Type Adaptive re-use, Education, Schools
Project Details
Status Built



Published online: 18 Oct 2017
Words: Maryam Gusheh
Images: Peter Bennetts


Architecture Australia, July 2017

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