Dignified yet cheeky, the Hawke Building at the University of South Australia, by John Wardle Architects with Hassell, completes a quartet of projects at the university and gives it a striking new ‘front door’.
In 1947 the eighteen-year-old Robert James Lee Hawke was given a brand new black Panther 250cc motorcycle. His near-death experience on the bike only months later became “the total turning point” of his life.1 But Hawke couldn’t have imagined that sixty years later an identical model of the racy machine would hold pride of place in an impressive civic building bearing his name. The recently opened Hawke Building on North Terrace, Adelaide, designed by John Wardle Architects with joint project delivery by John Wardle Architects and Hassell, houses three entities of the University of South Australia – the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art and the Chancellery. It concludes the architects’ 2002 commission for four new buildings at the university and completes an architectural promenade through the north–south axis of the campus along Fenn Place. With its prominent location on the major avenue of the city and striking faceted facade, the building consciously aims to project the university’s identity. The compressed site proportion gives a bold “front door” to the campus within the linear blocks of the original City West campus of 1996 by Guy Maron.
This was no easy architectural task. Not only did the design have to satisfy the exacting expectations of the Adelaide City Council for an insertion in such a significant part of the urban fabric, it also had to project the complex characteristics of a contemporary university in an increasingly image-conscious higher education market. Additionally, it had to fit three distinct and substantial functions into a narrow footprint, balancing the contradictory requirements within each sub-brief for a high degree of visibility, access and security.
That the John Wardle Architects design successfully negotiates these potentially conflicting issues is a tribute to the practice’s spatial curiosity and dexterity, its understanding of architectonic decorum and meticulous detailing. But scratch the surface and you also find iconoclastic approaches to solving problems, with a larrikin touch not unlike Hawke’s (in)famous handling of his various portfolios – glimpses into traditionally sealed spaces, stairs that don’t always connect to where you think you are going, and is that an echo of the university’s crest in the face of the building, or the Silver Bodgie’s quiff? This hint of mischief allows the building to straddle the oppositional forces of the prestigious corporate institution, on one hand, and the robust, often dissenting world of contemporary art and social discourse on the other.
Like its namesake, the Hawke Building has immediate charisma. First impressions are of a muscular and brilliant cliff, cut through with a deep chasm of sapphire glass. The building seems to teeter on the ground plane of the corporate side of North Terrace, straining to lift against its own gravity and succeeding at the corner with a kind of truculent formalism. The strong street alignment preserves the typology of the commercial side of Adelaide’s civic boulevard, and the precise bas-relief modelling of the elevation evokes the disciplined layered surfaces of nineteenth-century architectural counterparts further up the Terrace. Fluted copper flashings nestled between the precast concrete panels are reminiscent too of the solid bronze mouldings and architectural hardware of pre-twentieth-century buildings, and point to Wardle’s Scarpa-like obsession with longevity in detailing.
Yet every morning as I approach from the elevated vantage point of the Morphett Street Bridge, I can’t help chuckling at what is revealed beyond – an almost subversive dismantling of the building as singular edifice, where solids and voids, projections and cuts pile upon each other in an enthusiastic rush to explain the building as a unique series of elements. The principal gathering spaces of the building – the Kerry Packer Civic Gallery, Bradley Forum, Allan Scott Auditorium, Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Library and Chancellery terrace – are all distinctive expressionist forms within the cohesive rectangular volume dictated by the site. Nowhere is this more evident than at the south end, where the barely repressed energy of the Fenn Place aspect explodes into a frenzy of competing gestures. Two thick columns with opposing cant prop the black zinc bulk of the auditorium space. A ripple of folded curtain wall pinpoints the exact corner of the building, while overhead the glass eyrie of the library reveals its concrete underbelly. In this dense architectonic cleft between the Hawke and its antecedent Kaurna building, kinked sky bridges soar with latter-day Piranesian dynamism. But Piranesi only drew his imaginings; Wardle and his team have built them, and built them with exquisite care, pushing the craft of building so that the project becomes an exposition of the best abilities of all the trades.
Like the Kaurna building, the Hawke opens not to its main address, but off pedestrianized Fenn Place, completing the activation of the street begun in stage 1. The entry is defined and protected by a spectacular glazed prism, an oversized vitrine to display Different Forms of Intelligence, Fiona Hall’s commissioned work of five platonic solid brains. Inside the foyer, a variety of scales and journeys are apparent. Directly ahead, the opening to the Samstag previews the expansive verticality within. A slim atrium space rises the full height of the building, but begins with a much squatter vertical impulse in the form of a nested pair of black-and-white scissor stairs. Teasingly opaque, with high panelled balustrades and low headroom, the stairs intertwine but lead to different destinations, like the ingenious double helix stair at Château de Chambord, designed to separate the king’s wife from his mistress. The device cleverly poaches space from the foyer for the internal circulation of the Samstag: the black carbon-fibre stair acts as a navigational prompt to distinguish the path to the upper galleries. Though this mystifies first-time users, it compels engagement with the architecture and helps delineate the different tenants within the building.
Internally, the Samstag Museum follows the “white box” model, with an elegantly proportioned double-height space and overlooking galleries. Yet, despite the fastidious concealment of services and distractions, the architecture is not inconspicuous. Director Erica Green describes it as “a thrilling space, where the excitement comes not just from the art”. The contrast between the lofty main gallery and balconies (one opening to North Terrace) gives a sense of Bachelard’s “intimate immensity” in viewing relationships with the artwork, and the inaugural exhibition, Wonderful World, demonstrated the adaptability of the space for art of various scales, media and detail. There is an appropriate balance between the aesthetics of Arte Povera and classicism, between the massive grain of the concrete shell and the floating reflectivity of the ironbark floor, between simple volumes and articulated junctions.
While the second- and third-floor Chancellery areas are inaccessible to the public and somewhat mute architecturally, the Hawke Centre and its chief components of civic gallery, forum and library are anything but. Conceived as a research institute to further the university’s commitment to “deliberative democracy”, the centre aims to provide a meeting place for the ferment of ideas and community debate. Wardle’s design responds to this with unambiguous physicality. The spacious passage of the civic gallery connects the auditorium to the foyer at first-floor level. Like the Long Halls of English Renaissance architecture, this is both an active gathering area and a comforting place to digress, culminating in an angular display space projecting over North Terrace. The library is a vertiginous balcony, nudging the neighbouring building and sky. Far from being a cloistered collection, it advertises its contents (including the Panther) through a splayed curtain wall of glass. Most obviously symbolic, though, is the forum, which sits like a crucible on the podium of the building. Its interior is unconventional, a curvilinear drum striped in colourful fabric bands and dished to the sky. “Things can soar in there if they want to,” says director Elizabeth Ho, and the vast truncated window-wall heightens the idea of the forum as a place of vision, “an eye across the city from a new angle”.
Designed concurrently with the Kaurna wing, this building is its logical extension, with critical differences that Wardle has identified and exploited. The southerly aspect of Kaurna allowed transparency and a chance to expose the interior through Wardle’s signature “building as extruded section” technique. It responded to the functional nature of the spaces as creative laboratories and to the grungier context of Hindley Street with a tactic of architectural didacticism and open-ended collage. In comparison, the north orientation and corporate temperament of the Hawke demands a thicker skin and more seamless architectural statement, in what could be seen as a neat political analogy. For beyond its title, buildings like this are increasingly politicized investments, visible manifestos of a university’s charter. This is a work which understands and expresses the multiple roles and responsibilities universities carry, as “ivory bunkers” of learning, catalysts for change and publicly accountable centres of excellence. In materiality and assembly the Hawke has the cool resolution of large-scale jewellery. But in its broader make-up, it is a hot and energetic work, with all the compelling contradictions of Bob himself – innately dignified and cheeky at the same time. John Wardle Architects is currently working on a suite of projects for tertiary institutions, characterized by the concept of architecture as a tangible portal to academic, research or civic distinction, and if the success of the Hawke is any gauge, one can only look forward to the results.
The three earlier buildings from this commission – the Kaurna and Dorrit Black buildings and the extension to the library in the existing Catherine Helen Spence Building – were reviewed in Architecture Australia vol 95 no 1 Jan/Feb 2006.
1 Blanche D’Alpuget, Robert J. Hawke: a biography (Lansdowne Press, 1982), 31.
Images: Sam Noonan and Trevor Mein