In this robust work of adaptive re-use, Peter Stutchbury Architecture has reached back into history to transform an ensemble of former hospital buildings in Sydney’s Green Square Town Centre into a dynamic public arts precinct.
Green Square Town Centre, on the southern edge of the City of Sydney, has us all holding our collective, professional breath. The subject of unprecedented scrutiny in terms of urban design, public infrastructure and “design excellence,” it is now one of the fastest growing development sites in the world. As each piece is completed, the sum of the parts is being progressively laid bare. We will soon know whether a flourishing urban culture has translated an industrial expanse into a mixed and newly energized part of the city – or whether business as usual prevails and we have simply acquired more of the vapid lip-service of the early twenty-first-century property boom.
An inept urban structure and some truly ghastly urban housing have been a devastating beginning. Yet one exception is disproportionately tipping the scales back toward optimism – the Joynton Avenue Creative Precinct by Peter Stutchbury Architecture (PSA), in association with Design 5 – Architects as heritage consultant, completed for the City of Sydney. Tellingly, it is a small work of adaptive re-use in a tract of tabula rasa. The former South Sydney Hospital comprised a group of brick buildings dating from 1911 . Within the precinct, the Joynton Avenue Creative Centre occupies the Esme Cahill building, which was the nurses’ accommodation block, opened in 1938 . A local heritage listing mercifully recognized only its social significance, leaving the fabric open to robust intervention.
The building had an intriguing, but limiting, cellular plan. Its basic brick elevation betrayed uncompelling references to Filippo Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, Italy, with the presence of seven arches that framed the upper-level loggia spaces on the building’s north side. In the transformed project, PSA has reached back into history to rescue this fledgling architectural idea and draw it sharply into the present. The arched forms have been translated from a two-dimensional elevational state into a dramatic three-dimensional form – extruded into twenty-five-metre-long shells that define a large public canopy.
The exquisite detailing and material consideration of this element, and the associated building ensemble, evoke the public commitment of times past. No architectural effort or expense has been spared in realizing the building to the most exacting standard. The shells are crowned with copper caps and lined with hardwood battens that form strongly defined vaults, feathering to lend the repeating section a sense of inclination and dynamism at its northern tips. At the eastern and western edges small copper trims peel up to form protective ledges, the sinusoidal curves of the roofing profile dissipating like waves to seamlessly transition the corners with exquisite skill.
Suspended between the vaults are glass gutters that gather water and light, yet it is the canopy’s shadows that are most revelatory. It takes a while to discern the delicate distinction of umbra and penumbra below the vaults – a characteristic that is resistant to photography. This layered shadow gives the structure its civic heft, defying the delicacy of its construction. It is emphatic and confident in its public symbolism.
One can easily imagine the joyful occupation of this room with music, tai chi or raucous celebration. The “outdoor room” seems so fitting and easy as a public space type in the benign climate and culture of Sydney that it is curious how few one can readily list. The canopy addresses a small park that is held along its northern edge by the Banga Community Shed, the former operating block that is now a community workshop. It also accommodates public bathrooms beneath an extended roof. This lyrical little structure is a delight – the original slate roof twisted upwards and translated into a luminous veil of colourful polycarbonate shingles.
The interiors of the Creative Centre have been treated with equal joy. At the time of writing, the building is yet to be occupied but comprises a U-shaped cluster of rooms that have been repurposed as small spaces for art-making and subsidized offices for creative practice and startups. The wider community will also have access to the building for workshops and exhibitions and some of the rooms will be available for hire.
Given the cellular nature of the plan, the workspaces are naturally compact, but changes to the interior walls to allow the building to comply with current accessibility standards have provided opportunities for timber and reeded glass screen walls with individual environmental control and an almost domestic sense of comfort and intimacy. The north-facing cells in the centre of the plan have been aggregated to make larger classrooms and creative workspaces. The upper level has a particularly satisfying character – its ceilings removed to expose the original timber structure, augmented at its apex to allow for thermal venting and the optimal environmental performance for which PSA is renowned.
On the mid-level, between these larger rooms, is the architectural crux of the ensemble. While the copper shells stop short of the face of the building, the timber-lined vaults sleeve through glazed slots at the junction with the original brickwork arches and run deeply into the plan. A series of incisions have b een made in original walls and slabs to visually link the ground and middle floors. Cuts in structural elements are left raw, the exposed sections of non-structural linings are painstakingly outlined in brass and new components have their cut faces trimmed with red paint to explicitly distinguish the building’s layers.
The punctuated rhythm of vault and void intensifies the cellular complexity of the original plan, the vaults being experienced alternately as objects in space and as intimate spaces of enclosure. This level has been designed to accommodate artists’ studios, the balustrades incorporating ledges that form easel plinths for display. Arched perimeter windows draw the eye along the exterior vaults toward infinity, in powerful spaces where thoughts can take flight.
It will be fascinating to see how these spaces are eventually occupied. At first blush, the strongly patterned northern light from the unpeeled vaults, an insistent linearity that almost compels movement and the bespoke sublimity of the fabric seem an odd fit for the messy anarchy one typically associates with artists’ studios and workspaces. But time will tell and while form might follow structure in this instance, function needn’t be slave to either. Perhaps these tiny vaults will be filled with creative dreamers of a less traditional kind or will become spaces of release, a way of psychologically “leaving the building” when creative work is in its more excruciating, resistant phases.
One of the important lessons to draw from this work relates to the common understanding of the term “heritage.” The inner parts of Sydney have swathes of “heritage conservation areas” full of old and weathered, but not particularly notable, architectural fabric. Words like “conservation” and “heritage” stymie the broader recognition of its potential, implying preservation and stasis – but PSA and Design 5 show us so powerfully here that the intelligent, radical transformation of undistinguished fabric can make it spectacularly relevant and alive. That it may inspire more insight and less sentimentalizing about “heritage” is one of many reasons to celebrate this project. But what of its contribution to Green Square Town Centre as a whole? On that question, we must revert to holding our breath – wondering whether this clarion architectural note will be able to be discerned within the sea of white noise that is relentlessly enveloping it.