Foundation Housing and Women’s Health and Family Services buildings in Perth by CODA Studio combine domestic and institutional qualities to make a new kind of public project.
CODA Studio, the Fremantle-based practice run by Emma Williamson and Kieran Wong, won the commission for the Foundation Housing1 development in 2006 via an open competition organized by then Western Australian (and now Victorian) Government Architect Geoffrey London. CODA’s entry challenged the Housing for Diversity competition’s height limit, which allowed them to propose two building types for the site. When reviewing the scheme I wrote that it proposed an “ … ambiguous occupation (of the site) in a hybrid form. Accommodation is housed in two familiar forms — the perimeter and slab block — reconfigured around an elevated, stepped garden … In the shifting landscape of urban renewal and demographic change this lack of fixity is perhaps architecture’s most appropriate response. Further, CODA proposes a diversity that is manifested in ‘dwelling’ rather than articulated through built form … The innate transience in this occupation seems to suggest a domestic correlation to the scheme’s urban multiplicity.”2
This review gives me an opportunity to revisit the scheme and its ideas and to look at how they played out in the six-year process of the translation of a competition scheme into a realized project. I consider the urban context of the project and that of its neighbour, CODA’s Women’s Health and Family Services building, and the challenges and opportunities offered by the type of site they are built on.
The contemporary description of Northbridge as Perth’s “entertainment precinct” is lazy and ignores its historical, urban and demographic complexities. These include the history of reinvention and renaming that occurred in the late 1970s to give us “Northbridge” — a name that belied the area’s actual status as the “wrong side of the tracks.” The district was once home to light industry — for example, ice-cream and tobacco factories — and was infamous for the brothels on Roe Street. However, and more importantly, it afforded opportunities to successive waves of migrants over many decades. Jewish, Italian, Greek, Vietnamese and Chinese arrivals have left their imprint on the area. Perth’s first mosque and synagogue were located on Northbridge’s periphery. It had a colourful, eclectic character, and in a suburban metropolis such as Perth it was as close as one could get to “urban.”
With the construction of the Graham Farmer Freeway traffic tunnel (not really a tunnel, but a trench with a cap on it) in the late 1990s, a whole swathe of central Northbridge was demolished. Significant heritage buildings were lost, others had their back portions unceremoniously amputated, some were boarded up, and then the twenty-seven hectares of vacant land left by the tunnel construction waited for “revitalization.”
Distant from the damage wrought by the tunnel, Griffiths Architects has recently undertaken a subtle and well-considered upgrading of a number of William Street shopfronts, in one of the successes of Northbridge’s broader “revitalization.” Kerry Hill’s elegant State Theatre Centre of Western Australia is a few blocks away. However, Lyons’s Central Institute of Technology (Architecture Australia, July/August 2011) is the only other project of architectural merit that has filled the void left by demolition. CODA’s project is distinctive because it combines a clever new build and an engagement with the fragments left behind after the infrastructure works.
The premise of CODA’s competition-winning entry for two separate buildings that provide different accommodation for two diverse client groups remains in the realized scheme. A seven-storey tower at the rear of the site houses hostel accommodation, while a low-rise perimeter block for “key worker” accommodation also provides five new ground-floor tenancies.3 This building has now been articulated as two volumes, with a three-storey block aligned with Newcastle Street, while around a corner a taller structure faces west on Zempilas Road. The increase in height is accompanied by a change in materiality from beige to red brick. While the hostel tower is painted concrete, the three buildings are tied together by perforated aluminium screens that are arranged across their elevations.
The hostel consists of a number of different sized bedsits, which range from emergency accommodation with shared facilities to large rooms complete with bathrooms and kitchenettes. Irrespective of their size, these rooms are generous, light filled and with well-considered built-in furniture that soften what could have been more institutional spaces. The short-stay emergency accommodation is located on the ground floor alongside administrative offices and a caretaker’s flat. Communal areas such as lounge, kitchen and dining area are found in the flexible zone between the vertical circulation and the rooms. Their position on the south side of the building offers views across low rooftops towards the city centre.
The height of the hostel tower (non-conforming in terms of the competition brief) allows for a generous raised first-floor “plaza” to be formed between the buildings. While the architects refer to this space as a “courtyard,” this residential-style description doesn’t accord with the dignified civic quality achieved despite its small scale. Public art, by Jennie Nayton and Penny Bovell, adorns the robust off-form concrete walls of the entry and the plaza, further divesting it of any domestic connotations. This is a distinctive and memorable space that, when combined with its entry sequence, provides a series of intriguing spatial moments and thresholds as one moves from the street to the apartments. A brilliant red folded and perforated steel lamp draws your attention vertically as you enter off the street. As you move to the plaza a step breaks and divides it into a number of smaller spaces, each of which “belongs” to the accommodation that flanks it. Voids are inserted between the plaza and the key workers’ apartments which, combined with a level change, provide sufficient separation between the plaza and the private interiors of the apartments.
Clever first moves set up the organization and amenity of these apartments. The angled placement of the hostel tower, combined with a consistent width of the plaza, results in a tapered form to the perimeter building. This generates a variety of room shapes and sizes, providing each of the apartments with an individual identity. The location of the circulation in the key workers’ apartments means that each stairwell only services four apartments. The shallow plan offers the potential for cross-ventilation while all bar one apartment have a northerly aspect. The robust exterior belies the generosity of the interior spaces, with a variety of apartments ranging in size from bedsits to two-bedroom family dwellings. Carefully specified and detailed sliding doors allow the balconies to transform into extensions of the living areas.
The development also contains one of the unceremoniously truncated late-nineteenth-century warehouses that resulted from the building of the tunnel. Although difficult for the architects, expensive for the client and laborious to refurbish, the conversion of this space into a cafe has resulted in an unusually shallow space with a high-walled courtyard, fusing what remains of the turn-of-the-century building with the rough off-form concrete of the new build behind. It is in these areas (the wide shallow space of the cafe and ambiguous scale of the courtyard/plaza) that we discern the tension that occurs in the best hybrids. Here it is also manifest as inevitable frisson between the public and the domestic nature of the project. This presents itself in other places, such as the canopy along Newcastle Street, which is caught between needing to step down with the fall in the street and the new shopfronts or remaining at a datum to satisfy the apartment block above. In this case the ungainly height of the canopy from the street is compensated for by the manner in which it engages the public scale (and delight) of the entry sequence into the apartments.
Women’s Health and Family Services
The brief from Women’s Health and Family Services sought the consolidation of a number of different service providers into a single central location in purpose-designed facilities. Appropriately, then, the body’s new home brings together three existing gold rush-era buildings — an S & L Furnishers warehouse and two small cottages. These are complemented by the insertion of two new “blocks” — a three-storey red brick box that consists of consulting rooms and medical suites, plus the small, single-level group counselling at the rear of the site.
Again, CODA is able to deftly engage with the relationship between the domestic and institutional. It can be found in the play of scale and material in the cladding of the new three-storey building. The rough-sawn timber is more familiar as fencing but here it is enlarged to become cladding around the stairwell. While the red brick references the predominant building material of Northbridge prior to its “revitalization,” CODA specified a matching mortar, which lends a monumental scale to something that is otherwise domestic and modular. While a stretcher bond is used at ground level to extend the existing S & L warehouse, a “basket weave” bond is used for the second level of the new block. It is a domestic allusion about how elements might be tied together, not as a laboured cliché about women’s work but as something architecturally rich and worthy.
In this drawing together of elements across the site, CODA proposes a negotiated response dictated and defined by the pragmatics of use. For example, the new side entrance to the WHFS building might initially be thought of as a missed opportunity to re-engage with the original articulated front entry to the showroom. Instead, the entry is determined by the floor level of the cottages set further back on the block and the need for the ramped connection between all four buildings to conform to code. These demands mean that the new floor level and ramps are forced to ignore the historical datum of the building. This approach results in small shifts in understanding the existing fabric; ceiling beams define internal spaces rather than have structural imperatives. This results in a peculiar sensation, almost as if the urban forces that have reshaped this piece of Northbridge are felt directly in the interior of the buildings, the obvious newness of CODA’s insertions combined with only occasional material reminders of the existing cottages. This is an unusual phenomenon and a reminder of architecture’s place in the hierarchy of cause and effect of urban redevelopment.
The colour and materiality of the new circulation spaces between the assemblage of these buildings become another way to reads CODA’s drawing together of these different pieces of program. The red vinyl flooring extends from the entry, past the plywood-clad staircase and into the group areas to the right. The light-filled stairwell and its luminous colours connect the vertical spaces of the new block with the insertions of built-in furniture in the cottages. The transition from domestic to institutional is mirrored by the trajectory of the practice itself. Like many small offices, CODA has cut its teeth on renovations and extensions. Here, those same skills come to play — squeezing bits of purposeful space out of the unwieldy connection between old and new while negotiating the leftover bits of an exhausted program. This is domestic knowledge applied to (now redundant) residential architecture to create a new kind of public building.
These are difficult jobs with compromised sites and tiny budgets. These buildings show that with skill and careful consideration, talented architects can bring forth a humanity and generosity to be enjoyed by the users of their buildings. They also illustrate how a rich piece of urban fabric might be created through the clever engagement of existing fragments and new architecture.
1 Foundation Housing is a non-government organization that manages and owns over 1000 properties in Western Australia. It provides temporary, emergency and general housing for people at risk.
2 Philip Goldswain, RADAR Competition, Building Diversity, Architecture Australia, January/February, 2006.
3 “Key workers” are defined as those employees who provide an essential service, usually in the public sector. These include teachers, nurses, police officers and firefighters. With an increase in housing prices it has become increasingly difficult to find affordable housing for these workers within reasonable commuting distances of their employment.