Review Peter Bickle
Photography Peter Bennetts
“This exciting new development has been made possible because of a very generous benefactor. The memory and vision of Mrs Johnson will live on at the RSPCA, as this redevelopment is due to her generosity.”1
The enthusiasm expressed above for the RSPCA kennel facility at Burwood in suburban Melbourne clearly reflects an organization with a commitment to the welfare of the less fortunate of dogs. In this context, visiting the new kennels to review the architecture is quite difficult because one’s attention is easily distracted by the plight of the dogs and by compassion for the one-time, and possibly again-to-be, loving pets. An immediate contradiction in the expressed intent of the facility and its function is palpable, because the dogs are locked up in cages while they undergo veterinary assessment and wait for possible adoption by new owners. One is immediately aware that this is an institution that is like a prison, or more poignantly an immigration detention centre, where displaced people await processing and resolution of their fate. In Australia the existence of detention centres has been one of the most heated of public topics because they represent a lack of compassion for those most in need. The architecture of these kinds of facilities is therefore a focal point for distrust. The regimentation of buildings in compounds and razor wire fences are the signs of a harsh reason and extreme rationality. What, then, are we to make of the kennels, when they remind us of detention but their intent is compassion? There are a number of issues the architects of this building had to consider when designing it, which provide points of discussion for this conundrum.
The first issue that the kennels addressed was how to house an increasing number of dogs coming to the RSPCA. The old kennels were single-storey and open-air, where the dogs and prospective owners were subjected to weather conditions and the surrounding neighbourhood was subjected to the noise of barking dogs. The solution to these problems has been provided in the new building by making it two-storey and fully enclosed. The increase in the number of kennels in a two-storey building within a suburban context reminds us of the current debates about urban density and suburban sprawl that have spawned such documents as Melbourne’s 2030 planning proposals. The kennels have been planned to increase the density and the amenity of the environment by using five parallel wings that all have a north orientation. Each kennel looks out onto a courtyard space between, but doesn’t overlook the dogs in adjacent kennel blocks. The dogs have their privacy maintained and they don’t become restless and agitated by visual contact with other dogs. Access to each of the wings is via a common ramp system at one end. Again, this is a highly logical planning device providing an economical amenity. I was reminded of the plan of John Andrews’ Cameron Offices in Canberra, where there were a number of multi-storey office wings, all with the same orientation, courtyards between and linking pedestrian circulation along one end of all the office wings. Cameron Offices, for all its logical planning, has been constantly dogged by argument about the appropriateness of its repetitive planning and the blandness of its architectural style. At the RSPCA kennels, the repetition and the simplicity of the forms raise similar issues, if we see the building as analogous to prototype for resolving residential density in our cities.
The kennels also incorporate technologies that are increasingly becoming common in buildings that wish to be energy-efficient and ecologically responsible. In architecture this comes under the heading of the acronym ESD (Environmentally Sustainable Design). The kennels have incorporated in-floor heating in the floor slabs and non-mechanized ventilation using simple shower tower technology for cooling and the ventilation of doggy odours. Double glazing has been used to ameliorate the noise of barking dogs for the neighbours. The styling of the buildings incorporates this technology in a way that makes the buildings look like industrial laboratories. This displays admirable reason but possibly not enough idiosyncrasy to engender a better sense of compassion.
The exterior of the buildings is overwhelmingly uniform in the use of a cladding material. Almost all the exterior is clad with one type of material – that is, ribbed metal wall cladding. The use of a generic material so extensively is probably driven by budget constraints. In order to overcome the relentless singularity of the material, a pattern of black-and-white sheeting has been composed to provide visual relief and to attempt to fracture the regularity of the form. On the north face of each kennel wing, a staccato pattern of white on black has been applied at an angle to create an illusion that the buildings are sloping or bent. The use of black and white is also justified on the grounds that these are the colours that work well in stimulating the dogs and preventing boredom, which could lead to antisocial behaviour. Using colour patterns on a surface as the predominant form of decoration on a building brings the hoary question of what is decoration in the contemporary world onto the agenda for debate. If economic rationalism has led to the conclusion that pattern and colour on a flat surface are sufficient stimulation for the eye and the emotions, then what might be considered a behavioural experiment at the dog kennels could provide architects with interesting research. Buildings like Federation Square in Melbourne have relied quite heavily on decorating the surface of their forms with patterning but refrained from explicit use of add-on decoration. If applied decoration was outside the budget range of this project, maybe a variety of materials or a material that had more inherent variation in scale and colour may have been worth considering.
In what might be described as an architectural composition based on rational pragmatics, the use of landscaping in the courtyards appears to have also been drawn into this idea. The landscaping has been reduced to the use of patterns of material on a flat surface. Again, part of the reason for this is “… giving the dogs housed in the kennels an interesting and stimulating vista”.2 This is reminiscent of real estate jargon, where the more stimulating or privileged the view you have, the more valuable is the home and the more content are the occupants. One wonders if the sight of a fine specimen of a tree on the horizon might not bring pleasure to the heart of a dog longing for a better life, or would a dog get overexcited by the possibilities of relief from the kennel environment? I myself like the idea of trees and plants with shape, colour and movement as a desirable part of landscaping.
The worthy aspirations of the RSPCA in developing this building are also timely for discussing how architecture might provide the necessary amenities of life without the economics of pragmatism stealing away the joyous possibilities of unexpected pleasure in the refinement and elaboration of architecture.
Peter Bickle is a senior associate at Ashton Raggatt McDougall and a sessional teacher at RMIT.
1 “New world class RSPCA kennel facility”, RSPCA News, vol 7 no 4.
2 “Site redevelopment, new world class RSPCA kennel facility”, www.rspcavic.org
RSPCA REDEVELOPMENT STAGE 1 KENNELS, BURWOOD EAST
project team Barbara Bamford, Lyndon Hayward, Thuyai Chung, Peter Dredge, Iain Walker.
Van Der Meer.
PLP Building Surveyors.