Smart Design Studio’s new mixed-use building in Balgowlah, Sydney has an elegantly composed, layered outer skin that brings an urbane character to the suburban streetscape.
Within the tightly packed retail strip of Sydney’s Balgowlah, the new block at 385 Sydney Road sits at ease, even engaged with its motley-crew suburban neighbours. All the while it adds an urbane, more elegant character to the streetscape. A “layered” outer skin appears to be the key to this smooth double act. A masonry wall and its fenestration are here pulled apart as two planes: a thin, carefully composed brick screen stands proud of an inner glazed membrane and a shaded porch is placed between them. The strategy alludes to the logic of the entire building, whereby architectural components – the facade, the floor, the wall, the joinery, the window and the terrace – are each defined as discrete and unadorned material elements and assembled together to form a new urban whole. The resultant architecture is familiar, yet achieves a refined singularity.
Vividly invoked in this project is the revival of the architectural facade during the latter decades of the twentieth century. Dismayed by the modernist resolution of the external threshold, architects sought a revisionary, more civil mode of architectural expression. In the early speculations by Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi, for example, modern wall systems were doubly challenged. They dismissed both the overt transparency of glass membranes and the protection of glazed openings by patterned shading grilles or screens. Looking for a more nuanced mediation of internal function and external gesture, they proposed a layered arrangement of the outer wall, a configuration in which the architectural fenestration was effectively spatialized. The strategy had resonance in the work of later modernists such as Rafael Moneo’s sensitive project for the City Hall in Murcia, Spain. At Sydney 385, Smart Design Studio draws on this rich disciplinary legacy to critique and reinvigorate conventions of contemporary commercial housing in suburban Sydney.
The architectural brief was relatively direct and generic. A disused suburban bank was to make way for a new mixed-use building: ten two-bedroom apartments, street-level retail and office space placed over parking. Typical commercial parameters were at play, with a concentrated density, a modest budget and a tight project program as prescribed limits. The commission was in effect an opportunity to devise a systematic response to the ubiquitous program of suburban densification.
Among the office working files, a collection of photographs documents the project site and the neighbouring buildings. Brick bungalows, shopfronts and low-rise commercial blocks are interspersed with more recent apartment buildings. The sequence captures the random eclecticism and haphazard order of the immediate environment. If there is a shared vocabulary of this messy terrain, it is masonry brick, albeit in multiple manifestations: red, blonde and brown, rendered and glazed, ordinary and ornate. At Sydney 385 this common grain is maintained, its expressive potential heightened and material order emphasized.
Unexpectedly thin, monolithic, dust-coloured brick screens define the outer boundary to the north and south. A stretcher bond pattern guides their precisely assembled composition. Recessed horizontal mortar joints contrast with flush vertical junctions to define subtle striations across this masonry fabric and a variety of rectilinear apertures punctuate the taut surface dynamically. Openings and portals corresponding to the interior are here interlaced with taller, more expansive frames. Vertically spanned across two levels, the latter deftly moderate the scale of the inhabitant and that of the street. Set back behind the brick membrane, a glass plane integrates operable glazed doors and windows, and the wide porch between the brick and the glass adds a soft zone of gray shadow. Viewed at a distance, the perforated brick screen, devoid of conventional fenestration detail, presents a striking arrangement of luminous surface and deep voids. Elemental and abstract, the interplay is arresting. Particularly fine is the southern facade, where the added height and defined baseline impart a gracious poise and civic presence.
Beneath the masonry garb, concrete prevails. Slabs, tilt-up wall panels and blockwork combine as a relatively uniform envelope for the apartments within. The plan reinforces this material experience. The apartment perimeter walls are continuous and mostly uninterrupted, their elongated clean lines visible at entry. Programmatic divisions are by way of inner modules: economical bathrooms, kitchen pods and joinery elements delineate and serve the bedrooms and living spaces. Sliding panels replace conventional doorframes to create softer thresholds. Monochromatic hues confirm individuated components; blocks of glossy black and soft white are set against shades of gray.
Viewed from the living spaces, the brick fenestration adds intricacy and warmth to the grayscale interior. Balconies are generous and room-like. Tightly held between planes of brick and glass, they provide a calm buffer against the outside traffic. Various openings frame the suburban landscape; wide, tall and narrow apertures admit immediate and distant views, those overhead and below. Deliberately bare and robust, the material palette gains colour and texture through the life of the building’s inhabitants, their patterns of use and approach to fittings and furnishings. Within the common spaces, colour is explicitly applied: an orange wall along the entryway, blues and pink at lifts and doorways. They both accentuate and individualize the component-based assembly.
The block culminates with a glazed box on its rooftop, holding two larger apartments within. Subscribing to regulatory limits, it discreetly delivers additional floor space. Such embrace of transparency is in contrast, somewhat inconsistently, with the resolution of the lower block. Particularly poignant, however, is the balanced juxtaposition between these minimal interiors and the candid eclecticism of the surroundings. It is as if the austere palette at Sydney 385 is set up as a perfect foil for the blunt heterogeneity of the suburban fabric, a testament to Smart Design Studio’s ambition to invest this development type with an elevated sensibility.