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Tennis in the Round

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A dramatic end to the Olympic Boulevard, Bligh Voller Nield’s Sydney International Tennis Centre provides an intimate, open environment with excellent sightlines.

Text by Ian Perlman. Photography by John Gollings, Bob Peters and Brett Boardman.


Above Centre Court viewed from Boundary Creek Bridge Three. Photograph John Gollings.

The Sydney International Tennis Centre closes the Olympic Boulevard and acts as a "shop window" to the southern edge of the site from Homebush Bay Drive. The form is generated by the play of three geometries. The first is a regular geometry determined by the Centre Court and the associated "gridded city" of the Competition, Club Courts and Players’ Facilities Building. This is generated by the need for courts to have a precise north-south orientation. The circular (or, to be more exact, 24-sided) figure of the Centre Court contrasts with the regular geometry of the surrounding courts and building. The second geometry is the natural or serpentine order of Boundary Creek. The Tennis Centre adjusts its northern edge to the Creek and is connected to the Olympic Boulevard by a series of three similar bridges. The connection is enlivened by Janet Laurence"s installation work, viewed from the bridges. The centre-line of the Olympic Boulevard - the main "urban identity" of the Homebush site - provides the third geometry.
An architectural language is developed in off-the-form concrete and steel, forming a consistent geometric language of materials. This contrasts with the natural forms of the banks of the creek and the retaining gabion walls. Both the Centre Court and the Players’ Facilities Building have rigorous geometries determined by their structure. The Centre Court is "structured" by cantilevered tier beams. Surprising cantilevers are achieved by
the use of ring beams on the perimeter. Similarly, ring beams are used to minimise the structure in the circular shade roof, producing a very light structure.
The plan of the overall complex has the Centre Court appropriately in the centre with two primary circulation walkways to the east and west. The eastern walkway connects to the No. 1 Court and extends to the No. 2 Court which is in front of the Players" Facilities Building. The second walkway services the Club Courts and car park in front of the Players’ Facilities Building. Landscaped "rooms" are left open to enable future event structures to be erected for major competitions.
The design of the Tennis Centre has been influenced by a range of environmental outcomes expressed in the building design and construction method, landscape proposals and environmental management measures. Air, "naturally" cooled by induction through long sub-terranean tunnels, is distributed on the centre court and lower seating. This gives relief to the high court temperatures in summer. These environmental outcomes complement fully the objectives for Olympic venues, and demonstrate sound ecologically sustainable development (ESD) principles - Lawrence Nield.

Apart from the Aquatic Centre, no arena at Homebush Bay is as certain to generate year-round activities as the $35 million Sydney International Tennis Centre. High levels of use will be essential for the continuing life of this facility, which sits in an uninspiring streetscape on the precinct?s inland periphery. Access to the Tennis Centre is across Boundary Creek, a landscape detailed with urban furnishings and artworks emphasising the toxic history of the place. A less-patronised activity would wither in such a situation. The focus of the architecture is inward. The external facades of the Centre Court building, a monumental cup-shaped structure, are pragmatic rather than aesthetic compositions - tilting panels of scalloped concrete capped by a thin crown of masts. At the time of the commission, Lawrence Nield had already overseen the masterplan that set out the road patterns and land usage for Homebush Bay. This scheme was coloured with ritual references, balancing the dynamics of automotive culture with revived Classical ideals that underpin the Olympic movement. Nield was, therefore, well positioned to use the design as an urban gesture, closing Olympic Boulevard at its southern end.
In this hemisphere, outdoor arenas are oriented in relation to the northern sky. Because of the linear movement of play, the privileged seats must be aligned north-south, rather than on the east-west axis required for the random patterns of team sports. The Centre Court design was resolved as a ring to accommodate this north-south orientation and the Boulevard axis.
The structure of the Centre Court developed from its geometry. The ring is segmented into 24 arcs, an arrangement devised by Tristram Carfrae of Ove Arup, a consultant on Renzo Piano’s football stadium in Bari for the 1995 World Cup. (That project was very different in scale and materials. Similar ring forms at Wimbledon and the Stade Roland Garros in Paris are twelve-sided.) Each arc of the Sydney International Tennis Centre provides a maximum span of 12 metres. This twenty-four part arrangement intensifies focus on the court. The principal structure is one of ring beams, almost completely suspended like skyhooks. Lighting is integrated into the roof canopy, resulting in an evenness that is unattainable with fixed lighting towers.
Spectators filter in through a series of recesses, passing through interstitial passages, to emerge
Top to bottom. Centre Court, concourse level plan, seating bowl plan, roof plan.

on the circular mid-level concourse. All seats are reached less than one and a half minutes after entry. The excavated centre brings the concourse into the middle of the building at ground level, allowing an intimate, panoramic vista of the court a mere 15 metres below and away. (Forty percent of the 11,000 spectators sit below the ground plane.) It is a theatrical moment; even when the arena is empty there is an air of drama. The Tennis Centre sightlines are superior to those of any other tennis facility. High visibility was a key requirement and had a significant impact on design decisions. The blue and grey seats are inconspicuous in a visual environment reduced to concrete, steel and sky. On average, 70% of the seats are shaded during the day and none are positioned in cross-aisles. The roof canopy is raised slightly to create a visual link to the landscape and to provide a more open atmosphere for spectators.



Top left The panoramic vista of the Centre Court arena. Photograph Brett Boardman. Top right Players’ Building seen from Match Court 2. Above The excavated Centre Court. Bottom left View from Boundary Creek Bridge Two. Photographs John Gollings.

Above View from the Club Courts. Right Aerial view from south, showing the Centre Court in relation to the "gridded city" of Competition, Club Courts and Players’ Facility building.

The program departs from contemporary examples such as the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne and new facilities in London, namely the Wimbledon Number 1 Court and the All England Tennis and Croquet Club by Building Design Partnership. (Richard Rees of BDP was the sport consultant.) In these cases the playing fields are cavities recessed into massive blocks bulked up with accretions of services. In the Sydney International Tennis Centre Nield has removed the services from the sports field, relocating them into ancillary buildings integrated among the secondary courts at ground level.
The No. 2 court has 2,000 seats, facing south to the court. Clubhouse facilities are located in a building serving this court. Public and club access are discretely separated, with players accessing all courts via an underground tunnel. The building’s modulated roof provides shading, and acknowledges the centre line.
In awarding the Tennis Centre the 2000 RAIA Sulman Award the judging panel cited the reduced material quantities and cooling innovations. Even the most well-known courts have difficulty maintaining an even temperature. In the Tennis Centre air flows below through fan-assisted tunnels (discrete fans, with no plant work) that dip two metres below ground. The earth’s median temperature stabilises the air temperature throughout the year, ensuring cool air in ample quantities.
As in other recent works (notably the Cook + Philip Park pool, the Ultimo Community Centre and the Sunshine Coast University Library) Lawrence Nield has analysed classical and vernacular form to link art, science and site.
Ian Perlman is an architectural writer based in Sydney

Sydney International Tennis Centre
Architect Bligh Voller Nield - design director Lawrence Nield project director Neil Hanson project architect Andrew Cortese project team Andrew Burges, Namaste Burrell, Graeme Butler. Kim Cameron, Catherine Chesterman, Hamilton Cue, Frank Ehrenberg, Bob Gardner, Mike Hale, Glenn Scott, John Whatmore interior design Abbie Galvin, Russel Koskela, Damien Mulvihill. Engineer Ove Arup & Partners. Landscape Architect Spackman & Moss. Project Manager NSW Department of Public Works. Environmental Consultant Peter J Ramsey & Associates. Quantity Surveyor WT Partnership. Sports and Tennis Design Consultants Richard Rees, Building Design Partnership, London. Specialist Tennis Consultant John Newcombe. Access Consultant Independent Living Centre. Signage Emery Vincent Associates. Fire and Lift Safety Stephen Grubis and Associates. Builder Abigroup.

Top North elevation. Centre The serpentine order of Boundary Creek generated the "natural" second geometry at play in the design. Right TheTennis Centre terminates the Olympic Boulevard at its southern end. The boulevard’s centre line provides the building’s third geometry.
Photographs John Gollings. Aerial photographs Bob Peters.

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Published online: 1 Sep 2000

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Architecture Australia, September 2000

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