Cox Rayner Architects employs an impressive level of craft and detail to deinstitutionalize The University of Queensland’s new oral health centre.
For many, and I count myself among them, there is an irrational fear associated with a trip to the dentist. I say “irrational” because my own dentist is a very nice person and good at his job and the procedures are not particularly painful. He is a sole practitioner whose clinic is located in a beautiful, heritage-listed building in the centre of the city. From a busy pedestrian mall, you enter an intimate, richly detailed lobby and take the timber-and-brass-lined lift to the fifth floor. To find the surgery one meanders past jewellery traders and accounting offices, there is no need to read the gold lettering on the dentist’s she-oak signage boards – a particular smell becomes apparent on approach, a combination of clove oil and fear.
The UQ Oral Health Centre designed by Cox Rayner Architects on the Herston Campus of The University of Queensland (UQ) is a teaching and clinical facility with 150 dental chairs distributed across eleven clinics, many of which provide services to the public. If there is a slight apprehension about a visit to the small family practitioner, then a visit to an institution of this scale, even for the bravest patient, could be somewhat daunting. Among the complex array of heritage, landscape, budgetary and technical issues of the project, Cox Rayner director Casey Vallance found the question of the user’s personal reaction to the scale of the institution challenging – particularly the fear factor. Underpinning each response to the pragmatics of program is an attempt to deinstitutionalize the project – in Vallance’s words, to “humanize” it. He describes a strategy that begins at the urban scale, whereby the primary configuration attempts to mediate between the “natural” setting of the open space to the west and the “human-made” institutional character of the hospital campus to the east. There are contradictions in this proposition in that the park space itself is not “natural.” While not a formal garden per se it remains a construct of human intervention, a contrived setting for the Mayne Medical School (1939) designed by the Queensland Department of Public Works under the direction of Raymond Clare Nowland. In plan the design response is a west–east gradation from public (natural) to private (institutional). This makes perfect sense in terms of served and servant spaces.
Formally this strategy results in a delightfully expressive facade to the west where public circulation routes overlook the tree canopy. To the east the response is more restrained; large expanses of white-stained concrete conceal a raft of service rooms with occasional glazed apertures to offices and breakout spaces. While no amount of glazing can totally deinstitutionalize a building of this type, there is a missed opportunity to express the inner workings of the institution to the public on the east.
The western edge of the building is its strength, comprising wonderful circulation spaces that sit behind a single-glazed rain screen framed by deep timber mullions. These spaces are passively ventilated, reducing the volume of airconditioned space in the facility and doubling as a thermal barrier to the harsh western sun. Beyond this pragmatic response, Vallance suggests that the ambient qualities of these volumes add to the idea of what is “natural” and “human-made”: fresh air to the west, conditioned air to the east. The breezeways kink and twist in plan, embellished occasionally by geometrically complex seating areas. The level of craft and attention to detail for such a large institutional building is impressive. The Cox Rayner team has judiciously layered the project with moments of high craft and the high-tech, from the mundane rigorousness of PC2 (Physical Containment Level 2) labs to bespoke lighting and seating.
The building’s composition is imperfect, almost clumsy; the sum of the parts far exceeds the whole. There is a sense that this was a conscious decision by the architects. On close examination, indeed through the experience of being in the building, each moment hints at some specific condition, be it the delightful manner in which a terrace wraps around a tree trunk, or a seating space that is oriented to frame a distant view of the city. It is the collection of these moments rather than a singular composition that underpins the project. In the end it appears to be more akin to the imperfect smile of Joe Average than the manufactured picture-perfect grin of a Hollywood celebrity.
With such powerful formal gestures, from the scale of the facade to the doorhandle, one can’t help being curious about their origins. There are hints of the formal qualities and material palette of local heroes Donovan Hill (prior to their merger with BVN Architecture, now known as BVN) or the frayed-ends Melbourne-based John Wardle Architects, both of whom seem to share a fascination with the cranked geometries of Enric Miralles, Bolles and Wilson et al. So what is the ambition of these gestures? For Vallance the answer is a humanist one. “We wanted people who approached the building, who used the building, to think that there was a sense of care involved … to carve spaces for people.” This focus on making spaces for people demands no particular geometry. In Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, Herman Hertzberger worked with simple orthogonal forms to create the amazing workplace for Centraal Beheer in 1972. In Brisbane, Cox Rayner has similar ideals and simply adopted a different formal language, suggesting that form may not always follow function, it may indeed follow idea.
Superficially, the UQ Oral Health Centre has stylistic similarities to other works by Cox Rayner, such as the Sir Samuel Griffith Centre at Griffith University, the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum and the recently completed series of ferry terminals along the Brisbane River. The architects at Cox Rayner have no fear of their style, nor should they. That the practice, particularly the Brisbane office, has evolved a recognizable family of forms that they apply across a range of projects is somewhat irrelevant. What is relevant is how well the suite is adopted and adapted to a given challenge. The challenge the reader has here is to dig beyond the immediate imagery of this article and drill deeper into the project, perhaps make a visit – have no fear, it will make you smile.