Wagga Central

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Photography Patrick Bingham-Hall

Cultural nerves in Wagga Wagga have been both soothed and inflamed by the arrival of a new civic centre, designed by Melbourne’s Garner Davis as winners of a competition which attracted international entries.

Top right The library’s western tip, with the existing civic theatre at rear left; Above The east end of the library; below Exhibition gallery, with offices above.

Above Looking west along the Civic Arcade; below Courtyard between the eastern entry (with access to offices and commercial space) and the National Art Glass Gallery at right; bottom Night view of the library’snorth face.

Project Description
In 1997, the City of Wagga Wagga commissioned Sydney architect Stephen Varady to organise an architectural competition for a $12 million civic centre on a key site beside the Wollundry Lagoon. The winners, Melbourne architects Jill Garner and Lindsay Davis, recently completed the complex, which includes council chambers and offices, a library, art and craft galleries, public service centres and lettable areas. The main building is accessed from eastern and western plazas. Two heritage buildings, the Civic Theatre (circa 1960) and the city’s original (Victorian) Council Chamber, have been retained on opposite corners of the site.

Architects’ Note by Jill Garner and Lindsay Davis
The intricacies of the client’s brief were melded with strategies represented in the competition entry, where the building occupies its site as a conceptual map with multiple entrys, providing a permeable environment and activating the breadth of the site between the Chamber and the Theatre. ‘Events’ commence at the formal Baylis Street entry, with access to council facilities, a customer service centre, library and art gallery off a skylit internal promenade called the Civic Arcade. The narrative extends into the landscape with a café, and culminates with the National Art Glass Gallery. This pavilion is poised like a raft over the original riverbed where the lagoon once flowed to the Murrumbidgee, and it provides a backdrop for an intimate sculpture garden, which is carefully located to accentuate the lines of the Civic Theatre.

Comment by Simon Lloyd
Country towns either fear their own ordinariness or resign themselves to it. Wagga Wagga is on the run, trampling on its past, endlessly searching for a new identity through a la mode public and commercial buildings. In denying its history and geography, it paradoxically reinforces its status as a derivative cultural outpost. A repository for propositions from afar about what kind of place it might be, Wagga Wagga is Australia writ small.
The northern end of town is the place of Murrumbidgee river crossings and levees. The old town blocks are large and square. Once-grand hotels and debranched financial institutions jostle within the oversized colonial grid, neighbours now to bars where footballers get drunk and assault locals. In this district of endlessly liquidating furniture marts, one at least gets a sense of a culture grappling to assert itself in the landscape. Within this decaying civility sits Wagga Wagga’s first significant piece of public architecture: Walter Liberty Vernon’s courthouse, 1900-1902. [Vernon was the NSW Government Architect. The designer may have been George Oakeshott.]
If the north side of town is three-dimensional, south Wagga Wagga is linear. The city extends towards Willans Hill in useful rectangles with sensible rear lanes. Through the centre, Baylis Street extends like a stretched elastic band between the lagoon and the railway station. Baylis Street! A typically uninteresting Australian main street, recently urban-designed into an uninteresting main street that looks like it belongs somewhere else.
Between the north and south of town (where Baylis Street does the only decent thing and ends), lies a place of true beauty. Wollundry Lagoon is a marvellous left-over; neither a river nor a lake, it meanders innocently between houses and parks, ignoring the grid and painting a slash of gum-green across the European foliage of the town. It is on the banks of this delightful anachronism that the City has chosen to place its new civic centre. Two blocks from Vernon’s courthouse, Wagga Wagga has gained its second significant public building.
Garner Davis’ Wagga Wagga Civic Centre is a monochromatic enigma with a heart of light; a ‘constructed object’ straight off the pages of Jill Garner’s RMIT master’s thesis. In these terms, it rarely fails to please. Its massing is varied and intriguing, with four distinct facades. Contrasting materials create varying degrees of opacity. Home to a library, the building is itself a treatise on surface, junction and edge.
The internal ‘street’ is so arresting in its spatial and luminary qualities that it seems to interrupt time. The play of surfaces— reflective, transparent and opaque—set up an ethereal sensation of limitless space. The kinked first floor landing defies the ruling geometry; its intransigence lifting the space to another plane of dimensional sophistication. The building needed more gestures like this, ones that go beyond consistency or perversity, suggesting alternative interpretations.
The architects’ deft handling of materials and space reach apotheosis in the art glass gallery. An important part of the site strategy, in which buildings and open space alternate between the old Council Chamber and Civic Theatre, this translucent sliver is an extraordinary building to enter. The tension between inside and outside is palpable.
The Civic Centre integrates, for the first time, the cultural, informational and administrative facilities of the city. It does so very well, but make no mistake: the glory of this building is not the public areas but the colour-coordinated, flicker-free maze of offices occupying the entire upper floor. Straddling the battle line between visions of Council as a representative democracy and a professional bureaucracy, here the bureaucrats have won. The Council Chamber is sidelined, symbolically and physically; an undistinguished space which can be reconfigured at the drop of a hat for social occasions.
The strength of Garner Davis’ design stems from two sources. First, the architects work from a tradition, in this case the ‘Melbourne School’, with particular reference to post-war modernists Robin Boyd and Roy Grounds. Second, they consistently apply the idea of the building as a three-dimensional mapping onto the site.
Each of these strengths has potential to be a weakness. Interesting as the Melburnians of the 1950s and 60s were, they did not often produce great public buildings. The mapping strategy, too, has its price. The street is a successful device for linking the art gallery, library, café and council service desk, yet its ends relate awkawrdly to the outside world. This may be a consequence of imposing a geometry on the site rather than organically relating to local topography and culture.
With its hermetic exterior and limpid interior voids, Garner Davis’ design reworks the partiof Roy Grounds’ National Gallery of Victoria. In many ways theirs is the more successful building, certainly in regard to the functionality and openness of the interior. However it also shares some of the drawbacks of Ground’s work: a certain topographical naivete and civic reticence.
Grounds was a designer of adventurous houses, for whom the National Gallery represented a welcome opportunity to try out his ideas on a larger scale. How much more so for Garner Davis: the Wagga Wagga Civic Centre is their first large commission. As a ‘constructed object’, it is an impressive debut. But civic buildings are more than just self-referential objects. They have to connect—physically and culturally—to the world around them. This building could have shown less single-mindedness and more generosity in making those connections.
Like many regional cities, Wagga Wagga’s building stock is a catalogue of changing tastes in architecture. Of all its public buildings, only two have outstanding qualities. Walter Liberty Vernon’s Courthouse, and Garner Davis’ Civic Centre.
The courthouse is an extraordinary building for for all the things it could be and is not. It is not pompous, it is not threatening, it is not impersonal. As a proposition about the relationship between citizen and law, it is open, humane and egalitarian.
Only the entrance portal retains a hint of imperial authority. Past that, the garden and loggia are welcoming. Throughout the building, Renaissance motifs are used cleverly to provide both a humanist sense of scale and climatic relief.
Similarly, Garner Davis’ building uses idioms from its time to explicate the contemporary relationship between government and governed.
If Vernon’s courthouse opened the century with optimistic belief in a Commonwealth under which all would share the fruits of good government, Garner Davis’ Civic Centre closes it with the sombre reality that governments have become little more than pseudo-corporate service providers. The designers have faithfully recorded this change. The rest of us must ponder its implications.
The imposition of so rigorous an architectural agenda has given Wagga Wagga a building which is yet to endear itself to some local residents. But when a few questionable architectural decisions are long forgotten, endear itself it will. I would have liked to see a building which engaged more generously with the climate, topography and culture of the city. But the deeper truth may be that, like many Australian towns, Wagga Wagga is significant as a place precisely because it is here that we site important buildings designed from afar.
Simon Lloyd is an architect and writer with degrees from U Melbourne and RMIT. He lives near Wagga Wagga

Civic Centre, Wagga Wagga, NSW
Architect Garner Davis. Structural & Civil Engineer Scott Wilson Irwin Johnson. Mechanical, Electrical, Hydraulic and Acoustic Consultant Bassett Consulting Engineers. Quantity Surveyor Donald Cant Watts Corke. Developer Council of the City of Wagga Wagga. Builder Colin Joss.

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