In Sydney, architecture firm Fox Johnston has reimagined a hospital’s 1935 outpatients’ building into an uplifting space for kids to learn and play.
Exposure to music, reading and physical activity is known to aid a child’s early development. Could the same line of thinking be expanded to include good design? The City of Sydney seems to be positing that well-designed environments for early learning are an important part of a child’s education, as well as an integral part of urban renewal. In 2017, the City of Sydney inaugurated the East Sydney Early Learning Centre by Andrew Burges Architects. This critically acclaimed project is an adaptive reuse of a multi-storey warehouse. In another part of the city, Green Square, the new Waranara Early Education Centre designed by architecture firm Fox Johnston similarly reuses a disused hospital building and transforms it into a key part of the Green Square urban renewal project.
The elegant 1935 outpatients’ building of the former South Sydney Hospital is a single-storey, broad building. Described as having an “inter-war Georgian Revival” architectural style, the building uses the classic Sydney combination of red brick with sandstone detailing. The intact facade that fronts Joynton Avenue does not give much away of the radical transformation that occurs inside. It is not until you pass to the south of the building and see the new entry and additions that you get a sense of just how much has been reworked to support the new brief. The red and yellow language of the existing facade is swapped for one of concrete and blackened timber. The timber cladding was recycled from timber found on site. Fox Johnston wanted to ensure that “sustainability was made manifest through the architecture.” The new concrete wall forms an external perimeter, ensuring a solid physical barrier between the children inside and the public realm outside. However, this is not done at the expense of visual connection. Playful boxed windows punch through the concrete walls and the windows’ metal surrounds have been painted in colours that were, according to Fox Johnston associate Alan Powell, “drawn out of the brickwork and sandstone.” While solid, the wall is not imposing as its relatively low height ties in with the datum points of the existing building. The simple tectonic forms of the new additions were to “appeal to children’s imaginations.”
The entry to the learning centre is on axis with the large verandah that wraps around three sides of the central courtyard. This means that all the learning spaces open onto and connect directly to the internal courtyard. The external wall doubles as a protective fence and delineates internal space, very much like a medieval castle or compound. The wall and verandah are the two key architectural devices that shape the spatial configuration in plan. As a single-storey building, the learning centre’s sight lines are very important. Emili Fox, a director at Fox Johnston, sees the verandah as a large “outdoor room.” Once again, the datum heights were carefully matched with the existing structure to give seamless visual flow to the ceiling and full accessibility at the floor level. When the doors are swung open, the connections between the inside and outside are maximized. Large oculi are cut through the verandah’s roof, ensuring that the outdoor room is well lit as well as allowing for the children to “sense the passing time of day.”
The vestibule is to the east of the entry. Where the space abuts the existing building, Fox Johnston removed the render and painted the rough brick surface in white. This gives legibility to the existing structure and highlights the dialogue between new and old elements. A plywood locker and shelf unit sits sculpturally in the middle of the space and reflects the language of toy timber play blocks. One of the design tactics was to allow for visual connection between the inside, the verandah and the outside.
To the west of the vestibule is the largest of the learning spaces, housed in the building’s new wing. The wing has a double splayed roof with large north- and south-facing clerestory windows. These windows allow beautiful light into the rooms, which also picks up on the textures and colours of the birch ply and concrete. The floors are lined in a concrete-look linoleum that meets the practical needs of lots of little children while maintaining the integrity of the design aesthetic. The box windows that connect through to the outside have deep reveals that kids can sit in or use as play zones.
The architects wanted the centre to be embedded in the community, not hidden away. Fox Johnston has successfully handled the juggle between security and integration. The dualism between the cloistered world within and the public realm beyond is executed with playful architectural gestures, which befits an environment for children. However, the project does not drop its architectural sophistication for its young users, instead believing that well-designed spaces can benefit all members of society, irrespective of age.