Category Archives: Reviews

In which I come out as a YA SF reader…

I’m an adult fan of young adult (YA) fiction, in particular YA fantasy and science fiction. To those who would suggest I’m enjoying a prolonged adolescence, indulging in nostalgia or yearning to return to my teenage years I will simply point you towards the famous words of one Cher Horowitz.

via SomeGif.com

In the words of Cher Horowitz…

There’s been quite a bit written about the reasons adults read YA fiction and paegns to the rising quality of genre. I just like it. I love the intensity and urgency of YA fiction. The slow emergence of moral grey from a sea of black and white. The understanding that good people can do bad things. That your family shapes but does not define who you are. That sex and attraction and romance can be both scary and wonderful, sometimes simultaneously. That choices have consequences, sometimes large, life-changing ones. That bad things can happen. That life is complicated and messy and glorious and filled with great things, just waiting for you.

But one of the main reasons I like YA fiction is that it deals with identity formation in a way that more ‘adult’ books often do not. An adult novel can rely on job descriptions for cultural short hand (perky NYC publicist, West Coast computer programmer, etc). In contrast, YA novels have high school, a physical location that almost everyone attends, where the major differences are social.  Because of this ‘blank slate’, there may be cross-cultural friendships and relationships that are skipped in works targeted at older readers or Taken Very Seriously. In YA, the tension and challenges faced by first generation migrants, emerging awareness of gender discrimination, teens struggling to reconcile bicultural identities and unconventional sexualities are fair game for discussion (although some characters are only granted minority feisty status).

Sadly, incorporating diversity not universally done well. Crimes range from using using ‘almond shaped eyes’ as a ‘subtle’ code for Asian ethnicity, (read this hilarious take down on the practice) to the horrific and lazy practice of describing skin colour in ‘Starbucks’ terms (read another awesome take down on why describing people as chocolate/mocha/caramel/cinnamon/nutmeg is a really bad idea). But sometimes it is done astoundingly well, in ways that challenge and enrich the reader.

Even though I have some major problems with current approaches to diversity in YA literature as a whole, I have never forgotten the jolt that Ursula Le Guin gave me around age 11 when I realized that Ged, the wizard of Earthsea was not white. From memory, the realisation hit around book 3 or 4. I felt mad. That wasn’t how Ged was supposed to be. She tricked me. But she hadn’t. Tracing back, I was confronted by the fact that despite the clear description of Ged’s red-brown skin, I had assigned whiteness to Ged. Because… why exactly? Because that way he was more like me. Because that’s the default in our culture. Because he was the hero and heroes are white, aren’t they? (The fact that my edition had been whitewashed by putting Ged in silhouette on the cover did not help). I had read at least two books from the perspective an ‘other’, without noticing, because it that world, it wasn’t a big deal. Probably because we’re all human in a world filled with wizards and demons. But realizing that you carry some racial baggage  is an uncomfortable moment. And one that I’m glad I got to have in the privacy of my home as an kid. Because good YA fiction helps you grow and confront your prejudices, without having to hurt anyone in the process (or look like a dumb-ass).

I think my fascination with identity is why I also enjoy supernatural and fantasy themes. My theory is that the rise in popularity of supernatural themes can be traced back  to two underlying reasons.

Firstly, emerging supernatural identities act as a coded way of exploring the tension of multiple-identity formation and maintenance that so many people experience through external social pressure (ie anyone who has a prefix or hyphen in front of an aspect of their identity eg Arab-Australian, female architect, Australian-born Chinese) . The vampire/werewolf/witch both knows our ways and yet is inexplicably alien. The newly “doubled” identity gives them the alternatives of ‘passing as human’ or completely withdrawal into a smaller social circle. The supernatural society is frequently presented as one in which the initiate must be groomed to understand new rules, rituals and norms, often by a romantic partner or social group. This group will often become a ‘family of choice‘. This echoes the experience of enculturation in a new identity as well as paralleling the teenage experience of faux pas through incomplete understanding and the gradual supplementing or replacing of family of origin through new peer and romantic relationships.

Secondly, fantasy allows us to deal with socially institutionalised fears. In particular, the current penchant for creatures of conversion (vampires, werewolves) clearly act as a stand in fears relating to sleeper agents/terrorists/religious converts. Spec fiction allowing us to explore the anxiety that someone who was one of us, who looks like us and knows what we value could turn out to be  unalterably, inexplicably, potentially voluntarily otherIn writing these social anxieties into a supernatural (and therefore fictional and controllable) world, there is the chance for every individual vampire/werewolf/terrorist etc to be redeemed by choosing to respect the sanctity of human life and love. This serves a double purpose: subduing fear of the other while simultaneously championing the cultural myths of individual exceptionalism, self-determination and free will.

Taken together, these underlying principles allow the reader to simultaneously transgress cultural norms (you are not wholly human/one of us) while reinforcing individual agency as the path to acceptance (but through making the ‘right’ choices we may accept you anyway).

[Incidentally, the appeal of teen dystopian fiction is much less complicated. Taken objectively, most teenage lives are dystopian: school is represented by arbitrary rules imposed by authority figures, parents  either condone or are complicit in the control apparatus of the society, there are limited forms of democratic representation, the protagonist is forced to reliance on an external agent for basic food and shelter, dissent can be punished ruthlessly. The much more interesting part of dystopian fiction is the history of them. Are they based on scientific advances, resource scarcity, political chaos, population explosion, alien invasion, artificial intelligence gone wild, intelligence services out of control, corporate takeover of the functions of government, natural disasters, post-war apocalypse, ruthless militarisation of a society… What each of these look like and the unique challenges they present are awesome.]

October 13 event review: Architecture talk: Adaptive Reuse and High Density Housing-MR at Marrickville library

Location: Marrickville library for the AIA On Show talk series

Speakers: Guy Lake from Bates Smart and Philip Thalis from Hill Thalis, curated by Michael Zanardo and Kieran McInerney.

Topic: high density adaptive re-use in Marrickville

Due to conflicting demands (read: football training), this was the first of this series of talks I’ve managed to make it to this year, and I’m glad I did. I hear that numbers have fallen slightly, but the turnout was still about 30 people, which for a Wednesday night event in Marrickville is pretty decent. I was eager to hear the presentations as I’m really interested in both Marrickville (where I live) and the adaptive re-use of industrial heritage. The format of the night was two single project presentations followed by a short question and answer section.

The first presentation was given by Guy Lake and focused on a recent (ongoing?) project by Bates Smart, The Gantry. Located in the block bounded by Parramatta road, Australia street and Denison street, The Gantry has repurposed an existing industrial site (the Fowler Pottery works) for residential use. From the project description on the Bates Smart website, the redevelopment included the retention of 2 heritage buildings, the construction of three new buildings for a total of 191 new apartments across several building plus landscaping and commercial and retail space.

Final photos aren’t readily locatable, but it looks like an really interesting precinct coming together. From my scribbled notes:

  • Whole site is prone to flooding, so massive engineering required at ground level.
  • Where existing heritage facades were kept, the paint on the brickwork was removed, then apartments pulled back from edge to get more light in and bonus heritage features.
  • Cuts made based on existing geometry – three apartments per ‘bay’.
  • Existing trusses have been refurbished and retained, but with the roofing peeled back to make an arcade for the public.
  • Verandahs are glassed in – this effectively provides an option for indoor/outdoor use and when fully closed acts as an double glazing for acoustic control.
  • Heritage walls were much more ‘defensive’ at ground level than is usually encountered – but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
  • Interiors featured mirrored glass splash backs and lots of sliding doors, especially to bedrooms.
  • New building mimics form of the older one [this may be incorrect – my notes are not great]

The second presentation was by Phillip Thalis, of Hill Thalis. In his introduction, Thalis mentioned that he grew up in an apartment and along with most of his practice continues to live in one. Having established his multi-residential bona fides, he proceeded to present an informative and insightful look at the on the Majestic project, the adaptation of the old Petersham theatre/roller rink into residential apartments. The project has been profiled on ArchDaily (with plans) and I swear I read about it in a dead tree magazine, although I cannot now find the reference.

The site was originally a large theatre, which was morphed into a roller skating rink. I was one of  many in the audience who has fond memories of the space as a roller rink (the image of a 50 year old ‘bear’ in a pink tutu doing a skating cartwheel does tend to sear itself rather permanently in one’s mind).

Most interesting to me was the discussion about the constraints around the New Canterbury road facade, which caused some of the earlier reservations I had about the project to slide into a new focus.  The facade needed to be kept for heritage reasons and the brief called for the ground floor to be commercial/retail (and if I’m honest, at least part of my reservation is from the current ground floor tenant’s hideous advertising choices). These two factors explain to some extent why the residential entry has been pushed to one side. Further constraints included a requirement that the existing form be kept, which at 22m deep was a challenge for providing amenity (Thalis acknowledges that for the first time they have created internal bed rooms). As well, the influence that the far too often unacknowledged stakeholders such as the client, builder and financier can play in executing a project was also mentioned.

It was interesting to see the parallels between the projects. Both stripped paint to expose existing brickwork, both pulled new insertions back from the edge of the building, both made efforts to retain existing trusses, both used balconies to act as additional noise buffering to deal with traffic noise.  Both used similar tactics on the apartments themselves: extensive sliding doors, mirrored splash backs and internal  insertions (this last trend seems to be everywhere in residential and repurposing projects at the moment, to my utter delight).

For both projects, there was a focus on retaining fabric and form rather than space. While I understand this approach, there is a delight in the retention of former industrial spaces that residential retrofitting can rarely accommodate.

All in all, an interesting night of thoughtful presentations. Thanks again to Michael Zarnardo and Kieran McInerney for organising.

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Swanston Academic Building (SAB) by Lyons, Melbourne. Visited May 2013

SAB RMIT. Accessed from BrookfieldMultiplex.

Like many architectural folk around Australia, the last week saw me descend on Melbourne for the annual AIA conference Material (which I intend to review in a later post) and the fringe event Transform (review also forthcoming). Like any dutiful interstate visitor, I managed to work some additional perks into my visit, inculding the new Swanston Academic Building by Lyons.

I approached and entered the building from Swanston St, where it sits in dialogue with RMIT’s iconic Building 8 by Edmond and Corrigan (1993) and ARM’s Storey Hall. Firstly, it feels extremely welcoming and very porous. I wandered in directly from the street – there’s no swipe entry here, folks. The first thing I noticed was the cacophony of materials on every surface. Within about 10 square meters of floor there’s paving, polished concrete, floor boards and bright green carpet. This seems partially a way to distinguish zones (entry, circulation, threshold, gathering), but it’s not strictly followed, so the result is a bit chaotic. But the building appears well thought through, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a hidden logic. (It also occurs to me that it would be an easy building to ‘patch’: a bold fix job would blend in to the general exuberance.) On the walls there’s pressed metal, panels of cast and burnished metal, paint in every colour and shade (one imagines the twist on Henry Fords’s words: “any colour, as long as it’s bright!”), patterned wallpaper and a carpet like material. In addition to materials not already mentioned, that weird rubberised play ground material makes a cameo, as do timber sheets, glass, lino and folded metal sheeting. This is not an exhaustive list, it’s just what I can remember.

I strode confidently towards the escalators which whisked me up, up, up! (Hot tip for sneaky reviewers of any building – be confident near the entry and lost and confused once you’re safely in). The use of escalators recalls commercial spaces more than educational – the parallel is to the Melbourne Central escalators to the food court (*cough, cough*) is rather than the grand sandstone staircase of public and education buildings past. This is interesting: our public buildings are now embracing the commercial language and attributes of semi-privatised public spaces, rather than the more traditional reverse (think of large malls installing fountains to create interior ‘plazas’). It’s strange how easily the transition occurs – university is now where we come to consume ‘education’. But back to the escalators.

Glowing numeral atop escalator. From http://www.e-architect.co.uk

As you travel up the escalators, a glowing numeral on the ceiling alerts you to which level you are arriving on. Once you are there, life-size male and female figures point towards their respective facilities. Throughout the project signage (or “environmental graphic design” for you purists) is both clear and cheerful. While I wasn’t trying to find a specific location, I always knew where I was and what was around me, and was confident that I could quickly move to my destination.  At level 7 (which isn’t as high as it sounds – the Swanston St entry is level 3 from memory), the escalators are replaced by ordinary staircases. This acts as a subtle cue that the upper levels are slightly less public and indeed, they appear to contain more permanently assigned spaces (such as offices, post-grad computer labs and scheduled classrooms rather than informal student hubs).

For obvious reasons I did not enter the classrooms, but a surreptitious look seemed to indicate a range of unique rather than cookie cutter spaces, many of which appeared to designed to accomodate both lecture and group work modes (a lectorial, anyone?). The larger lecture theatres seemed to accommodate the more tradiational ‘eyes front’ model of teaching.

While the initial impression is of a cheerful chaos, the building is a delight to move through and it’s well occupied interior indicated it was popular with students (although to be fair I visited shortly prior to exams, when space is traditionally at a premium). There’s also a ton of subtle rich detail, which can be lost in the dominant impression of colour. For instance, some bannisters are shaped to double as a comfortable place to lean against while waiting to access a space and the continuous large round timber benches are both comfortable to sit on and unobtrusive when not in use. The benches also provide a buffer zone for students exiting a classroom, avoiding the traditional log jam.

Stair atrium. Flickr.

Each floor plate is unique, which adds texture and interest to the central stair atrium (and makes me wonder just how much fire engineering was involved in this project). The building also paid more attention to the roof plane than most others that I’ve been in lately. For example, in addition to the aforementioned numerals, there were sheathes of undulating folded metal, exposed black service trays and riots of colour.

The building is connected to both the city and the other parts of RMIT campus. Lyons hired architectural photographer Dianna Snape and a forklift to help her get shots of the surrounds at each floor level, help to ensure that each student space that punctured the facade framed beautiful views of the city and campus buildings.

Overall, I LOVED this building. It’s FUN, it’s for people, it’s interesting and delightful to be in. It could have benefited from a paring back of the material palette, but I have no doubt that it’s going to end up a truly beloved building with generations of memories made in it. It’s unapologetic and a good fit for the client and users firstly, but the city more broadly. Bravo!

I steered clear of any other reviews prior to writing this up, but there’s no reason for you to do the same. In no particular order:

Books for small children

Being read to was a daily event in my life from in utero until well after I achieved independent literacy. As I got older, roles switched and I would practice reading aloud. I suspect my dyslexic tendencies and spelling would be much worse had I not been immersed in a reading culture so thoroughly. Shared reading is also a subtle  way in which written and visual culture is taught – without exposure to reading, it’s entirely possible for children to enter kindergarten lacking knowledge in how to hold a book, which direction words are read from and the difference between upper and lower case letters.  Aside from the educational benefits, reading aloud is a lovely ritual and a nice way to wind down.

I’m a proud PANK (Professional Aunt, No Kids) and one of my favorite gifts for the dear nephews are books. Here’s a list of some favourites for the under threes.

Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins.  The hen Rosie goes for a walk. Especially fun to read aloud without commenting on the hilarious fox being foiled in the background of all the illustrations. Expect disbelieving looks if using this approach.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. A tiger with an insatiable appetite comes to tea, leaving nothing for dinner – so a trip to a restaurant is required.

The Mog series by Judith Kerr (including Mog the Forgetful Cat, Mog and the V.E.T, Mog in the Dark, Mog’s Christmas). Mog is a slightly dimwitted cat who is well-loved by her people all the same.

Hairy Maclairy series by Lynley Dodd. A series of stories a range of dogs (and one cat, Slinky Malinki) told in rhyme. Funny and fun to read aloud.

Burgler Bill by Allan Ahlberg. Burgler Bill gets more than he bargains for when he accidentally burgles a baby, and he decides to reform, returning the helmets and cakes he has stolen. It’s a bit longer than others in the list, but there’s lots to talk about in the illustrations.

Dogger by Shirley Hughes: A much beloved toy dog goes missing, and an older sister saves the day. A nice one if there’s a favourite soft toy in the family.

The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson. A rat with a sweet tooth is foiled by a clever scheme and his own greed. Great rhythm and rhymes for reading aloud.

Prince Alfred Pool by Neeson Murcutt, Sydney – Review

I visited the new Prince Alfred pool today. The City of Sydney project was designed by Neeson Murcutt, and opened two days ago. I saw Rachel Neeson talk on this project around a year ago, so I was keen to see it finished (plus the price is right – it’s currently free to swim at the pool and will be until November, as compensation for the two year construction delay). I was wearing a couple of hats, that of an irregular lap swimmer and architecture aficionado.

Prince Alfred Pool. Photo from NeesonMurcutt.com.au

My approach was from central on foot, but my swimming partner arrived on bike from the other direction. The pool has an active forecourt with ample bike parking and small but dynamic children’s playground. As previously mentioned, it’s currently free to enter, but looks to have been set up with a swipe pass system for future use.

Inside, the change rooms to the left shelters the heated outdoor pool from the bustle of traffic. Likewise, on the right the gently raked timber outdoor seating with permanent individually operable umbrella shelters the pool from the park in which it sits. It lends the open air pool (and there is only one, the other is a ‘toddler splash deck’) a surprising air of intimacy and it also seemed to offer some protection from the wind.

The pool is 50m in length with nine lanes, with a non-returning zero-depth entry ramp on the right hand (park) side. It has an overflow filtration system, is heated, and compared to the indoor pools in which I have been swimming most recently, a gentle chlorination level. The pool has a gentle, even slope, from approximately 1.2m in the shallow end to 2m in the deep end. I think I have heard that it can be converted into  2 x 25m pools, and the slight rise in the centre supports this, but I cannot definitively confirm. Both my friend and I felt that it was an ‘easy’ pool to swim in – after swimming our regular amount of laps, we felt that we’d romped home [warning: the last time I felt like this I found out the pool was 45m in length. No wonder my times had dropped by 10%!].

It seems like a strange thing to quibble about, but every time I paused to stretch or catch my breath, I could hear another swimmer inquiring after the time or peering about for either a lap timer or clock. While this can be easily (and cheaply) rectified, it seems like an odd thing to overlook, especially when other ‘use’ elements have been carefully and thoughtfully integrated into the design. For example, in place of the usual awkward whiteboard, the external wall of the change room has narrow vertical magnetic strips to which labels designating slow, medium, fast and free play lanes can be attached and adjusted easily. The magnets visually represent the lane, making it very simple to double-check the lane speeds from the water. So simple and so effective.

The concourse is a smoothed, unpolished concrete. Both my companion and I felt like it was on the verge of being slippery – whether or not it is, the feeling is unpleasant. A slightly higher sand or grit content may have been less pleasing but more reassuring to walk on.

The change rooms (only the women’s were visited and I took no photos for obvious reasons) are tiled in a small, striking white hexagonal tile that appeared to shimmer with depth, and at first partially disguise the raked roof. As I inhabit the taller end of the height spectrum, I was surprised to notice that the curve of the change room did not feel claustrophobic in anyway, despite its low height at the perimeter. The skylights are funnel shaped, opening out from the glass at the top to a wider mouth at ceiling level. My understanding is that the angle of the skylight are set-up to maximize the light in early mornings, but at 4pm in autumn the effect is still delightful.

What I loved was the showers. The roof of the change room ramps towards the pool, where it meets the wall which finishes with an open mesh above the showers (as I pointed out to my friend, if you’re in the shower at a pool, it seems somewhat redundant to worry about getting wet). The showers are simply but cleverly detailed. Each shower has a small step down and is separated all the way down to the floor and individually drained. I loathe having the shampoo and soap of others wash through public showers (something about abject fluids… Kristeva would understand), so the simple solution of running the dividers all the way to the floor is greatly appreciated. Similarly, the step down into the shower zone helps to keep the floor of the change/storage zone dry, which increases amenity.

The open change area in the women’s change has wide timber seats along the perimeter and along several projecting ‘fingers’, a space efficient solution. The timber has the same dimensions as that used in the outdoor seating, tying the scheme together. Simple metal horizontal cylinders serve for hooks above the seats. While they may be elegant, my bag fell off twice. I’d prefer a slightly angled cylinder or a more conventional hook. Even a lip on the cylinder would be an improvement.

Sadly, the café is yet to stock more than a nominal level of food, so I left unfed. I’ll definitely be back. It’s going to be interesting to see how the pool and its surrounds get tweaked over the next 12 months, particularly over summer. I’m interested to see how the green roof grows in, whether the showers (which will need individual hosing) stay clean and how the Christo-esque square yellow umbrellas will survive the rigors of public life. But mostly, I want to know where the inevitable clock will go.

Words and Buildings – A meandering review

On March 10 at the MCA, Make Space for Architecture, in association with the University of Sydney and AR hosted a roundtable discussion on the future of architectural criticism called ‘Words and Buildings’. The panel was comprised of American critic Alexandra Lange, local architect John de Manincor (of DRAW), Michael Holt (AR editor), University of Sydney lecturer Lee Stickells and local architecture critic and opinion writer Elizabeth Farrelly.

Having avidly followed the twitter feed of the preceding Melbourne event ‘More that one way to skin a building’ (at which Lange and Holt also spoke), I was interested to see how the Sydney event would both echo and differ from the Melbourne event. [The Melbourne event has been covered very ably by Warwick Mihaly at the Panfilocastaldi blog and Michael Smith’s Red and Black Architect blog. For a discussion of differences between the two events, see Tania Davidge’s review in ADR  and panelist and AR editor Michael Holt’s Melbourne presentation and Sydney notes].

The event was framed as an interrogation of the present and evolving role of the architecture critic. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the title and panel composition, the discussion of ‘criticism’ was framed around fairly conventional paradigms. By this, I mean that discussion barely considered forms of architectural criticism outside the written review.  Historically, reviews appeared without illustration in general interest publications (eg newspapers) or in architectural media accompanied by commissioned photographs. Even when the discussion moved to newer media modes (such as personal and commercial blogs, tumblr and twitter accounts maintained and frequented by the panelists), the influence of the traditional review was still evident, revealed through comments about online critiques being freed from ‘word counts’, space limitations and the mixed blessing of freedom from editors.

For a discipline that champions and focuses on the new and original in the built form, that prides itself on visual communication skills and actively challenges the research conventions of the tertiary education system, it is striking how narrow our concepts of critique are. There was a limited discussion of the increasing role of photography and rendering in reviews (mostly encapsulated by de Manincor’s observation on the gradual replacement of geographical communities of critique with online communities of dissemination) and no discussion around the idea that paintings, music, physical models and witty drawings can also be forms of criticism. One of the pithiest responses I have ever seen is the so-called ‘conga line of mating turtles’, a much reproduced cartoon on the Sydney Opera House, credited to ‘Sydney Architecture Students’ and yet this mode of criticism was ignored. 

A conga line of mating turtles: student cartoon on the Sydney Opera House. Source: http://www.gardenvisit.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/TurtleLove2.jpg

The role of the real world exhibition and curator as a form of architectural criticism was also skipped, as was the scope for using online resources to share time-lapse construction photos, publish alternative designs using SketchUp and Google maps, use render engines and sandbox tools to make buildings explorable or playable using video game interfaces, or create mind-blowing mashups (of music, film, photos and data). Michael Holt did flag the emergence of an ‘Under Construction’ segment of AR, which is encouraging. Although understandable given the composition of the panel, which skewed heavily towards published writers, I found this tunnel vision to be slightly disappointing.

In addition to the fixation on the written form, the subject of architectural criticism went largely unmentioned, but was implicitly a single building (as opposed to parts of several buildings or a building over time or an urban precinct or aspects of architectural culture).  Given that some of the most vocal and vibrant discussions and critiques I have seen recently have been on competitions and procurement processes (*cough* Venice pavilion, Barangaroo *cough, cough*), this limitation was somewhat surprising. In my reading of the reviews and responses to the Melbourne event (and possibly discussed in passing in Sydney: my notes are unclear) it does seem that Michael Holt and Marissa Looby may be addressing this in their ‘Elements’ work for Domus, where an architect’s use of a single element is critically interrogated over multiple buildings.

Moving discussion away from the how and what of criticism and towards the why was Elizabeth Farrelly’s tart observation that the reason that there is no architectural criticism is that there is no one willing to pay for it. This approaches what I think is one of the most interesting and fraught issues of architectural criticism: who is the audience? Is it the public with a general interest, the architectural profession or is it more complicated? Can (should?) we separate the role of advocacy from that of critic? Does the low pay rate condemn us to part time or independently wealthy critics? Does the financial necessity of undertaking other work strengthen or weaken the criticism? Have blogs rent asunder the divide between audience and author(ity)? Do we have critics as mediators because architects are so bad at written communication? Is it only architecture if it engages with ideas? Do editorial gatekeepers matter? Has Grand Designs given the public with a skewed understanding of where the responsibilities of the architect and the client begin and end? Does it show an appetite for more nuanced discussion of building projects?  How do we walk the line between cheer leading, education and professional engagement? None of these questions can be resolved in a two hour discussion panel, but they show just how contentious and uncertain the current role and purpose of the architecture critic has become.

To be totally honest, as a recent returnee to Sydney from regional Tasmania, the ability to spend a happy afternoon reflecting on architecture and criticism in a room of like minded individuals was quite simply wonderful. The panel and crowd were lively without being confrontational and showed a deep appreciation of the opportunity to reflect on the difficulties and transformations occurring in architectural criticism. The good humour and frank discussion of the challenges were entertaining and thought provoking. Although I remain mildly disappointed that the event didn’t cover slightly more unconventional forms of critique, it certainly delivered as billed (words and buildings) and provided plenty of food for thought.

Operahuset, Oslo by Snøhetta, 2008. Visited Nov 2012

I’ve been keen to visit Snøhetta’s Operahuset (known to English speakers as the Oslo Opera House) for a while now, but particularly since I saw architect Kjetil Thorsen present this memorable youtube clip showing a motocross rider enjoying the building at the 2012 AIA conference.

Opera House on a summer day. Image from VisitNorway.com

The harbour-side location, program and unusual white form immediately invite comparisons with Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, an impulse which appears to have been explicitly embraced by the architect and city. Both buildings have become iconic symbols for the city they call home and are invested with massive symbolic meaning and public significance. At over 38 000 m2, the building is reportedly the largest cultural building to be built in Norway since Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim in the early 14th century. Over 70 000 residents of Oslo (around 14% of the city’s population) turned out to inspect over 240 entries into the public design competition, which was won by local firm Snohetta. Unlike its Sydney counterpart, the Oslo Opera House was completed ahead of schedule, under budget (total cost was 4.4 billion NOK or approximately $880 million AUD) and without the architect entering voluntary exile from the country after being fired. By that measure alone, the Norwegians are already ahead.

From a distance, the Oslo Opera House emerges angularly from the surrounding buildings and construction works like a faceted iceberg. Moving closer, the impression is reversed; the building, sheathed in Italian marble and white granite, appears to be sliding glacier-like into the fjord.

Shot of exterior traversable 'carpet'. Note the shifting planes and subtle changes in finish of the stone.

Shot of exterior traversable ‘carpet’. Note the shifting planes and subtle changes in finish of the stone.

The forecourt is comprised of slabs of stone, which slopes down to enter the water on one side and continues up to create the volume of the building on the other. The sweep of pale grey paving is interrupted by expansive slashes of blueish glass. With such a limited palette of exterior materials, the architects’ attention to detail and the skilled work of the builders becomes all the more important.

Look verrrry closely. The subtle variation in finish is almost imperceptible.

Look verrrry closely. The subtle variation in finish is almost imperceptible.

Like a snowfield, what initially appears to be a single, smooth monochromatic surface shifts on closer inspection to reveal a composition of planes with subtle clefts and fissures. These are prised up and tilted to create a non-repeating pattern of shallow ridges and depressions, with muted shadow lines. The planes are further articulated by the orientation and diverse finishing of the granite tiles. The finishing is both practical and artistic: the rougher finish over acoustically sensitive areas discourages skateboarding (officially ‘forbuden’) while also providing a visual feast.

Situated atop the building are several rectangular prisms, which are clad in overlapping aluminium sheets. These are pressed with concave and convex indents, apparently inspired by traditional weaving patterns. For such large elements, the combination of material and location help it to almost disappear, the overall effect is almost mirage-like (see 0-11sec of this time lapse clip for a better idea of the result).

Other than a modest sign in Norwegian and English advising that the nature of the paving may present a hazard, the outside of the building is apparently unencumbered by any significant concessions to safety, although one of the prisms contains a lift which provides wheelchair access to the flatter top section of the building. The absence of tactile ground surface indicators is surprisingly jarring, although I suspect that the carefully contrived paving scheme and subtle visual effects would not have survived their imposition.

At the beginning of my visit the angled glazing reflects the overcast sky and surrounds, but as the afternoon twilight begins to fall, the warm glow of the timber interior peaks though. The form begins to invert – the dynamic shell disappears and the interior becomes a stage-lit beacon.

The overcast sky and twilight shift the focus onto the warm, glowing interior.

The overcast sky and twilight shift the focus onto the warm, glowing interior.

The interior 'wave wall' houses circulation and resembles a well known NY museum...

The interior ‘wave wall’ houses circulation and resembles a well known NY museum…

Inside, the palette switches to a much warmer timber finish. From the foyer, a commissioned artwork of what I can only describe as ceramic origami is offset by a cliff of golden oak battens. Progressing around the curve of the cliff, it resolves into what appears to be a spiralling circulation spine, faintly reminiscent of FLW’s Guggenheim museum. The battens are delightfully varied, a range of profiles and thicknesses which create a sense of dynamic movement as you pass. The sloping interior circulation is also timber lined in the same oak and gently lit, creating a pattern of light and shadow when viewed from below.

On a tour of the building, the inner working and logic of the building are revealed. The building is contains hundreds of employees, including costumiers, carpenters, scenographers (technical term for curtain painters), steel workers and others. Some of these functions (such as costume making) are pushed to the edge of the building, which contains extensive glazing. The rationale behind this is ‘transparency’, and the aim is to allow the public to follow the development of a productiion. While the intent is admirable, building works limited the possibility of circumnavigating the building to confirm this from the exterior during my visit.

Other ‘back of house’ professions are also housed on the ground floor. Sets up to 9m in height can be constructed and moved between different areas using a series of oversized doors. Sadly, no photos can be taken of the areas in professional use. The levels above contain dressing and rehearsal rooms for both opera and ballet performers. A hidden gem is the courtyard, which dramatically increases the amount of daylight. As the planting matures, this should become a green oasis, a private pleasure for those who work here.

Where private and public intersect in the building is of course the main concert hall, which seats around 1400 people. Like the foyer, the interior is clad in oak, but here it has been treated with ammonia to create a darker tone. Much of the interior has been influenced by acoustic requirements.  Everything from the LED chandelier to the seats (which are specially designed to mimic the acoustics of the human body, ensuring that performances sound the same in an empty hall) to the panelling (dense materials to prevent vibration) is designed to provide optimum acoustic performance. The end result is apparently very good: there is a long reverberation time (1.4 seconds according to our guide) and no need to use microphones. Again, photos were not possible.

Returning to the foyer via the timber lined main circulation stairs, we pass the Norwegian language tour group, which is more popular than the English tour. This, coupled with the dazzling visitor statistics (over 7 million people since opening) indicates just how much pride and interest this building has managed to generate both locally as well as internationally.

Overall, I love this building. It’s ‘big idea’ is executed with intelligence and wit. Every single move, both small and large, contributes to a cohesive, functional whole.

Fast Facts 

Dominant Impression: Sloping iceberg creates iconic space for both public and private use.

Architect’s Concept: Carpet, wave wall and factory. ‘Carpet’ is the white, publicly traversable exterior, ‘wave wall’ is the timber cliff, signifying where the water meets land and the public meets the art and ‘factory’ is the back of house production facilities.

Materials: Granite, Italian marble, glass outside, oak battens inside, aluminium at rear.

Technical wow: glass windows supported on glass bracing with small steel brackets. Solar panels on southern side provide power.

Trivia: The design won from more than 350 entries in an international design competition. It was completed ahead of schedule AND under budget.

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