Category Archives: Building Reviews

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:

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.

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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