Category Archives: Event Reviews

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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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:

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.