Replacing the supper room with an art gallery and business incubator was just an entree. For while grand in scale, and significant as a repository for community memories, the original town hall wasn’t totally resolved as architecture.
“It was quite one-dimensional,” says Thompson of the town hall’s scalloped portico and three-storey glass entrance.
Beyond the front facade “all hell breaks loose,” she says. Tacked-on buildings, vast windowless brick walls and constrictive car-parking abutted the building. “The key target of the project was to make the building work from all four sides.” To do so required “punching the guts out of it”.
Thompson matches the monumentality of the building with a series of dramatic contrapuntal gestures. An enormous Louis Kahn-inspired circle cut out of the giant blank rectangular northern facade reveals and frames a three-storey glass box within. It’s a window on a window. Like a shot fired through the bull’s eye, the glass box explodes out the other side of the building. A beacon signalling community support, the extruded glass box illuminates at night: flashing poppy red for Anzac Day, hi-vis orange in tribute to SES volunteers during the fires, blue for recently fallen police officers.
Bisecting this newly created commercial section from the civic half of the town hall, Thompson inserted a three-storey high spine that connects the once impenetrable building to streets on either side. Above, the ceiling in this sliced axis subtly echoes the portico’s scallop shapes.
Despite the bold gestures, Thompson calls her process of adaptive reuse “judicious edits”. Robbie Rowlands’ commissioned sculpture, Crossing the Floor, is emblematic of the architect’s approach. Constructed from a sunken section of the supper hall’s original floorboards, the sculpture coils up through the town hall foyer like building DNA. Just as the artist performed an incision in the floor to create the sculpture, the architect “cut and took away” from the building.
Adaptive reuse projects feature prominently in the 2020 architecture awards. Architectus and Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects’ refurbishment of the State Library of Victoria won the Melbourne Prize for dexterously reconfiguring the existing building, increasing public space by 40 per cent. The Capitol theatre has also been reworked. Six Degrees architects restored the spectacular crystalline plaster ceiling while refurbishing the art deco foyers, updating the back-end technology, adjusting the entrance and providing disability access.
“Adaptive reuse is the way of the future,” Thompson says. The cost of crafting and building in these “heritage” materials today would be prohibitive, she says. It’s also wasteful to demolish. What’s more, these buildings not only carry embodied energy but embodied memories.
Appreciating the embodied values of our built heritage is one thing, but what new public buildings will contribute to our ongoing cultural legacy?
Notable among Victoria’s award-winning civic buildings are the regional and educational institutions. The translucent Geelong Arts Centre designed by Hassell is the latest in a series of recent major developments that includes ARM Architecture’s Geelong library.
“Geelong has really recognised the value that design can bring,” says Ingrid Bakker, chair of the AIA juries. “Great buildings create that destination and an amazing community amenity.”
Phillip Island’s penguins may not need a building to encourage visitors, but the new $58 million Terroir design of the Penguin Parade Visitor Centre certainly acknowledges their importance as one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions. The star-shaped centre won both the regional and public architecture prizes.
Buildings help brand places. It’s a formula universities continue to leverage as they compete for the higher education dollar. “Design plays a big role in attracting students and creating great student experiences,” says Bakker.
Dotted with 66,000 ceramic tiles resembling abstract musical notes, the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music’s intriguing facade in the Southbank Arts Precinct encourages the public to peer into the building through horn-like apertures and a giant oculus. But it’s the building’s interior for which John Wardle Architecture was awarded. The acoustic design of its highly detailed timber and concrete interiors cleverly allows music out of the conservatorium, but blocks street noise coming in.
Meanwhile at Monash University, ARM Architecture’s Chancellery, with its intricate steel shading screen and fun contemporary take on the traditional university cloister, won both the prize for educational architecture, and the award for steel architecture.
Private schools also appreciate that design can be a drawcard. Like Thompson’s dramatic cut-out circle in the Town Hall Broadmeadows envelope, McBride Charles Ryan’s Swift Science and Technology Centre at Toorak College plays with simple geometries – a sliced cylinder – to achieve its striking tilted-arc facade.
With a brief to inspire girls to study STEM subjects, MCR’s design embodies its program.
“It’s an exuberant display of geometry,” says Rob McBride. “It says this is the kind of thing that you learn in this building, to get people excited about mathematics and science and its relationship to nature.”
Like Town Hall Broadmeadows, a spine connects the Swift centre with the school’s main thoroughfare. It encourages students to travel through the building and observe the activities in the adjoining laboratories and robotic facilities.
“They are like shopfronts,” says McBride, alluding to the hybrid models of commerce and civic purpose that inspire many of today’s public buildings. “As architects, we should be thinking about buildings with at least a 100-year mindset,” says Bakker.
While many of these new award-winning buildings will provide a vital cultural contribution, today’s best architects readily acknowledge that just as heritage buildings are adapted and reused for current circumstances, their buildings may well be reconfigured in the future.
“What’s important is we leave good bones, hopefully adaptable ones,” says Thompson.
Rob McBride agrees: “The experience and beauty and excitement of the building – what it means and symbolises – can outlive its function. Even if its function changes, the excitement of the building still remains.”