Does Frank Gehry's UTS building exhibit more technical making-do than derring-do? By Laura Harding.

Gehry Partners bends UTS building out of shape

The east-facing sandstone-coloured brick facade of the UTS business school.
The east-facing sandstone-coloured brick facade of the UTS business school.

When the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) was announced in 2010, the images released did not fit the customary pattern. Instead of photorealistic renderings drenched in beatific light, the architects presented a series of physical models made from timber, folded canvas and silver cardboard.  

The models were a seemingly anachronistic choice for internationally renowned architects Gehry Partners, pioneers of the digital revolution in architecture, who famously adopted aeronautical engineering software to facilitate the construction of their formally complex buildings. 

Gehry is frequently caricatured as a technological fetishist who imposes outrageous objects on cities with wilful disregard – but the physical models tell us that his ambitions are more complex than that. He does indeed approach architecture with the sensibility of a sculptor, but it is a physically transcendent encounter with material, as much as form, that he is seeking to cultivate. He wants active physical engagement with, rather than passive consumption of, his architecture.

Sculpture is a highly personal method for conceiving architecture, particularly public architecture. It is a method that celebrates individual expression and, while seemingly democratic in spirit, it can undermine the civic idealism of the traditional city where buildings work co-operatively to frame the urban realm. 

The new home for the UTS business school feeds off this tension, being located on the western rim of the city where the university rubs up against the historic grain of Ultimo. Consistent with its desired sense of independence, the building does not mimic the surrounding urban fabric but reacts to it.  

In an urban sense, the building sits quite modestly in its site. Barely a blush over its permissible planning envelope, it is organised in a diagonal cruciform plan arrangement, with long inflected edges facing east and west used to symbolically interpret its situation.  

The western side is a fractured, mirrored curtain wall that parodies the corporate language of the city behind; the eastern side is formed in undulating brick that presents the masonry language of Ultimo towards the city. The building delights in the collision of 19th- and 21st-century Sydney.

Default commercial architecture tries to maximise lettable floor area while minimising the extent of the costly perimeter construction that is needed to enclose it. Gehry does the opposite, weaving and folding brick and glass in and out of the building form, intensifying contact between the wings of the school and the surrounding city.

It is breathtaking to observe the city from within this building; nestled into the satisfying thickness of its outer wall, glancing along the brickwork as it ceaselessly frames and reframes pieces of the city with a truly engaging intimacy. It’s an indulgent architectural strategy to be sure, as it relies on the city around it playing by the rules, while Gehry gets to dance alone – but we’ve always allowed significant public buildings to push the boundaries of urban etiquette.

Gehry is interested in emulating the humanism of Sydney’s 19th-century buildings through dynamism of form, rather than applied decorative elements. He won’t have missed William Kemp’s Sydney Technical College of 1891, one of Sydney’s most superb masonry buildings, a block away on Harris Street. It displays the rich grammar of traditional brick craft – the structural elegance of arched openings shedding their weight onto thickened piers and tapered stone bases that express the effort required to restrain the immense weight of masonry. Such a structurally explicit language is anathema to Gehry because it is an impediment to the creation of a freer expressive potential. He rejects the expression of stasis or statics because he wants brick to defy gravity.

In the finished work, it is structure that betrays him. As the eye wanders over the virtuosity of curling, corbelled brickwork it keeps running into a series of thin expansion joints that trace a jarringly regular grid across the facade. It’s like reading a poker player’s tell. The dynamism falters because we can see that the brickwork is not free – it is struggling to conceal the stasis of its supporting structure behind. 

This matters because it blunts the building’s material force but also because we are in Sydney, so we’ve seen this executed flawlessly. In 1961, when Jørn Utzon was trying to make the shells of the Sydney Opera House soar, he did so not by suppressing structure but by synthesising it with form. The taut brilliance of his solution makes the Opera House’s defiance of gravity appear effortless, and the physicality of our encounter with its ceramic shells is all the more powerful for its undiluted clarity.

With the business school we sense a building in denial. In other buildings, Gehry has delighted in exposing and celebrating the sort of architectural ungainliness implicit in the tension between the brick and its substrate, yet here, even internally, the incredibly complex ribbed steel panels that hold the brick are politely concealed behind plasterboard. It is surprisingly coy.

The school’s interior spaces are very pleasant.  The amplification of the building’s perimeter means that the edge always feels near. A beautiful dialogue is set up whereby the building’s four limbs gaze at each other across clefts of brick and glass. The glass is heavily reflective and its fractured form gathers cropped pieces of sky and city that are drawn into an invigorating assemblage with the interior vistas.  

The curtain wall to the west is an arresting chameleon visage, alternately mirroring surrounding buildings and then refracting and dissolving into the sky. Nonetheless, the decision to orient an entirely unshaded glass wall towards the western sun beggars environmental belief. It’s the latest of a series of buildings that raise questions about how meaningful the much-touted Green Star rating system really is.

Since its completion, the building has been simultaneously hailed as a radical masterpiece and dismissed as crowd-pleasing pap. Of course it is neither, but it tells us a lot about our expectations that we are so easily provoked by it.

Its notoriety is assured, so it has fulfilled the marketing brief, but the larger question is whether its spirited individualism is such that it unfairly burdens the city around it?

The answer is no; because Gehry is much more than a recalcitrant sculptor, and because this is a very particular site. It is a small island, caught between the parallel forces of the old urban wall of Harris Street and the soon to be completed Goods Line pedestrian link. Gehry pulls away from Ultimo and grafts onto the Goods Line, but shrewdly imparts just enough formal tension to steady the urban grain he has vacated.

It is not a largesse that the rest of the city can enjoy, but the deal is that when we allow buildings to become the exception, they must repay us by being exceptional. An uncharacteristic tectonic reticence sees this one fall technically short, but even so, each time I pass it there are people gathered below, staring upwards, in an enchanted state of confusion and awe.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 21, 2015 as "Curve your enthusiasm".

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Laura Harding is a Sydney-based designer and writer.

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