Architecture

UTS’s latest refurbishment ripples alongside a new green courtyard as it pulls natural light within. By Andrew Mackenzie.

DBJ’s Science and Graduate School of Health Building, UTS

Durbach Block Jaggers’ new UTS Science and Graduate School of Health Building
Credit: Darren Bradley

We project onto buildings the values we hold dear. The engineer might appreciate a building’s efficient planning. The environmentalist, its solar orientation. The aesthete, its decorative detail. As a writer on architecture and the city, I like architecture that enriches the public domain, that is inventive with space and materials, and that speaks somehow to contemporary culture. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a pretty good start. If a project can tick those three boxes, it’s what I call good architecture. Add a demanding site, a modest budget and a complex brief, and you have the ingredients of a really great piece of architecture.

Such it is with the new University of Technology Sydney Science and Graduate School of Health Building, designed by Durbach Block Jaggers (DBJ) in association with BVN. Though a minnow to Frank Gehry’s fat salmon around the corner (otherwise known as the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building) it is without doubt a greater contribution to that university’s ambition to improve what has historically been perhaps Australia’s worst university campus.

That word “campus”, however, needs qualification, because the location, size and use of buildings appear randomly placed according to the piecemeal expansion of student numbers and courses. There’s no sense of cohesion, boundary or defined limits. Instead, walkways and bridges worm their elevated way around the streets. They disappear into a hole somewhere, then reappear somewhere else, maybe over a highway. The campus is, in fact, an example of the past century’s failed attempt to reduce urban experience to a movement flow chart, neatly segregating cars and pedestrians, in the assumption that either journey is only about going from A to B. Consistent with such reductive planning there has historically been virtually no material evidence of investment in the public realm. This is most noticeable in the lack of a central gathering place, or forum. Until now the sum total of outdoor space could be defined as the empty, leftover bits between buildings.

Finally that’s changing. A billion-dollar revitalisation project is well under way, promising to rejuvenate the campus experience. Predictably this is largely conceived in the simple terms of architectural landmarks. However, there is slowly emerging an aligned strategy to invest in the campus landscape, central to which is the new Alumni Green designed by Aspect Studios, sitting behind the much-maligned UTS Tower, Building 1. To the immediate north of this new green, and directly facing the tower, sits the new science building.

From the beginning the project had conflicting ambitions. On the one hand, as it faces onto the new ceremonial heart of the campus, this project was always going to be an important scene-setter, implicitly requiring a sense of academic gravitas and institutional presence. On the other hand, given the building heights of this dense urban campus, casting long shadows over most of the open space, the brief explicitly required minimal sun shading of the lawn. A conventional response here would be to simply create a series of stepped back layers at the higher levels. This default design move would have diminished the building’s presence on this prominent site overlooking Alumni Green.

The architects have taken this practical challenge and transformed it into a creative exercise, pulling the façade back at two points along its “front” elevation, thus fulfilling its solar obligations, while avoiding the need for a stunted wedge-shaped building. In fact, the building’s civic presence has been accentuated by a clever play in scale. Each floor has not one, but two, horizontal bands of windows. Their overlapping and variable widths not only accentuate the undulating cadence of the facade, they also optically transform a modest three-storey facade into something that appears much more substantial.

As is often the case with the work of DBJ, there are multiple references to Modernism’s high priest, Le Corbusier. This is evident in the way the visual mass of the building is lifted up one level on slender columns. This in turn creates an open, generous and egalitarian ground plane. Corbusier’s influence is also evident in the sculptural use of raw concrete that is particularly potent at this ground level. Though relatively rough in its finish (no one pours concrete like the Germans) it nevertheless recalls a day when construction was more a craft than a logistics supply chain.

Interestingly, the building’s cafe has not been placed at the centre of the pedestrian zone of Alumni Green, but rather is perched at the corner of Jones and Thomas streets to the east. Thus it invites the passing campus community to get a coffee and grab some rays on the green. Ceremonial campus lawns of yesteryear would have demanded formality and symmetry. Yet here on this corner, you feel the fine grain of an urban neighbourhood beginning to take shape.

While the building’s colourful and sculptural exterior projects a sense of exuberance, its internal plan is deceptively constrained by what it has to accommodate. A long corridor runs east to west, from the adjoining Building 6 right through Building 7, with small study areas and larger labs arranged to the south and north respectively of that corridor, their design heavily predetermined to comply with standard lab and office requirements. Perhaps for this reason the architects have concentrated their efforts in the shared spaces of circulation and informal gathering.

Significant investment has gone into the primary staircase, whose elegantly proportioned curved walls are lined with a broken-tile mosaic from top to bottom. An oculus above funnels light down while diverting the gaze up and out into the blue sky. This is just one example of how the architects use light to bring form and space to life. The use of natural light is pushed to the extreme where the architects are asked to design two levels of space sunken below ground.

Level one houses a subterranean Super Lab, reputedly the biggest teaching laboratory in the southern hemisphere. There is something rather SPECTRE about this vast, high-tech lab buried deep underground. But even here the architects have exploited a sliver of space between inside and outside on the ground level, to scoop light down over a cranked plane of white mosaic tiles (echoing the shape of the exterior facade). I’ve never seen “borrowed light” look so good.

Such invention abounds, fluidly moving between the playful, the pragmatic and the poetic. From the dark sensuous hanging lights to the slender yellow void that plunges through the floor plates like a knife, bringing a shot of daylight with it. From the hyper-reflective floating “cloud” pavilion in the rooftop garden to the in-your-face green auditorium that features ceiling lights repurposed from glass laboratory flasks.

Some details are recognisable motifs from earlier projects. For example, in DBJ’s cliff-hanging Holman House, the floor plan twists and extends in two directions, each terminating in a large picture window focused out to sea: a device rephrased here at UTS. The gently undulating facade to the west suddenly and dramatically deforms to the east, as if the meeting between old (Building 6) and new (Building 7) has crumpled the facade on impact: architecture as plate tectonics.

As a result two picture windows are thrust forward, much like Holman House in Dover Heights, though here they are focused on a rather different kind of epic scene: the UTS Tower. Designed in the late ’60s and completed in 1979, much has been written about the UTS “middle finger to the city”. But rather than wish for its demise, this new building turns and looks at it in deference, as if to pay respects to an old uncle.

There is too much to say of the UTS Tower to do justice here, but suffice to say that it was a victim of its time, when ambitious mega projects were conceived then shortly after defunded or bastardised by the planners. Think the National Gallery of Australia. Originally there were plans for a sequence of towers on the UTS site, all tied together by a generously scaled raised pedestrian level. Inevitably the plan devolved into a single tower sat within a disaggregated and partially raised ground level. As finished in 1979 the UTS Tower never had a chance. Instead, it paved the way for a generation of poorly planned, compartmentalised and utilitarian university buildings.

So it is that more than a quarter of a century later UTS is finally working out a way to heal the urban mistakes and thwarted ambitions of the ’70s, as much by rethinking what it means to make a great campus as by commissioning a series of architectural statements. What is clear is that this will only happen when the campus architecture, old and new, starts to talk to each other, and to the ground plane too. Today we should expect nothing less from our architecture. The architects of the Science and Graduate School of Health Building got that. I’m not sure Gehry did.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2015 as "Wave of matriculation". Subscribe here.

Andrew Mackenzie
is an architectural writer, publisher and consultant.

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