BUILD IT SMART
ARCHITECTURE FIRM BATES SMART HAS BEEN AT THE FOREFRONT OF MELBOURNE’S EVOLUTION AS A CONTEMPORARY COSMOPOLITAN CITY, AND HAS EVOLVED ALONGSIDE IT TO EXPRESS AUSTRALIA TO THE WORLD.
On June 20, 1969, a cage-like building, designed in the international modernist idiom and clad in off-white Tennessee marble, opened its doors in Washington to reveal a striking tableau of Australian art and design. In the foyer of the new Australian embassy a set of funky swivel chairs stood on a blue kangaroo skin rug. On the walls hung paintings by Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, and John Perceval; sculpture by Inge King and Arthur Boyd was dotted around.
The Australian embassy at Scott Circle was a dream commission for the storied Melbourne firm of Bates, Smart & McCutcheon, and particularly for principal partner Sir Osborn McCutcheon, who led the design team. And yet this opportunity to project a uniquely Australian architectural presence abroad was largely squandered by a building that tried so hard to look at home in the US capital that it seemed to bland, rather than blend, into the institutional cityscape.
When the same firm, now truncated to Bates Smart, competed to rebuild the embassy after the original cladding began to deteriorate around 2010, it was aware that legacy counted for nought when dealing with the hard-nosed client: the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Kristen Whittle, head of Bates Smart’s Melbourne design team, felt strongly that this time the firm needed to build something uniquely Australian, and not just lard it with Australiana. At an exclusive briefing for WISH at the 164-year-old firm’s Melbourne offices, he explains that the site’s prestige position in Washington fuelled his ambitions.
“We wanted to celebrate Australia in Washington with a key iconic building,” he says. “We decided to focus on the physicality of the Australian landscape and to find ways to express this architecturally.” The two buildings, 50 years apart, register a profound shift between the sterility of post-war modernism and a richer and more resonant contemporary approach to buildings of cultural significance.
Whittle takes me through the practice’s winning pitch for the $237 million building, set to open in 2022. His sources of inspiration were images of the red centre, canopies of grey-green eucalyptus, and an almost Rothko-like scene of a desert saltpan blending into an infinite sky with only a fine thread of horizon between them. Sounding a little as if he has swallowed a Les Murray anthology for breakfast, he says: “The things we most wanted to convey were the colossal, timeless quality of the landscape and the delicate nature of the vegetation with its shifting dappled light. The Australian landscape is unique in that much of it is unchanged from the time it was Gondwana Land; in terms of its physical character it’s very pure. And we started from that vantage point.”
So much for the ambition. A design was now needed that could represent a 600 million-year-old landscape architecturally without reaching for the cliché of rusted corten steel. After some experimentation Whittle hit upon the idea of a skin composed of flamed copper alloy panels, examples of which he has laid out on a workbench. The material allows for variegated patterns of ochre, pewter and stormcloud grey-blue. “We’ve never used it before,” Whittle shrugs. “And I don’t know who else has. The idea is to give the finished product a consistency, but also a craft feel.”
Light was the next element of the Australian experience that Whittle sought to evoke. He hopes to achieve this by molding the building around an atrium fed by dappled sunlight. These evocations of the natural world are accompanied by a riff on Australian urbanism in the form of a street running through the building’s interior on a north-south axis, and a firstfloor bar and restaurant that can be opened to the elements. “The bar,” Whittle grins. “It’s very Aussie. Wherever possible – the foyer is another example – we’re aiming for an open, inviting, typically Australian mood. Of course there are areas where the need for security dominates, and these can be closed down. In