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.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY LUKE SLATTERY POR­TRAIT NICK CUBBIN

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

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