Auck­land Univer­sity’s new Sci­ence Cen­tre has a quirky façade that hums with en­ergy.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - Ur­ban De­sign Chris Bar­ton

Chris Bar­ton on the Univer­sity of Auck­land’s new Sci­ence Cen­tre.

It’s the di­ag­o­nals meet­ing at the cor­ner that hit you. Af­ter the Christchurch earth­quakes, we’re see­ing them ev­ery­where — big steel struts an­gled at 45 de­grees, de­signed to give strength and mit­i­gate shak­ing.

Auck­land Univer­sity’s new $145 mil­lion Sci­ence Cen­tre, the unimag­i­na­tively named Build­ing 302, has plenty of that kind of di­ag­o­nal — solid cir­cu­lar steel braces bolted to mas­sive steel flanged col­umns, all painted red. The mus­cu­lar struc­tural grid is mostly on the in­side, threaded be­tween the 11 floors but re­veal­ing it­self at var­i­ous points with a pump­ing iron pose.

But these are not the same as the whop­ping di­ag­o­nals that slice across the build­ing’s Sy­monds St and Welles­ley St East faces in an ex­pan­sive cor­ner-open­ing ges­ture. The slice sep­a­rates the façades into light and dark — be­low the line the glass is clear, above it’s smoky and dec­o­rated with black ver­ti­cal alu­minium fins that pro­vide fur­ther vis­ual dis­trac­tion, a zigzag­ging dis­rup­tion to the ver­ti­cal line. This is a façade that’s not just busy, it’s hum­ming with en­ergy.

The zigzag fins are os­ten­si­bly for sun shad­ing. Pa­trick Clif­ford of Ar­chi­tec­tus points to the carpet on the ground floor, an ar­ray of coloured hex- agons that may al­lude to chem­istry di­a­grams. “It’s got a lit­tle bit of ge­om­e­try to it. There’s a lit­tle sci­ence in­volved.” It’s also about depth. “We like façade el­e­ments that change as you move around them so the oblique view is quite dif­fer­ent from the view as you come down, or walk up, the street.”

Then there’s the con­tex­tual re­la­tion­ship with St Paul’s, Auck­land’s old­est church, di­ag­o­nally across the road and a build­ing with lots of an­gles — the gabled en­trances, the big gable of the nave roof, the tri­an­gle above its rose win­dow. “In our part of the world these di­ag­o­nals are very much a part of the lan­guage of mak­ing things,” Clif­ford says enig­mat­i­cally.

As for the con­tex­tual re­la­tion­ship with the ad­ja­cent bru­tal­ist Sci­ence Build­ing 301, Ar­chi­tec­tus has been both bru­tal and sym­pa­thetic. The cor­ner part of the build­ing, de­signed by Min­istry of Works ar­chi­tect WR Mitchell and con­structed from 1963, has been de­mol­ished. Opin­ions dif­fer as to whether Build­ing 301 was ever a good ex­am­ple of the bru­tal­ist phase of mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture, which em­pha­sised the raw and the rugged — lots of ex­posed con­crete, ex­pressed struc­ture, hon­est ma­te­ri­als and re­peat­ing mod­u­lar el­e­ments. I tend to the view that the Sci­ence Block, which in­cludes the re­vamped Build­ing 303 fac­ing Princes St, is more about bru­tal­ity than bru­tal­ism.

The six lev­els of the new build­ing on the cor­ner, ro­tated to align with the street frontages rather than the univer­sity’s build­ing grid, clearly re­ject bru­tal­ism in favour of a quirky dec­o­ra­tive façade. But the five lev­els of the build­ing above are qui­etly re­spect­ful of the build­ing’s bru­tal­ist neigh­bour. That’s largely through

homage to the McCal­lum red chip pre­cast pan­els used as ex­te­rior span­drels on the old build­ing, and the re­use of the “beau­ti­ful fruit salad” sco­ria as a base­ment wall. On the new build­ing the dis­tinc­tive red chip ag­gre­gate pan­els run ver­ti­cally over 11 lev­els of the edge be­side the old build­ing, pro­vid­ing an el­e­gant tran­si­tion to the new ver­ti­cal red zinc cladding.

In­side, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween old and new is dra­mat­i­cally ex­pressed in a nar­row atrium of eight lev­els sep­a­rat­ing the two build­ings. Light rains down into the nar­row chasm from a sky­light of plas­tic cush­ions made of new won­der

The five lev­els above are qui­etly re­spect­ful of the bru­tal­ist neigh­bour.

ma­te­rial eth­yl­ene tetraflu­o­roethy­lene (ETFE). At ground level, stu­dents play ta­ble ten­nis flanked by a wall of open lift wells re­veal­ing the as­cend­ing and de­scend­ing cars and, on the other side, the red chip and con­crete wall of Build­ing 301.

Next to the canyon is a soar­ing eight-level-tall space bounded by a rough bé­ton brut con­crete wall of sheer bru­tal­ism that will even­tu­ally be soft­ened by large tapa cloth art­work. Ei­ther side are stairs and ramps, one set go­ing up, the oth­ers go­ing down — a novel so­lu­tion to join­ing the dif­fer­ent floor-to-ceil­ing heights of the old (3.8m) and the new (4.2m) build­ings. Here there’s thin, en­clos­ing mesh stretched taut across the sides of the stairs open to the atrium — a sui­cide-preven­tion mea­sure that op­er­ates sub­tly through­out the build­ing, en­sur­ing atrium bridges are en­closed, as are other po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous edges. Even though the build­ing has some in­cred­i­ble views from its up­per lev­els — to the Do­main and across Al­bert Park and out to the Waitem­ata — there are no bal­conies or roof decks. De­sign­ing out po­ten­tial tragedy is un­der­stand­able, but you also won­der whether it’s overly pro­tec­tive and, in terms of de­sign, re­stric­tive.

The de­sign han­dles such re­quire­ments so well they are hardly no­ticed and there are a num­ber of gallery spa­ces to take ad­van­tage of the views. The up­per lev­els are di­vided by two five-level atri­ums — one tim­ber-lined for the Psy­chol­ogy Depart­ment and the School of En­vi­ron­ment, the other in white pan­els mark­ing out Chem­istry’s iden­tity and lo­ca­tion. Both have wind­ing red stairs and are lit from the top — Chem­istry by a saw-tooth roof with sky­lights and Psy­chol­ogy via a glass gallery bring­ing light from the Welles­ley St façade.

Clif­ford refers to the voids as con­nected rooms — col­lab­o­ra­tive, col­lec­tive spa­ces that are pop­u­lated with seat­ing at their bot­tom lev­els. He de­scribes the de­sign as a series of “so­ciograms”, di­a­grams of so­cial in­ter­ac­tion around which the ar­chi­tec­ture is framed.

Nowhere is the idea more ev­i­dent than on the ground floor, where a wide ter­razzo stair with red en­closed balustrade climbs three lev­els. This cen­tre­piece of the en­try atrium is sur­rounded by fur­ni­ture and joins large glazed ar­eas open­ing out to Sy­monds and Welles­ley Sts. De­signed for the ca­sual, un­struc­tured en­gage­ment of learn­ing, the cor­ner area teems with stu­dents, the big di­ag­o­nals slant­ing across a pa­rade of peo­ple on Sy­monds St. Oc­cu­pied and en­joyed, Build­ing 302 is a ped­a­gog­i­cal so­ciogram in a mas­ter­ful ar­chi­tec­tural frame.


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