At 86, Frank Gehry is the world’s most popular architect. It’s due to Gehry’s fame and international success that he was asked to design a building in Sydney, his first in Australia. The building, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, is for UTS, who have embarked on an ambitious building program. Gehry’s job is one part of a suite of projects – Denton Corker Marshall, Aspect Studios and Durbach Block Jaggers have all finished new work in the central campus. Interestingly, these projects are in more prominent locations than the Gehry one, which sits on a compact site on Ultimo Road (around Chinatown), up against an old rail line which is now an elevated walkway, onto which the project connects.
Gehry is known for his complex and folded shape-making – it’s a sculptural approach to architecture, merging his intuitive model making with new software and fabrication techniques that make the complex geometry buildable. Gehry’s early work was more vernacular – he would mash together big objects in a cheap and arresting way, creating great projects in LA, his home town. With his fame he has pushed (and pulled) the envelope to become the architect of success – particularly through at the Guggenheim in Bilbao (‘the Bilbao effect’). He’s aligned with the boom of the 00s, and to some extent like Zaha Hadid his ‘wow’ architecture has been briefed to be iconic (rather than becoming so, as with the Opera House). UTS are using this branded architecture to promote their business school, which is housed in this new spectacular building.
And whilst Gehry’s buildings of the last 20 years have a distinct style in terms of form, he has only rarely used brick. Why brick in Sydney? It may be in part contextual – there are (some) brick buildings around the site in Ultimo, but it may also be to test the limits of what brick can do. Louis Kahn, perhaps the Gehry of his day, would ask a brick what it wanted to do – Gehry seems to be asking – what are the limits of what brick can do? The complex curving lines of brick here push the material beyond it structural logic – most bricks are fixed back to the wall behind. This allows the brick wall to curve in two directions, across and up/down.
To highlight the curving form, special ‘K-Bricks’ are scattered across the walls – these protrude out to cast shadows, giving the building a furriness, a bit like a rock climbing wall. The analogy of crushed paper bag has often been used to describe his work (including by Gehry in his appearance on The Simpsons), and this is true also for this building, and this comes from the pushes and pulls of Gehry’s hand on the physical models made during design. Despite the free-form nature of the process of making, this building is roughly symmetrical when looked at front-on, in elevation. Gehry’s past in the vernacular is also there at UTS – both in the use of everyday materials of brick, concrete, timber – but also in the use of roughly square windows. He pushes the windows out of the folding skin as boxes – bay windows that add more blurring to the building, as well as providing a space inside to sit within.
Entering the building from the street you are presented immediately with an extraordinary staircase, lined in stainless steel that dances through the foyer. This is a surprisingly intimate space, where the key materials of the project are introduced – white plasterboard walls, timber objects, concrete floors and select stainless steel surfaces. The palette is kept throughout, with plywood becoming the key timber used for furniture and joinery.
The building is a tower – or a series of towers pushed together around a central lift core, with special staircases connecting levels together. Objects are inserted into the form such as the shiny stair, and a three storey timber ‘nest’ made from giant chunky lumps of timber beams – inside are ‘in the round’ teaching spaces. Generally it doesn’t feel like an office tower inside (thankfully), with wonderfully tall ceilings.
This is a building for learning – it is bustling with students and staff. Many of the circulation areas are lounges and niches for students to hang out, work and collaborate. These link into teaching spaces, which are a combination of traditional rooms along with collaborative lecture and tutorial spaces. The focus of the building, and the design, is however on its external skin – and whilst the building is about brick in its identity, it’s covered in as much glass as brick, with large sections of west facing walls in glass. So what we have here is classic late-career Gehry – and whilst his work elsewhere may be moving on stylistically (like the new Facebook headquarters – simple, green) what has landed at UTS is a dramatic essay in elaborating brick, an iconic rococo castle.