Straddling the middle ground between high and popular culture isn’t easy. Melbourne-based firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall Architecture (ARM) have been doing this for years, and a series of their public projects have asked the very meaningful question of what public buildings today should be like. We have covered many public projects in these reviews, and last time we looked at ARM it was for their excellent Shrine of Remembrance works. Today we will leave the big city, to finish our overview of excellent public minded architecture.
Geelong is Victoria’s second biggest city. It’s a port town that hasn’t had much ‘big-picture’ architecture for a while. There’s a classic example opposite this new Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (GLHC) – the State Government Offices, which brought the kind of big-form making to town in the 1970s. ARM’s building is a big sphere rather than a pyramid, but both are huge architectural forms that recall the visionary work of Étienne-Louis Boullée, the great ‘paper’ French architect of the 18th Century. Boullée’s architectural drawings proposed grand spheres, cones and pyramids. One of his more realisable schemes were for a library: the Bibliothèque du Roi (1785). There’s more than a bit of Boullée’s library in ARM’s new one.
It’s not all about purity however, the spherical library building is, on closer inspection, a highly eroded form. Once at the building you realise it is an extension – attached to and pretty much dwarfing the slightly lost, but highly detailed, classical building next door. The whole complex is all of Geelong’s civic buildings pushed together: the Town Hall, Gallery and Library (with the heritage centre as part of it). The new building has reinforced this complex arrangement, and added a significant piece to it, which is viewable as a ‘grand dome’ seen from the main east elevation of the Town Hall.
Geelong’s new library can be read as a hybrid of Boullée, with the pretty, fancy classicism of the original building next door, melded with a few wider popular culture sources. Some have made comparison to the spherical ‘Death Star’ from Star Wars (1977) – but on closer comparison GLHC it’s more like the incomplete Death Star from The Return of Jedi (1983), a ‘fully operational’ facility that looks incomplete, and yet still implies the pure form of the sphere. Whilst the solid skin of the GLHC’s dome is smooth (in terms of finish and colour), the glass walls are more complex, staggering in and out and reflecting the park opposite. They also serve as points in which to enter into the giant form, and make an important link between the interiors and the impressive external context.
Some have made comparison to the spherical ‘Death Star’ from Star Wars (1977) – but on closer comparison it’s more like the incomplete Death Star from The Return of Jedi (1983).
Libraries, as has been noted elsewhere, aren’t dying at all. Here, a progressive client group led by Patti Manolis, has understood and briefed a contemporary set of library needs very well. Architecturally, the interiors are adventures in sets of colours (greens, blues and reds mostly), and mannered building services – expressed air conditioning ducts running up columns together, then spreading out along ceilings.
The building is organised vertically over eight levels – connected by a large stair. Colours are varied over the levels as different uses play out: from contemporary library spaces, to areas focusing on children, research and ultimately function rooms at the top. The highest level offers an expansive view of wider Geelong from a big, relatively sparse deck. More focused on the adjacent Johnstone Park, are the landscaped terrace spaces on level one, which play on the glass façade system. Here, the collaboration with landscape architects Taylor Cullity Lethlean is working at its best.
How readable is the big dome (it’s a sphere really) from the inside? A bit, particularly on the top floor, but generally this is a conventionally organised building with an exceptional skin — you won’t find a single grand volume inside. The spaces have an internal modesty and warmth about them that is more akin to a regional library. This project in Geelong further develops ARM’s earlier work in regional centres: both the Albury Library/Museum (2007) and the Marion Cultural Centre (2001).
While many architects seek a safe reverence in the minimal, ARM have for years ‘run into the fire’, engaging the nature of a place, with wider architectural history, referential popular culture and innovation in form making. Their work is difficult, in a time when difficultly and complexity don’t have time to be explained. But most importantly, their architecture is liked by the public. The public is the client.
For more information on the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre, including opening hours, visit the website.