The University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) may appear an unlikely combination of sublime climate, hedonism and academia, but this campus is proof that it’s possible to take great pleasure in learning. Former Queenslanders Lindsay and Kerry Clare, now of Architectus Sydney, designed one of the USCs first and best buildings with the Student Recreation Centre in 1997. The Clares’ design of the chancellery building is a further example of an institution that demonstrates how to….

Get Smart

Universities should be knowledge condensers and dispensers, but many fall well short as exemplars of intelligent planning and design. This failure by example means first time visitors to such institutions would do well to demand detailed maps or GPS devices to locate the precise wing of the lab, theatre, or office that must be found in a hurry. More ‘maze’ than ‘amazing’, the typical campus is every bit the magical mystery tour.

There’s simply no excuse for the abstraction and confusion that bedevils many tertiary institutions. Too many resemble the shifting, Escher-like perspectives that disorientate undergraduates of Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If a complex algebraic formula can be easily deciphered and made elegant so too can university planning and architecture. In this regard ‘simple’ is often mistaken as’ simplistic’.

Albert Einstein was a lover of such simplicity. He noted that it helped him make some order of and better comprehend chaos: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius–and a lot of courage–to move in the opposite direction.”

The Clares’ were one of the first practices to contribute to the campus with the student recreation centre – an interplay of lightweight steel and timber components that went from go to whoa in a blistering 18 weeks to provide one of the coolest student meeting points.  The duo eventually relocated to Sydney in 1998 as design directors for the NSW State Government Architect’s Office and then on to Architectus. Their understanding of the sub-tropical type largely contributed to their winning design in 2002 for the recently opened and acclaimed Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.

The USC signalled its intentions from the outset for a real design difference. When it was envisaged, the intersection of sky and remnant rainforest must have sent tingles down the spines of chancellery staff who imagined a campus less ponderous, less maze-like, but much more light filled and open to the potential of its place.

A university’s architecture can hardly be overstated. It defines a cultural intelligence no less important than any academic claims. The decision to appoint architects fit for the task more than a decade ago was made easier by the fact that one of the best firms was already ‘from the neighbourhood’. Lindsay and Kerry Clare were then based around the corner at Buderim Mountain.

Schooled in modest means and stretched to deliver big value, the student recreation building has been overshadowed by other buildings with more gravitas, but this elegant pavilion, remains a particular gem. Its assembly is sophisticated and yet so simple in section. Its broad, slender steel, wing-like roof planes deal with climatic extremes while a filleted interior effortlessly draws breeze and light.

A great body of work evocative of the sub-tropics informs the chancellery. Designed under the Clares’ newer guise of the nationally represented Architectus, it’s a transformational change from the days as a small design practice at Buderim with only a handful of staff.

One of the temptations of architecture is to outdo your neighbour. One of the best campus buildings is the internationally recognized library designed by John Mainwaring and Lawrence Nield - coincidentally another steel clad structure. Rather than produce  conflict, the chancellery exhibits a design calm and restraint and, in the process, achieves a parallel strength.

Epicentre of a burgeoning population at Sippy Downs, USC student numbers are around 5,000 and swelling. The chancellery completes the main quadrangle plan although the eastern and western ‘ends’ remain open for future development. From the main street elevation the building appears as a stretched silver-skinned ‘box’. Fenestration is restrained and confined to a series of steel blades as eyelids above windows to moderate solar gain.

As a consequence glazing is modest along this elevation which links predominantly to tutorial rooms and academic staff offices. Zincalume cladding provides a polished, monochromatic form edged by lush lawns on the public northern and more private cloister side. The chancellery’s north/south axis, follows the bigger campus plan and permits the best balance of building volume, daylight and breezeways. One of the less immediately recognised virtues of a corrugated steel skin that diffuses reflected light is the absence of sun glare. And yet the surface remains lively at all times of day.

A portico leads students and staff from the car-park and connects to a centrally located under-croft. This expands into a huge, airy volume edged by mezzanine levels, open corridors, offices and administrative areas. Rather than enclosure, the whole area performs as a resonant communal space.

At first glance the Clares’ design might be dismissed as too rigorous, disciplined or unimaginative. But this would be a severely simplistic assessment. The truth is that organic relationships in architecture are not axiomatic with sexy, curvilinear forms and that green is much less a colour than a commitment. Organic can also be a response to light and life and this building floods with both. It has a strong organisational clarity to its plan and this obviously assists with its real, rather than random purpose.

There has also been a conscious decision to retain a simple colour and material palette rather than the cliché of ‘sub-tropical moderne’. The device of colour and graphic is used extensively as visual stimulus in such places as shopping centres and crèches to suggest  happy times. The chancellery is altogether more thoughtful in this regard preferring to allow its lofty, but always approachable volumes, natural materials and daylight to do the talking. There is much less razzle-dazzle than a sense of continuity and connection.

Further evidence of this can be seen in the extensive and direct use of timber, steel and concrete which when combined seems to express an appealing patina of the type more associated with the long established, silvery hue of mature structures. The upper level internal walls for example that employ Colorbond Mini-Orb are part of the lustre walls  that  re-direct daylight through narrow voids to the building’s lower floors.

This understanding of the contrast of materials and their capacity to absorb or re-radiate daylight is a large part of the architecture. Student study and breakout areas for instance feature the subdued, chocolate tones of stained timber, while circulation areas are emphasized by crisp, light reflective surfaces.

It draws much of its illumination through the rectangular light boxes that line the Colorbond roof on the ‘inward’ or south plane. These run at right-angles to the building axis and inject sheets of diffused, velvety light deep into the building. Considering the alternatives of cheap plastic skylights, or worse, industrial hi-discharge lamps, the effect is almost transcendent.

There is a strong organic relationship where an institution steps quietly rather than stamping its place. The benefit of such a light, open and horizontal hierarchy produces a real fluency between the built and the natural. Internal space fragments and dissolves as the eye is drawn towards the clerestories and upper internal decks with what parallels the upper branches of a tree. Here students are able to perch, study or play.

Institutional buildings are often so rehearsed and prescriptive that there are few opportunities for coincidental, random experience. This cultural obligation of architecture to create wider opportunity is reinforced through an engaging most appealing amenity. This is illustrated by the open-plan tutorial rooms that bring student life to an expansive, upper deck. It’s a place to cluster and circulate, see and be seen.

Being less tested by temperature oscillations, the south elevation is far more permeable, open to the elements and site. The ceremonial loggia and colonnade leads past student union offices denoted by bristling vertical timbers, the huge spatial excavation of the building ‘core’ and the timber battened veil that provides glimpsed views from and into the 250 seat lecture theatre.

The sustainable qualities of USC are implicit rather than explicit. They are neither bolted on nor conveyed by brash pronouncements. Such a kindred spirit for place promotes a fraternity between students and in this unusual instance, a quite magical connection with wildlife. Eastern Grey kangaroos for instance have been a feature of the campus since its opening in 1996.

The effect of ESD principles is to contribute to substantially reduced running and maintenance costs. Offices and tutorial spaces use ‘mixed mode’ cooling and can operate without air-conditioning for most of the year. Separate switching for each space eliminates unnecessary energy use. Corridor spaces being external are non air-conditioned while the lecture theatre is cooled by a displacement air-system.

The building also allowed the relocation of vice-chancellor, deputy and pro vice chancellors and council meeting rooms into the mid-level and placed within the colonnade zone. Here the interior architecture features a rich timber palette across floors, walls, doors and ceiling. Floor to ceiling strip lights add to the sophisticated ambience of tradition and modernity. In all, this contributes an understated opulence.

With 14 tutorial rooms, 40 academic offices, 600m2 of student services, lecture theatre, cafe, boardroom and meeting rooms, the project packs plenty of functions and services. Viewed from the university street-front, it presents as gleaming metallic shell. Beyond the bristling louvres, screens and projections, there is the hint of real dynamics. This is a building that springs to life and seizes its Arcadian opportunity of lush green cloister, climate, students and wildlife. In all, work of high distinction.

Peter Hyatt

ESSAYS

Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.