Letter from Australia: our survey of new architecture from the land down under

Letter from Australia: our survey of new architecture from the land down under

A ’crumpled paper bag’ has Sydney agog. Frank Gehry’s $180 million Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, created using over 300,000 hand-laid bricks, is drawing eyes and visitors away from the famous bridge and opera house as people take in its gravity-defying folds and twists. Creating the rippling skin of Sydney’s University of Technology’s new building was a task so tricky that retired bricklayers with the required skills had to come out of retirement to complete the job. The 85-year-old Pritzker-prize-winning architect attended the unveiling of the building, assured that he had created a new icon in the city.

Gehry is one of many foreign designers to make a move on Australia. In Melbourne, NADAAA, headed by Cooper Union School of Architecture dean Nader Tehrani, joined forces with John Wardle Architects to create the Melbourne School of Design. The addition to the University of Melbourne has earned a United Nations award for green architecture – and the praise of its design-savvy students.

Just 1 km away, Malaysian firm UEM Sunrise has broken ground on $730 million residential project Aurora Melbourne Central, designed in collaboration with Melbourne-based Elenberg Fraser (the small Australian team is currently working on an impressive seven boutique residential towers).

Not that it’s all about multi-million dollar buildings. Stirling Prize winner Amanda Levete (best known as the co-designer of the Lord’s Media Centre and Selfridges in Birmingham, UK) has been called to design the MPavilion in Melbourne. The Australian version of London’s Serpentine Gallery, MPavilion runs until 7 February 2016. This year, it also spotlights the work of local architect Sean Godsell, who continues to live up to Wallpaper’s lofty 2002 prediction that he was ’destined to change the way we live’.

Perth’s fortunes have fallen with the drop in commodities prices, which has seen Hobart and Adelaide emerge as the cities to watch. Multi-millionaire art gallery owner David Walsh recently floated a new CIRCA Morris Nunn-designed wharf into Hobart’s harbour. In the space of one afternoon the city found itself with a new three-storey building. It serves as the terminal for the MONA art gallery ferry and will soon be joined by Walsh’s top-secret Heavy Metals Lab – a partially submerged science lab-meets-arts space designed by Tasmania’s Room 11 architects that will soon surface on the city’s central Derwent River.

Adelaide continues to be the surprise hub, scoring high marks on world’s most liveable city surveys thanks to a new-found love for exceptional architecture – big and small.

The city’s once shabby West End has been given a timely makeover with the $80 million Jeffrey Smart Building for the University of South Australia. Jeffrey Smart’s teacher, Fernand Léger, would surely have approved of the building’s cubist zig and zags, which cut into each other as it jags upwards eight-storeys, its folded glass facade revealing delicate abstracted pattern as the sun catches it. The building wraps around a courtyard that is open to the community and attracts a contented lunchtime crowd. Nearby, the Woods Bagot-designed South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, nicknamed the ’cheesegrater’, adds wow factor, its faceted silver skin shimmering like an enormous mirror ball.

On a smaller but no less important scale, Adelaide’s Studio-Gram, run by Canadian Graham Charbonneau and local Dave Bickmore, has worked in alleyways, abandoned buildings and unloved areas of the city, creating a portfolio that spans bars, cafes, art zones, festival arenas, dance spaces and restaurants. Some are one-night-stands, others are here to stay, all are still talked about. A nice touch; Studio-Gram ensures that at least one bespoke item of furniture survives even the shortest-lived of their creations. Local DJ Oisima now plays on a Studio-Gram-designed mixing desk. Architecture rarely gets smaller than that.

Look to the sky for the next big thing in Sydney and Melbourne, but keep your nose nearer the ground, river or dancefloor for the projects that are reshaping Hobart and Adelaide. 

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