Bring me sunshine.
'Architecture', says Lawrence Nield, 'is repetitive ... The architecture we admire is somehow what we have felt previously.' But in today's world, in which space and time are impacted, you have to be very clever to avoid banality when you call upon the ancestors. It is so easy to become a pasticheur, laying on signs with Jencksian sauce: much harder to evoke deep resonance with the way people feel, are happy with their surroundings, and even to suggest that architecture can be a medium which enables us all to be better.
Glenn Murcutt's tin houses have shown how the vernacular architecture of the nineteenth century can be a source of inspiration for contemporary Australian buildings of the highest quality. His reinterpretation of materials like corrugated steel and architectural figures like the veranda has shown how the proto-industrialized, Anglo-Indian influenced architecture of the settlers has relevance to contemporary everyday. And his understanding of climatic and ecological issues has helped him to avoid the main problems of the nineteenth-century prototypes, like the steeply pitched metal roofs of farmhouses which, during the day, built up so much heat in the mass of air they contained that it radiated down at night, making life most disagreeable.
But Murcutt has never had an opportunity (or perhaps inclination) to build on a large scale. Lawrence Nield's library for the Sunshine Coast University shows how some of Murcutt's ideas can be developed and extrapolated to make fine public buildings. Perhaps only Queensland, which came rather late (but enthusiastically) to the notion of universities, could have the insouciance to name an institution of higher learning with such cheerfulness. Perhaps only in the subtropical climate and informal society of the state could Nield's experiment have been created. Mitchell Giurgola Thorp's university plan has a central Beaux Arts axis as its main place, which is flanked by blocks partly informally disposed in the Greek fashion. The only building allowed to be actually on and surrounded by the axis is the library, the intellectual powerhouse, symbolically and formally placed in the centre of the whole enterprise, which is at present a strange mixture of building site and academic forum. Nield's proposition was to make learning open and welcoming, completely unlike the traditional fortresses of scholarship of the northern hemisphere from Cambridge (Mass) to Copenhagen. At the same time, the building had to be what libraries have always been: storehouses of knowledge, made secure against the depredations of thieves and the attacks of barbarians. Organizationally, Nield solves the contradiction in Classical fashion, by making an arcade (in effect an extended veranda) that runs along the north-east side of the long building (in the southern hemisphere the sun shines from the north, but as usual rises in the east). Behind the arcade is the essential strong box: a rectangle with its perimeter elaborated to allow varieties of place and view. The fundamental parti has echoes of the plans of the first buildings of the type for which we have reasonable evidence: the Greek and Latin libraries in Trajan's Forum in Rome. There was the colonnade where scholars could promenade, and the treasure houses which contained the unbelievably precious books which, in the pre-printing era, had to be made by the hands of slaves. Contemporary students may be more scruffy than we imagine their predecessors to have been, but they are given the same opportunities of lounging and chatting, which is what much of higher education is about.
The slaves in the Sunshine Coast library are on ground level, where essential computer devices are kept in decent obscurity so that their screens cannot be obscured by the light of the heavens. The real entrance is up a grand, gentle series of flights of stairs to the first floor. Progression is carefully welcoming, generously angled to catch you as you pass. (It should go almost without saying that in a decent country like Australia, the lifts for people who cannot walk have equal dignity.) At the top of the stairs is the sunny veranda, where extremities of climate and glare are modulated by a series of overlapping sun screens of wooden slats, and a great glancing corrugated metal roof, set at an angle to create a portico that suggests the building is raising its hat to welcome you in. (Incidentally, northern hemisphere architects should greatly envy their contemporaries in Australasia for having so much readily available hardwood that does not warp in the thin sections used in the screens.) A long bench has been set under the slatted wall so that students can sit and talk (presumably Trajan's building had such furniture but it has been long lost and Nield invents a contemporary notion of it).
Having arrived at the great airy promenade, entrance to the library is a bit abrupt, though clearly signalled. All the normal reception and control organisms of a library are generously disposed here in a way that inflects you to the centre of the operation. On this level are the reference collections and their reading areas, as well as the catalogue search spaces, and the most important library organizational functions.
The top floor has an almost industrial roof, with raking monitors bringing cool south light to the main stacks and study areas. Here is a volume which Nield suggests is inspired by some of the biggest enclosed spaces of the early Australian economy: the wool stores, in which almost every fibre of fleece had to be examined minutely to ensure that the quality was right. That is what an academic institution does with ideas, and Nield has given the new university a magnificent mechanism for concentrating thought.
Lawrence Nield & Partners Australia, Sydney in association with John Mainwaring & Associates, Noosa
Annabel Lahz, Joanne Case
Kim Humphries, Tim Brook, Jane Kinsella, Alex Azzouni, Julie Wong, Sam Quick, David Stefanovic, Steve Guthrie, Jeff Lee, Jane Foster, Richard Foster
Interior design consultant
AHA Design, Victoria Clayton
1, 3, 5, 7, 8 Jon Linkins; 2, 4, 6 John Gollings
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|Title Annotation:||design of library for Sunshine Coast University in Queensland|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1999|
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