Essay: Philip Goad
Bates Smart: Selected Projects 00-07
Taking the Long View
Bates Smart Today
Cities all over the world are in a state of accentuated dynamic flux: re-planning, re-building, re-using, re-imaging and re-branding1. This seems remarkable at a time of clearly diminishing natural resources and given broad calls for a more sustainable management of the planet. But it is exactly because of these pressures that more and more attention and energy is being focussed on the important role of cities and buildings. There is a need for better cities, buildings and urban spaces and for design to be cleverer, more inventive, more accommodating and more efficient.
This need is promoting a re-evaluation of the idea of longevity, and consideration of taking a longer view with regard to the investment and expenditure of energy, be it human, financial or that of natural resources. In such a situation, there is a critical role for the architectural profession, but most especially, for the large architecture firm where projects range from the small scale to that of the megalopolis. Such firms not only have local presence but trans-national capacity and responsibility.
In Australia, the importance of the large architecture practice has been underestimated. In a country where urbanisation has been an ongoing project since 1788 and is an inevitable fact of the future, the large architecture firm acts as a shaper of urban form, a determining engineer of the workplace, and as a provider of new forms of dwelling. These are all tasks that address what must be regarded as the global question of the future, urban density. With such a charter, Bates Smart is especially well poised to contribute. The last seven years have seen one of the oldest architecture firms in Australia (and in the world) surge forward yet again with an unassuming confidence, realising the seriousness and design challenge of urban problems ahead.
The Bates Smart practice is based in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia’s two most populous cities. Staff numbers have now risen above 220 in Melbourne, and more than 60 in Sydney. There are project offices in London and Hong Kong. While the office prides itself on commonly-held design beliefs and practice attitudes, the special circumstances of each city, its traditions of patronage, construction and material practices, different topographies and climate not only suggest but demand different responses.
In Melbourne, the reflective facetted glass walls of 171 Collins Street are a direct response to that city’s carefully managed urban design controls and indicate a respect for the spires of St Paul’s Cathedral. The design adopts a position of demure urban manners without compromising the inherent design integrity of the new insertion and its deliberate delight in the scenographic potential of the glazed curtain wall. In Parramatta, in Sydney’s west, the Justice Building has a 5-star environmental rating, floor plates that reflect the latest thinking in Antipodean burolandschaft, the contemporary return to office landscaping where corporations and government agencies are rethinking organisational and spatial behaviours. The building also reflects the New South Wales Government’s decentralisation of its operations and the targeted re-generation of Parramatta’s city centre. Such brief descriptions never tell the whole story, but they do indicate the complexities and myriad forces that play locally and determine architectural responses in such large building programs.
The ability to react nimbly within such circumstances is determined by the skill and depth of the architectural team, and also the willingness to research and grow intellectually as an organisation. In describing its projects, Bates Smart has, in the last decade, taken great pains to explain the rationale for its projects in graphic and written form. 2 The benefit of this deliberate self-documentation has been threefold: to explain to clients and councils the functional, structural and aesthetic rationales for what are often very large buildings with highly complex programs; for the firm itself, to restate its design methods and consolidate an office or studio language; and finally, the clarity of the technique itself can even win competitions or gain commissions.
The aim has been to continue the idea of the large architecture practice not as the back-up for an individual-derived aesthetic or arcane polemics, but instead as an ongoing laboratory process, in which results are shared across each office and reflected upon with the construction of each building or creation of each interior. As a result, Bates Smart has assembled a diverse and enviable portfolio of commercial, institutional, health, hospitality and multi-residential projects, all of a scale fundamental to the city and also to the reality of Australia’s urbanisation, and often for returning clients, eager to collaborate again.
The challenges facing large practices today are those of finding fresh solutions to the rapid changes taking place in areas that have been age-old problems for the architect and urbanist: the workplace; the urban dwelling; the interior; and the city. Bates Smart has located itself within each of these activities, and in each has found a place where it might re-imagine practice.
The new workplace
As corporations, government agencies and institutions such as universities and hospitals reshape their governance structures and working habits, space is an integral key to change management. Together with such organisational change has come the added incentive of trying to address environmental issues in the workplace. Bates Smart has grasped this challenge and built upon more than 50 years of experience in contemporary office planning, moving beyond lessons long advocated by British thinkers such as Frank Duffy, John Worthington and Jeremy Myerson.3
Deploying expertise in systems building approaches that embrace glazed curtain walls, rigorous structural and spatial modulation and carefully developed typical floor-plate dimensions gained through a respect for the side-core office planning techniques of the 1950s – in which they were pioneers – Bates Smart combines meeting, public and communal spaces in its planning, enabling serendipitous yet productive workplace interaction to flourish. The firm also ensures that foyers and vertical volumes act as exhausting chimneys, embracing principles such as self-ventilation, and advocates chilled beam technologies to provide a healthier workplace.
Thus projects such as Melbourne’s 11–33 Exhibition Street and 550 Bourke Street, the Queanbeyan Government Service Centre and AHM Head Office in Wollongong share a family resemblance of calmly modulated New Century modernism.4 But they also demonstrate a definite rigour in responding to the demands of the contemporary workplace.
The new urban dwelling
In Australia today, all the major cities are moving towards consolidation, aiming to become more compact, using medium and high-density housing as the key driver of this increase in urban density. Apartments are fast replacing the iconic status of the single-family house as demographic groupings become infinitely more diverse and residential markets, like the workplace, are changing quickly and becoming more sophisticated and discerning in terms of aesthetic, location and expectation of amenity.
In Melbourne, Bates Smart has positioned itself strategically at the upper end of the market, a reputation largely achieved by the success of The Melburnian in St Kilda Road (2001). More recent projects such as 54–55 Queens Road and 150 Clarendon Street, East Melbourne capitalise on similar settings: immediate adjacency to parkland, proximity to public transport, generous floor-plates and an aesthetic ambience that parallels an understanding of urbane apartment living that one might find in London’s St James Park, Lakeshore Drive in Chicago, Manhattan’s Central Park or Polanco in Mexico City. This is a relatively recent phenomenon despite a long history of apartment building in Australia, and even longer traditions overseas.5
In Sydney, the situation is somewhat different. Dwelling density levels are higher. It’s a grittier scene and very competitive. But the scale of each Sydney development is larger and invariably involves the creation of entirely new urban precincts with more ambitious mixed use functions. At Arncliffe, the Proximity apartments comprised four buildings enclosing a landscaped publicly accessible podium with retail functions at the apex of the triangular site. At Five Dock Square, the development included apartments, a public library and a supermarket as well as a new urban square. These projects are part of Sydney’s emergent new urban morphology and the success of each is determined largely by provision of good access to light, air, privacy and public space.
In a project designed for The Esplanade, Perth, Bates Smart has proposed a dramatic tall and narrow apartment building of projecting balconies and recessed slots, a deliberate strategy of enabling cross ventilation and self-shading for the specific sun and wind conditions of the West. In each city, Bates Smart determines a location-specific recipe for the new urban dwelling.
The new interior
Spanning across office and home is the architecture and design of the interior. In the last 10 years, Bates Smart has refined its approach to interior design. It is an acknowledged specialist in the area, which means that efficient floor-plates and flexible typologies can be enhanced by the same team. In this regard, Bates Smart has few peers. Capitalising on a resurgence of interest in the timeless attributes of high quality corporate and hospitality interiors of the 1950s through to the 1970s, Bates Smart has brought back not just the glamour and élan of that era, but also a delight in natural textures, fabrics and pattern that inspired such designers as Arne Jacobsen, Alexander Girard and Gio Ponti.
In commissions such as the Crown Promenade Hotel in Melbourne, the firm’s new interiors in gaming venues across Australia and in Southeast Asia, or for one-off interiors such as Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne, Bates Smart has captured the optimism and allure made possible when uncompromising attention is given to the invention of new custom-designed interiors. An additional fillip to this finely honed office reputation is the willingness of Bates Smart to encourage clients to commission individual works of art to complement such interiors.
In the new Justice Building in Parramatta, for example, artist Gary Carsley has installed a giant landscaped mural made up of digitally manipulated fragments of digitised faux timber laminate to create a dialogue with the park landscape outside, a startling but ultimately revelatory ‘natural’ contrast to the sleek orthogonal lines of the building. Such inclusions add a final layer to an already highly wrought plan, where hard-won efficiencies, flexibility and innovative workplace planning are taken as given, and the interior design undertakes its necessary task of comfort and ambience.
The new city
There is little doubt that individual buildings have the capacity to become microcosms of the city in which they are constructed. They can emulate a city’s DNA but they can also define a new form of genetic code that might suggest a possible way the city or a part of a city might grow. Bates Smart’s Freshwater Place has defined a new way for Melbourne’s Southbank where office, apartment, supermarket, restaurant and retail functions amalgamate to create a different form of urban village to Melbourne’s tight-knit colonial grid across the Yarra River.
In that project, the combination of offset sculptured and modulated skyscraper towers, palazzo apartment base (which conceals a car park), the public space of Queensbridge Square and laneway-like connections at ground level mean that instead of a singular heroic building needle, such a context might best be served by communities of buildings and spatial networks that replicate the time-honoured spaces of cities across the globe. The new city is like the old, but its definitions of scale are broader and more complex. It can be lyrical and systems built. It can be large and humane.
At the same time, with just one building, Bates Smart might capture a city’s essence. At first glance, 55 Miller Street in Sydney’s inner urban Pyrmont appears to be a straightforward seven-level speculative office building. But it is more than that. In responding to a context of 19th century brick warehouses, contemporary apartment buildings and an urban design control requiring 50% of any new wall area to be faced in masonry, 55 Miller Street transcends these parameters. Its tripartite form consolidates the existing morphology but adds a public plaza and connection to the adjacent light-rail interchange; the masonry requirement is solved by screens of black terracotta ‘baguettes’ instead of load-bearing masonry; and given this device, appropriate shading and ventilation flaps ensure an environmentally responsible urban skin. This is invention delivered at the prosaic level of the everyday office building.
Re-imagining large practice
Such strategies epitomise the current operation of Bates Smart. The practice has a philosophy that delivers and applauds research, that has faith in the youth of its staff, and that has a similar sense of human resource entrepreneurship that characterised progressive corporate practices in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1930s.
At the heart of this management strategy is the firm’s recognition that there is a need to regularly reinvent itself, to embrace constant evolution. The capacity for designed reinvention has characterised Bates Smart throughout its history, hence the reason for this current volume. The lack of any serious critical discourse in the daily press means that firms such as Bates Smart need, on occasion, to take stock, to measure their activities.
Self-documentation and self-reflection in the form of publication has been an intrinsic part of the architecture profession’s activities since the time of Serlio and Palladio. It was a practice continued by individuals including Edwin Lutyens, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, but also by large practices such as Skidmore Owings & Merrill and more recently the Renzo Piano Workshop. This is not vanity publishing but a particular technique of the architecture profession to make its work known to others and to its peers, and of course, such a venture must serve its own ends – that of survival. Together with cities today that are being redefined endlessly, the architecture profession must re-imagine its own practice and its own art. Bates Smart continues to do just that.
Professor of Architecture
Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Architecture
Building and Planning
The University of Melbourne
Royal Australian Institute of Architects
1 Richard Marshall, Emerging urbanity: global urban projects in the Asia Pacific Rim, Spon Press, New York 2003.
2 Philip Vivian, ‘Principles in Practice’, Bates Smart Sydney 95–05, Bates Smart, Sydney and Melbourne 2005, pp 8–16.
3 Francis Duffy, The changing workplace, Phaidon, London 1992; Francis Duffy, The new office, Conrad Octopus, London 1997; John Worthington (ed), Reinventing the workplace, Architectural Press, Oxford, Boston 1997; Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross, The creative office, Laurence King, London 1999; Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross, The 21st century office, Laurence King, London 2003; and Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross, Space to work: new office design, Laurence King, London 2006.
4 Philip Goad (ed), Bates Smart: 150 years of Australian architecture, Thames and Hudson, Melbourne 2004, pp 278–288.
5 Caroline Butler-Bowden and Charles Pickett, Homes in the Sky: apartment living in Australia, The Miegunyah Press and Historic Houses Trust, Carlton, Victoria, 2007.