Essay: Philip Vivian

Bates Smart Sydney 95-05

Principles in Practice

We have often heard the phrase, ‘That’s very Bates Smart!’ and its corollary, ‘That’s not very Bates Smart!’ used in association with our work yet it covers a diversity of project types, locations, and clients, responding to contexts as diverse as Melbourne, Sydney, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and London.

So what is it that defines the work of Bates Smart? What are the common threads? These questions are particularly interesting for a practice such as ours which is a substantial group operating from a number of cities with several senior designers responsible for conceiving and directing the work.

Bates Smart is a single practice operating from two principal offices - Sydney and Melbourne - with project offices in London and Beijing. The offices share a culture of design which is clearly influenced by the history of our firm, particularly the modernist phase from the early 1950s onwards. Each office and each senior designer tends to have individual interpretations of these principles, influenced by clients, market forces, briefs, context and indeed, aesthetic preferences. There is also a creative interplay between the Melbourne and Sydney offices. We have referred to this as a ratcheting effect – each office is influenced and inspired by the other. New ideas may be created in one office and then developed, reinterpreted and extended to a new level by the other office. We see this creative interplay as having a very positive effect on the design direction of the practice as a whole.

This essay, ‘Principles in Practice’, outlines ten principles that set out to define the consistent themes and clarify the intentions behind our work. I have expanded on those ten principles with a discussion and illustration of how they have been interpreted in our projects from the Sydney office. From this review it is possible to discern how the Sydney office has developed its own design culture and identity and yet remain true to the history and direction of the practice.

We believe in a direct approach to design and problem solving that might be described as ‘creative pragmatism’. The creative side involves the lateral interpretation and resolution of the problem while the pragmatism ensures that the solution can be realised within the client’s brief and project budget. We search for a straightforward solution that reflects a direct and clear interpretation of the brief without formal or aesthetic artifice. Our work begins with the client’s agenda, reflecting a mixture of commercial, social, iconographic and altruistic expectations as the point of departure for the design.

Design methodology has a great influence on the resulting architecture. It governs the process with which a design problem is approached and therefore underpins every aspect of the design. The process involves a search to understand the required amenity, urban response, commercial configuration and budgetary constraint. It is from our understanding of the problem that a solution begins to emerge. This then forms the basis for the conceptual approach to the design. Other concerns are integrated into the solution, adding depth to the design but the clarity of the principal concept remains the driving force.

Our design presentations often incorporate simple diagrams that illustrate the problem to the client and the process or steps to solve it. Through this technique we are able to bring our clients on the journey with us. It is through understanding and collaboration in the process that ownership of the solution is created.

A good example of the use of this diagramming technique was a City of Sydney Design Excellence Competition held by Multiplex Living for a site at 161 Clarence Street. This is a deep site with a narrow street frontage. The entire allowable Floor Space Area could be accommodated within a low-rise building of a similar height to the neighbouring structures. The challenge is how to create good amenity (sunlight, ventilation, views, privacy) for apartments in such a configuration. The solution involved the creation of a void within the low-rise massing to allow light and cross ventilation while maintaining the street scale. The area removed from the low-rise massing was placed above the surrounding context and apparently detached from it, enjoying north facing sun, outlook and views.

At Bates Smart we practice within the humanist modern tradition. Our architecture is modernist in the functional sense in that we believe buildings should be designed for the needs of the occupants. This is often expressed in the office as ‘designing from the inside out’ and buildings are conceived as responding to the needs of the users. Ours is not, however, a simple matter of form following function. We are committed to the humanist ideal of creating better living and working environments for mankind. This involves a much deeper examination of each design opportunity to ensure that the phenomenological, experiential and social needs of the building users are also met. This deeper questioning of the requirements of the building often leads us to a rethinking of building types from first principles.

For example, the changing nature of the workplace requires designs that maximise interaction between team members and the ability for workspaces to be easily reconfigured to accommodate new business units or new team groupings. This new workplace has led us to question the accepted norm of central office core designs and re-examine side core and detached core types pioneered in Australia in the 1950s by Bates Smart and McCutcheon. This type is being reengineered for today’s workplace to create open flexible and unencumbered floorplates that have access to natural light and maximise opportunities for interaction.

Several designs have responded to this challenge. At the NSW Police Headquarters in Parramatta the client sought an open, flexible workspace to accommodate the ever changing needs of the organisation. To generate a sense of community within the large 35,000sqm workplace we proposed that Police work in neighbourhood groups, each being a mini office of 415sqm. This led to the concept of a 1250sqm floor plate accommodating three neighbourhoods. Two such floorplates could be accommodated on the site. A detached core created the linking element between the two floorplates.

In residential design, the increasing density of Sydney and the rise in the popularity of apartment living has led to a re-examination of residential types. The notion of single aspect apartments arranged around a core or along a corridor often fails to satisfy today’s requirements for improved solar amenity, cross ventilation and outdoor space. As a result, new low-rise typologies have emerged involving multiple cores and two storey cross-over apartments to maximise north facing aspect and cross ventilation.

At the recently completed Maroubra Beach Hotel for Multiplex Living we have designed cross-over apartments which all face the ocean to the southeast. Most also get north sun to the bedrooms facing the courtyard. A similar apartment design is currently under construction at Walker Group’s Rhodes Waterside development. This design steps in plan and section to maximise the number of apartments with water views. The stepped geometry, rather than being disguised, is emphasised by the folded roof planes.

The architectural expression of a project is for us the result of the expression of the problem and its solution, revealing the nature of the spaces within. Aesthetics are integral to the concept and not seen as a separate layer or idea to the design concept. As with our methodology, the aesthetic expression has a similar search for simplicity and clarity. There is a tendency towards a minimalist expression but one that is enriched by materiality and detail that brings a human touch to the designs. For us, beauty is a result of addressing needs and the search for elegant rational solutions and not an aim in itself.

We also believe that the aesthetic of our buildings should be an expression of their time, a contemporary expression in terms of design, technology and philosophy. This is, however, tempered by a belief that they should also transcend their time. In this way, we believe our buildings will have value beyond their time. We often ask ourselves, ‘Will we be proud of this in ten or twenty years time?’

The NSW Police Headquarters is an excellent example of this approach. The building design, while being clearly contemporary, has an enduring quality that will avoid it looking dated. The curtain wall and sun screens are a direct response to their function. The interior has the same timeless quality, using natural materials such as timber and travertine to create a warm interior that transcends the time in which it was built.

Similarly at Clayton Utz a fresh classical palette of materials is used to create a timeless design. In a market where it is not uncommon to relocate to a new fitout every five to ten years, Clayton Utz have just refurbished and expanded their original fitout after being in occupation for over twelve years.

Today, sustainability is one of the greatest challenges facing our society. Architects must act now to minimise the effects of global warming and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It is also important to create more sustainable environments for mankind to live and work in by providing spaces that have healthier indoor air quality, access to natural ventilation and solar control.

Our designs are shaped by the need to create sustainable environments. Passive environmental approaches consider orientation, solar shading, prevailing winds and the effects of topography and context. At Bates Smart we are always cognisant of creating sustainable designs through a combination of passive approaches to energy and water efficiency and innovative techniques where appropriate.

At Headquarters Training Command in Victoria Barracks we created total shading of the façade to minimise solar heat gain. The shading screen also provides security and therefore allowed the building to have open windows for natural ventilation. Exposed concrete soffits in the office areas provided thermal mass to absorb heat loads. This project was awarded the RAIA (NSW) Environmental Design Award in 2003.

The Justice Office Building in the Parramatta Justice Precinct for the NSW State Government will be the first Government office building in NSW to attain a 5 Star ‘Green Star’ rating. The design incorporates a west core and solar shading to exposed facades to minimise heat gain, natural ventilation to breakout spaces and chilled beam technology to deliver an energy efficient environmental control.

Genuine innovation results when a new solution to a problem is devised. A new aesthetic is not innovative, it is simply gimmickry. We believe research and innovation creates improved commercial, environmental and building solutions and, as such, we are constantly striving to find new solutions to problems and genuine innovation for our clients.

At Jones Bay Wharf for Toga Group and Multiplex we created a unique subdivision of the wharf by placing inter tenancy walls on the mid grid. This solution not only allowed the heritage items (trusses, columns, beams) to be viewed in space rather than adjacent to a partition walls but also created an innovative sub division of the space with three modules of differing areas occupying two structural bays. This solution respected the heritage rhythms of the building and allowed the developer to offer the market flexible and smaller unit sizes with unique spatial configurations. This project was awarded the RAIA (NSW) Greenway Award for Conservation in 2004.

At Victoria Barracks we utilised innovative technology to provide cross ventilation to the building. Glazed thermal flues are integrated into the facades with a 3m steel and glass chimney on top. The chimney heats the surrounding air. Convection creates a negative pressure drawing air into the flues from the floorplates, creating a constant flow of air across the building.

While the practice prides itself on rethinking building types from first principles, we are also inspired by the past. Traditional typologies often embody intelligent solutions to their environment. The understanding and reinterpretation of traditional typologies can also lead to future solutions.

The courtyard typology is commonly used for residential designs in order to reinforce the traditional streetscape and create a clear delineation between the public and private realms. In the master planning for Greenwich Village, a mixed use neighbourhood in South Sydney for Estate Properties, a courtyard typology was used for the residential blocks. Variations occur such as the incorporation of through-site links across the courtyard. The designs create a human scale through a modern interpretation of the traditional base, middle and top for the building.

Similarly, our design for a mixed use building in Parramatta, also for Estate Properties, uses a courtyard typology. This design incorporates a publicly accessible square into its centre, surrounded by cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating. A two storey colonnade and arcades are other traditional devices used to integrate the building into the city fabric.

We believe that buildings should respect their contexts, however this does not mean replication of forms and materials of surrounding historic buildings. We believe modern forms and materials can sit harmoniously within historic contexts through understanding and reinterpreting fundamental principles.

Bates Smart won a City of Sydney Design Excellence Competition for City Freehold’s redevelopment of the Mid City Centre at 420 George Street. The podium is designed to respect the historic streetscape of George Street and, in particular, the adjoining Strand Arcade and Dymocks Building. The podium is expressed as freestanding sandstone columns within a concrete frame, with the single and double height columns and horizontal beams reinterpreting the adjoining pilasters and stringcourses of the historic building. The result is a highly contemporary reinterpretation of the scale, articulation, rhythm and modulation of the historic neighbours, one which creates a bold new insertion into the fabric of the street.

At Jones Bay Wharf the new office accommodation on Pirrama Road incorporates a similar detached screen. In this case, the screen is composed of an abstract composition of recycled timbers. These reinterpret the packing crates of the former active wharf and provide solar screening and privacy.

An office building in Miller Street, Pyrmont for Winten Property Group and Macquarie Bank was required to have a façade that is 50% masonry to fit with the masonry wool stores of Pyrmont. To create a contemporary response, Bates Smart designed a screen of terracotta masonry baguettes in an abstract pattern detached from the fully glazed façade. The building will create a contemporary office environment in Pyrmont that respects the historic masonry traditions of the nearby wool stores.

Good architecture results from creative collaboration and teamwork. This collaboration requires clients, staff and engineers to work together to create holistic and integrated building solutions. Clients are important to the creative process and it is their requirements and aspirations that drive the design. We spend time understanding clients’ businesses, their aspirations and desires, the market forces that drive design and construction methodologies before proposing design solutions. Increasingly our clients are employing professional in-house architects in acknowledgement of the value they bring to the design process. Our work with Winten, Multiplex and Australand has demonstrated the value of creative collaboration with clients.

Internally, we view design as a collaborative process. At Bates Smart, building designs result from the interaction of a team and are not created by a single hand. While directors and senior design staff guide the process everyone’s ideas are listened to. Often the best ideas come from the youngest members of the team who frequently question the assumed norms. We encourage collaboration between architects and interior designers in the office and firmly believe that their interaction will lead to better results. An excellent example is the NSW Police Headquarters podium levels where collaboration has created not only a dynamic spatial experience but a warm habitable interior. This project was awarded an RAIA (NSW) Design Award for Interior Architecture in 2003.

Engineering disciplines are always integrated into our design process. Again, this is a creative collaboration rather than simply post engineering a design solution. This collaboration is a legacy of Bates Smart McCutcheon’s in-house engineers who were integrated as part of the practice from post WWII until the mid 1990s. Engineers are critical to creating innovative buildings today. At Pier 8/9 Walsh Bay, for Murdoch Magazines and Multiplex, Bates Smart, Robert Bird and Partners and Adamus Consulting created a totally integrated structure and mechanical system to solve the highly restricted floor-to-floor heights. Active chilled beams were used, one of the largest installations of this technology at the time, to minimise the volume of air and thus duct size required. The duct was then located mid span into steel beams with the web cut out so that the entire structure and services zone was reduced to 400mm. At Victoria Barracks the design resulted from a creative collaboration between Multiplex, Hyder Consulting and Demlarkian Engineering. The result is a building in which the thermal flue environmental technology is totally integrated into the structure which uses ‘split’ concrete blade columns to house them. The structure uses post tensioned band beams to create a 15m clear span building that could be erected within a tight timeframe.

Increasingly, building owners are requiring their buildings to be ‘flexible’, whether it is to accommodate future uses that we cannot imagine today, to expand or simply to be modified easily. The challenge is how to provide a flexible framework for future modification without buildings becoming a generic solution.

In office buildings we have been focusing on creating flexible floorplates that can be easily changed. This has resulted in removing the core from the floor to create unencumbered plans such as at NSW Police Headquarters or the Justice Building. It has also seen exploration of long span structures to remove columns from the floor plate. At Headquarters Training Command the floor plate has a 15m clear span and the columns are integrated into a double skin façade resulting in a column free floor plate. The design of 420 George Street uses a 19m clear span structure to create one of the largest column free spans in an Australian office buildings.

At Jones Bay Wharf the design of the strata modules has proved to be highly flexible and now accommodates a wide range of businesses ranging from restaurants to graphic designers and ASX listed company headquarters. Our design exploration of flexibility continues and is an important part of creating a more sustainable and efficient use of our resources.

Our belief that buildings today should consume less energy and create better working environments has resulted in a concentration of design energy being focused on the buildings ‘skin’. Enormous potential exists in the development of ‘intelligent skins’ that respond to external conditions and allow a building to breath. Ultimately, we aim to free our buildings from the energy consuming respirators on which they currently depend.

Bates Smart has a long tradition of working with building skins, dating back to the first curtain wall constructions in Australia in the 1950s. Without the prefabricated components available today these systems were custom designed. Design had to solve not only the appearance but also fabrication, fire rating and integration with other elements. An interesting example is the east and west facing curtain wall for the MLC Building in North Sydney. This design is a very early example of the double skin façade technology popular in Europe today. The design solution used two layers of glass and internal Venetian blinds to control solar heat gain. A recent proposal to extend the MLC Building for owners ING Real Estate explored a contemporary interpretation with full height outer glazing and an inner skin that has ventilation slots at its base, creating a ventilated cavity. A return duct at the window head creates a return air path, allowing the cavity to vent heat and become a thermal buffer to the office space. A series of perforated aluminium screens sliding within the cavity provide glare control and introduce a decorative element to the façade that responds to the decorative glazing inserts in the original façade.

This exploration of curtain walls continues with today’s technology and environmental agenda. At NSW Police Headquarters the façade incorporates horizontal sunscreens positioned below the window head so that they also act as light shelves to reflect light onto the ceiling of the office floor and thus balance the day lighting across the floor. At 420 George Street the east and west elevations incorporate a combination of horizontal sunshades, raised sills and fritted glass to deal the solar heat load and glare. The south facing glass has floor to ceiling glazing to maximise light and views. The Justice Building at Parramatta has sunshades that are made of fine rods to create a screen like appearance that filters the sun.

Several of our buildings have explored the use of fine screens covering the entire façade to provide solar control. This was first used at the Toyota National Sales and Marketing Headquarters where the east and west facades consisted of horizontal louvres hung from the building roof. The same idea was employed at the UNSW Computer Science and Engineering Building in Kensington at a much larger scale. Here, a six storey aluminium louvre screen is literally hung from the roof in front of the full glazed north façade to provide a low glare environment for computer users. Similarly, at Victoria Barracks a Cor-ten steel screen is used both to filter daylight and for security.

In more recent designs the practice has explored using more robust screens to provide a foil to the context as well as solar shading. An early example is the timber screen at Jones Bay Wharf while current examples are the use of terracotta for the Miller Street Offices in Pyrmont and the sandstone podium for 420 George Street. In these examples the detachment of a screen from the building façade allows the dichotomous expression of a modern glazed building and historic interpretation.

Above all, our practice is committed to architectural excellence. We believe that architecture is not a style but the result of commitment, rigour, integrity and innovation. Architecture can create a better world and it is a struggle worth fighting for.

It is possibly this commitment that has enabled us to gather such a dedicated and talented team of architects and interior designers in the office. They are all passionate about the built product. This catalogue of projects from the Sydney office over the last ten years is a tribute to the people who have helped make Bates Smart in Sydney the office it is today.

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