Last Friday’s New South Wales Architecture Awards highlighted the role of buildings in improving lives; the importance of quality over speed and cost; and designing for longevity rather than spectacle.
The Sydney ceremony saw 51 awards given across 12 categories. One of the most awarded projects was a regional place-making initiative, the Maitland Riverlink by CHROFI with McGregor Coxall. It took home the NSW Architecture Medallion, the Sulman Prize for Public Architecture, an Award for Urban Planning and the Blackett Prize.
The Riverlink connects the main commercial street of Maitland with the Hunter River foreshore. The jury praised the project for illustrating the power of architecture in the civic realm.
Peter Poulet, chair of juries for the awards program, says the project is an architectural centrepiece that improves connectivity and celebrates the history, value and ambition of the city.
“A strong civic gesture, this building acts as a public living room, attracting and celebrating the coming together of the community. The town and its river and proves the power of public architecture to deliver change, celebration and a legacy for the future,” Poulet says.
President of the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, Kathlyn Loseby tells The Fifth Estate that the project has done “so much to heal that town”.
The original proposal was for a laneway to connect the main street and the river frontage, however, two architects within council gained the support of the city’s mayor, Loretta Baker, for council to purchase two sites either side of the laneway and deliver a pair of buildings connected by an arch.
Loseby says the mayor should be congratulated, as it “takes a lot of courage” to make this kind of decision and commit to the financing involved.
The outcome has been a game-changer.
“Just look at what it has done to that town,” Loseby says.
It has activated both the commercial precinct and the riverside and created multiple spaces and places for people to connect. People have their lunches there, visitors are attracted into the town and the retail tenancies on the adjacent main street have shifted from 60 per cent occupancy to 100 per cent.
Buildings that used to only face the street frontage are now also opening themselves up at the back where they face the river, Loseby says. And the river frontage parkland is an active social and recreational area even at night and on weekends, and now features community events, including markets.
“A quality piece of architecture does more than provide a building.”
As a whole, Loseby says the NSW Awards winners are a “reflection of quality”. The current construction crisis has really put the spotlight on the need for quality to reign over time and cost. This also means designing for longevity, not for a 30-year lifespan.
Winner of the Aaron Bolot Award for Residential Architecture – Multiple Housing, North Rocks by Candalepas Associates, is a “really good example of a building built to last,” Loseby says.
She says that the emphasis on quality means the project will have lower ongoing maintenance costs. Materiality in the form of concrete will be long-lasting, and the use of height and natural light in the spaces also delivers quality of life for residents at low-cost.
Loseby points out that because of the site’s location at North Rocks, the return on investment for a developer is lower than it would be on a premium inner-city site. So, materials needed to be carefully used to keep costs low.
A slick tower with a full glazed curtain wall not only costs more to build, it also costs more to maintain.
Imperial, by Stanisic Architects, winner of an Architecture Award in the Residential – Multiple Housing category, is also “really impressive” in terms of quality, Loseby says.
The project could have been one large building, but the design created two connected towers instead, which are activated at bottom with retail and commercial.
Loseby says that where in most large apartment buildings there’s generally a single main communal space, the design has created multiple common spaces, each associated with a group of apartments. This enables a “more personalised” feel and facilitates the creation of good social networks, she says.
Another of the multiple housing award winners, Iglu Redfern by Bates Smart, is an unusual winner in the category as it is student accommodation. The people element here is fundamental, with the communal spaces one of the building’s most important features. It also demonstrates a robust design and materials approach.
Loseby notes there appeared to be no projects in the multiple housing category where composite façade cladding was used.
The City of Sydney Lord Mayors Prize went to Australia’s first WELL Core & Shell Gold Pre-certified project, Barrack Place by Architectus.
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Green Square Library and Plaza by Studio Hollenstein in association with Stewart Architecture and HASSELL, won multiple awards including the John Verge Award for Interior Architecture, two architecture awards across the Public Architecture and Urban Design categories and the 2019 NSW Premier’s Prize.
Sandra Furtado, jury chair for Interior Architecture and Commercial Architecture, says the project reflected the integral role libraries are playing in supporting a city’s social infrastructure.
The project is essentially inverted, Loseby says, with the majority of its footprint below the surface. This allows for substantial open space above, with features including water jets that Loseby says were very popular with kids during the recent hot summer.
“Good quality public architecture gives so much to the community,” she says.
The Green Square project helps create community and has an important role in liveability given the level of residential density expected in the Green Square area.
The design of it “makes kids want to be in the library and learn”, Loseby says, and because the building features “carefully orchestrated” courtyards people within the library still have a feeling they are looking outside.
Another project where people were at the heart of the design is St Pius X High School Library by SHAC, an award winner in the Educational Architecture category
“That building is about trying to heal the community and give something really positive to it,” Loseby says.
The Newcastle school has been through a rough patch that had lowered morale and enrolments both. The new library building has begun to reverse this, with enrolments going up and students using the building as a gathering place to sit and read or interact.
In general, Loseby says the library projects show how the story we heard ten to 15 years ago about libraries becoming a thing of the past has proven false.
They have instead become activated, community-building meeting places.
“People like to be among people. We’re social beings.”
There has been some discussion over recent years as to whether Sustainable Architecture should still be an awards category, or a fundamental across all categories.
Loseby says the category was originally instigated to bring the concept of sustainability to the attention of the community. While all designs do need to consider fundamental sustainability principles including siting for light, ventilation and thermal performance, overall, Loseby says we are “still not there” in terms of sustainability above and beyond compliance being standard practice.
This is reflected in the kinds of discussions being seen in the political realm where it is “being ignored”.
A positive sustainability trend seen in this year’s entrants and winners is adaptive re-use.
A leading example is winner of the Milo Dunphy Award for Sustainable Architecture and an Award in the Educational Architecture category, Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Primary School by BVN.
Originally an aged Telecom office building, extensive timber features in its new life as a school.
Loseby says that to reposition and reuse them is the “best use of existing buildings” that have outlived their original purpose.
The influence of interior architecture was also highlighted, for example, the winner of the Sir Arthur G. Stephenson Award for Commercial Architecture and an award in the Interior category Dangrove by Tzannes.
Loseby says that from the outside, people would have “no idea of the quality of the spaces inside.”
Aspects such as the way natural light flows within the building and the way spaces relate to each other make the building exceptional.
Looking past the trend for the 30-year design life is also an important quality for building. Loseby notes the Enduring Architecture winner, 350 George St by Edward Raht, was built in 1892.
“And it is still there, and it is still an attractive building to be in.”
Quality is the key to longevity.
Loseby says the concept of the construction triangle should place quality at the top, however, in recent years it has largely been inverted, with time and cost – aka “speed and greed” – uppermost.
“Speed and greed” have “driven everything”.
It’s also a complete misunderstanding of both time and cost to not put quality first.
Lower quality means higher maintenance costs, remediation costs and results in reductions in property values, as has been seen recently with apartment buildings.
“We need to get back to positioning quality as number one.”
This also puts an emphasis on good procurement practices in achieving great design outcomes.
“Good design is far more than aesthetic achievement – it takes collaboration among willing clients, good builders and appropriate procurement methods to make it an enduring success.”