Frank Gehry's Sydney showstopper

Architect Frank Gehry's first Australian building puts the beauty into brick and makes wonky angles work wonders 

BY SOPHIE DAVIES

Here at the Fizz we weren’t sure if we’d like Frank Gehry’s first Australian architectural offering. Described as looking like a ‘crumpled paper bag’, the new Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, home to Sydney’s UTS Business School in Ultimo, provoked the usual flurry of divided critical opinion when it was unveiled this February. Standing in front of the university’s striking new edifice, though, on a crisp, blue-sky day, we felt an unfamiliar emotion. Brick lust.

Another brick in the wall
Rarely has brick looked so beautiful. Gehry Partners' team has used around 320,000 custom-made pale-coloured bricks, which reference Sydney’s elemental sandstone heritage. We loved the way the five different brick types have been staggered in sweeping, undulating relief to create a textured, layered, lyrical feel. Achieving this fluid, curved surface on the east-facing facades required corbelling (stepping) bricks to express the building’s organic form. Hand-laid on reinforcing panels, individual bricks jut out to catch the play of light. It’s a subtle yet stellar look.

'The idea of using brick was part of the community here,' says Canadian-American starchitect Gehry, who admires Sydney’s humane 19th-century high-rises. 'Creating a sense of movement to replace decoration is a primitive one, actually. It comes from the fold.'

TOP: Sydney's Dr Chau Chak Wing Building rising above Ultimo
ABOVE RIGHT: The curvy, tessellated surface of brick and angled glass
BELOW: Five, custom-made brick types form the textured exterior

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Cubist angles
Ah, those Cubist artists would love Gehry’s signature radical geometry, which gives the building’s different modules a fantastical, disjointed Dr. Seuss appearance, with blocks piled upon blocks at jaunty angles. Inspired by treehouses, Gehry wanted his creation to be a ‘growing learning organism with many branches of thought, some robust and some ephemeral and delicate.’

Windows to the world
We also liked the multiple, deep-framed windows on the exterior, which are often sited quite close to one another, yet reflect wildly different views. Due to their alternating angles, you might see a tree reflected in one, a wall in another, a nearby edifice in a third and the sky in a fourth. It’s a cornucopia of vistas that keeps the experience of looking at the building dynamic and ever-changing. A vertiginous glass ‘curtain wall’ on the west-facing aspect is another dramatic detail, dropping down the building like a crumpled shard, providing a ‘waterfall’ of clashing reflections.

 

ABOVE: A vertical 'curtain wall' of glass reflects the environment
BELOW, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Deep, angled windows capture multiple views of the surrounds

Cocooning classrooms and cloud nine
Two oval classrooms add form to the ground-floor atrium void, constructed from around 150 chunky, glue-laminated radiata pine beams from New Zealand. They also feature the world’s longest timber-concrete composite floor. Their intimate log cabin vibe and oval tables are intended to bring people together, with smaller classrooms and more flexible, open-plan spaces encouraging creative learning. Acrylic cloud-shaped pendant lights in the lower public areas and cafés bring papery textures to the interiors, and are a whimsical reminder of the sky. Let’s hope our invite to a party on one of the lofty terraces is in the post…

BELOW: Oval classrooms are a cocoon of warm wood

Eco smart
Ticking eco-friendly boxes, the building has a five-star Green Star Design rating, using sustainable timber, energy-efficient air-con and harvested rainwater in a roof-top tank for use in toilets and irrigation. There are also 160 bicycle parking spaces in the basement, along with showers, lockers and changing areas, to encourage cycling (compared to just 20 car spots).

Space-age stairways
Dominating the main lobby, a polished, jagged stainless-steel staircase forms a sculptural focus point, typical of Gehry’s space-age style. Manufactured by Queensland's Urban Art Projects, it’s intended to encourage flexible interaction of people and ideas. There are 12 storeys above ground, and 14 in total. Another stairway, made of Victorian ash, wraps around an oval classroom on level 3, linking to a student lounge above. Cocooning just got contemporary.

ABOVE: Sculptural staircases include a stainless-steel lobby head-turner 

Cultural ribbon
Named after the Australian-Chinese businessman and philanthropist who donated $20 million to the project, the landmark Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is bounded by Ultimo Road, Mary Ann Street and Omnibus Lane in Ultimo, rearing over nearby Chinatown. An entrance is also planned from The Goods Line, a pedestrian thoroughfare similar to The High Line in Manhattan, currently being developed by Aspect Studios as an urban space. Sydney’s newest icon will also form part of the ‘Cultural Ribbon’, a foreshore walk which will run from the Australian Museum, Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Opera House to the design-focussed Powerhouse Museum at the southern end of the city via Barangaroo and Darling Harbour’s Maritime Museum.

Crumpled paper bag? We consider it a compliment. 

Pictures: Sophie Davies, Andrew Worssam worssamphotography.com