Architecture

Churchill Community Hub

June 24, 2010

In a tiny township in the La Trobe Valley, the heartland of Victoria’s coal fired power industry, a new project by Suters Architects is re-energising a community’s sense of itself.

Architect’s Statement
The Churchill Community Hub is a contemporary community centre that co-locates services within a larger building. It allows crossover of these services, engaging the user in areas to which they would not have been exposed, increasing visibility and connectedness within the community while reducing the resources required to operate council facilities.

Churchill was a planned community developed to house the influx of workers to the Hazelwood power plant in the 1950s. The conceptual framework was based on the Latrobe Valley’s production of electricity and the power poles that cross the landscape. The design refers to the man-made nature of the township and its Utopian founding vision. The number of user groups that inhabit the Community Hub and the iterative process of user group negotiation greatly affected the development of the design. The literal tying together of competing needs and uses into one facility was expressed metaphorically in built form, with the building being wrapped by a series of built elements: block work, fascia, roof and fences.

The Hub houses a range of user groups, with differing functions and clients, who share facilities. This improves the interconnectivity of social services within the rural community. The Churchill Hub operates a childcare centre, a preschool, a maternal and a child health program with parenting facilities. There is a neighbourhood centre that conducts adult learning programs within the program rooms, office space and a computer lab. Additionally, there are hot offices for local community groups to use as a base, with the development of a Men’s Shed on the adjacent site.

Within the Hub the community functions are anchored by the civic presence of the library. The traditional form of a library has expanded to act as a service centre for the delivery of occasional local government services, with the reading room accessible for use by all.

Review
“Are you ready? You’re about to have The Simpsons moment.” I’m in a car with Suters’ design architect Joshua McAllister and we’ve just spent the last two hours tracking a series of hulking electrical transmission towers up the Princes Highway from Melbourne. Sure enough, seconds later we crest a leafy ridge and there they are – the belching smokestacks of Victoria’s very own Springfield.

The Latrobe Valley, in Victoria’s South East, is literally Melbourne’s powerhouse, its coalmines and associated coal-fired power plants providing 85 percent of the state’s energy. As such, despite it’s rural location, it bears as much in common with the romantic ideal of the Australian bush as the former manufacturing centres of Melbourne’s inner city would by comparison – excepting of course the fact that the Latrobe Valley is still home to a functioning, ‘old economy’ industry.

The objective of our journey today is one the region’s smallest communities, but also the township that could be said in many ways to owe its existence most completely to the power industry. Churchill was established in 1965 as a place intended to house the workers of the nearby Hazelwood power plant, opened in 1964. A planned community, it was forecast that it would eventually grow to house a population of some 40,000 people, an ambition in tune with the expectations for the coal-fired power industry at the time, which was seen to offer the potential for almost limitless growth. For a host of reasons (the privatisation of the power industry, the greater appeal of the nearby and more established townships of Traralgon and Moe nearby, and of course coal’s recent fall from favour) this ambition has remained unrealised – at present, Churchill’s population sits at around 5000 people.

The frustration of these grand plans has not come without cost. The township was established according to a tabula rasa, modernist master plan bearing all the hallmarks of its time. Optimistic but didactic, it paid little heed to the need for contingencies, or indeed for incremental growth, and when the expected multitudes failed to materialise the piecemeal development that resulted left the town nebulous and dispersed.

This characteristic is readily apparent as McAllister and I pull into town. A carpark flanked by a mall on one side and a Woolworths supermarket on the other seems to serve as Churchill’s default town centre. Drawn in by the rather weak gravitational pull of this community focal point are clusters of brick bungalows interspersed with leafy open space – not so much civic greenery, as the mossy residue left over after the expected surge of development turned trickle. The most striking structure visible in the immediate vicinity of this carpark-come-town centre, and by far and away the tallest, is an enormous obelisk-like monument. My first assumption on seeing it is that it is a war memorial, like the kind found in town centres everywhere across Australia – albeit an odd inclusion for a township established nearly two decades after the close of the Second World War. McAllister quickly puts me right. It is, in fact, a tribute to the town’s namesake, known locally as the “Big Cigar” – Churchill’s very own contribution to the Australian pantheon of outsize kitsch. This oddball monument was built to commemorate the town’s foundation, and you can find the names of all the first families to make Churchill their home scrawled by hand onto the bricks that form its plinth.

The brief that Suters was tasked with in designing the Churchill Community Hub stipulated a requirement, perhaps not unusual in this post-Bilbao age, for an “iconic” building. How you judge their success in delivering this will largely be dependent on how you qualify this difficult term. For every Guggenheim there are 100 Big Cigars, but the iconic status of both is dependent less on design intent or quality and more on whether the communities they serve, be they global in scope and counted in the millions, or just a handful of families in a small town in Australia, decide to embrace them as such. The Churchill Community Hub sits somewhere between these two poles, neither Guggenheim nor Big Cigar. It speaks to the small township’s shared history, but it does so in a sophisticated and contemporary architectural language that would sit comfortably in any Australian metropolis. To the Community Hub, these qualities are critical; it is intended to serve as a catalyst for the development of Churchill’s latent community spirit and a step towards rectifying the problem of its dispersed urban fabric. As its name would suggest, it is hoped the Hub will become the fulcrum around which the community of Churchill turns.

The Hub sits in a small valley just northeast of the town centre. Flanked on its northern side by a pedestrian thoroughfare that runs from the township on the hill, over a stream to the Hub’s east and then through parkland to Monash University’s Gippsland Campus, its location speaks volumes about its urban ambitions, and indeed the complexity of its stakeholder relationships. Outside of the power industry, Monash University would be one of the township’s biggest economic assets. The land that the Hub sits on was previously university land, and the Hub now serves in part as a new home for the student union’s childcare centre, Pooh Corner. In addition to this facility, the Hub aggregates a preschool, a maternal and a child health program with parenting facilities, a centre that conducts adult learning programs and hot offices for local community groups.

Approaching the building from the shopping mall, it is simply impossible to ignore. An electric green colour scheme dominates the streetside elevation, with thick strokes of black defining the rooftop and entrance canopy. This bold graphic quality, together with the striking and unusual cranking form of the roof plane, serves as more than just formal play – from the ridge that the shopping centre sits on, the Hub’s presence is immediately noticeable, drawing it in visually into the goings-on at the town’s established centre.

In recent years, Suters has been developing an increasingly strong reputation for delivering high quality design in its traditionally staple fare of medium to large-scale civic and sporting complexes. This is not the big budget, glamorous stuff of metropolitan cultural institutions, but rather projects at the coalface of regional public works – swimming pools, leisure complexes, community centres and the like. The constraints are familiar – a need for durability, economy, big volumes and the ability to accommodate an often-complex, flexible program. The solution is also all too often a bit familiar – the big box, or if you’re lucky, decorated shed. Suters”, however, has gradually been evolving an address to these challenges that falls outside this well-worn lexicon. While still employing the robust material palette and shed-like volumes we’re accustomed to, the practice exhibits a deft understanding of how to manipulate this standard fare to often-extraordinary effect. Bold colour and a strong graphic sensibility dominate – not an altogether radical strategy when your material palette consists mostly of Colorbond, concrete and a lick of paint, but the practice handles it remarkably well, working through these devices to establish a clear visual narrative that carries throughout the building and connects to the site. This graphic language is often closely aligned with formal manipulations of the volumes at play, instilling these projects with a big but coherent personality that extends right into their very bones.

Though perhaps not of the same XL scale of some of Suters other more recent works, such as Caroline Springs Stadium, 2008, the Hub clearly sits within this shared trajectory. Entering beneath the white, polycarbonate-clad belly of the entrance canopy, you get a sense of how this direction has played out within the plan. Beginning from the traditional point of the economical, but claustrophobic, compartmentalised box, the design then levers apart this axial symmetry. This strategy serves to carry the funnelling sense of embrace instilled by the entrance canopy through into the building’s foyer, which sits in the interstitial zone formed in the plying apart of the plan’s constituent elements. The splayed arrangement of the foyer allows several key facilities a presence within this welcoming space – a very important function, as one of the building’s core goals was to raise the profile of the various community groups and services now housed within it.

To the left of the entrance, glass doors lead to the two childcare centres. Immediately in front of the entrance are the offices for the Men’s Workshop, adult education and community groups, which also establish a visual connection with the comings and goings of the foyer through internal glazing. To the right can be found the library and information desk. A series of vitrines arrayed along the wall to the right of the entrance to the childcare centres also serve as display space for the creations of the Hub’s community groups.

These vitrines were originally envisaged as the perfect place to educate visitors to the Hub about the township’s history too, which is something that both council and the architects saw as a valuable asset in the community building process. Suters has worked in this regard to make some kind of connection to the town’s mid-century roots. In the early design stages of the project, the architecture of Robin Boyd became an important touchstone, serving also as a reference point that was familiar to the Hub’s user groups during discussions about the project’s architectural evolution. The diagrid geometries and sunscreening strategies present within the fenestration and facades of several of Boyd’s houses are obliquely channelled by the Hub’s entrance canopy. This use of narrative, even if in a fairly abstract sense, seems to be important to the architects in contextualising a project, and establishing a sense of place – even in locations that might initially seem devoid of defining characteristics. In Caroline Springs Stadium, unusual nearby geological formations were referenced in the building’s tessellated fabric. At Churchill, fluorescent light fittings crisscross the ceiling, reminiscent of the electrical infrastructure crosshatching the skyline just outside of town. The zigzag motif and bold colour scheme internally also recalls the façade and supports at the building’s entrance, graphically tying the interior to the exterior, another signature move common to Suters’ more recent public works.

Form generation has not been predicated entirely on these somewhat fragile metaphorical connections, however – the building, while visually striking, is at heart pragmatic. The sweeping form of the entrance canopy, for example, sits on the northern elevation and acts essentially as sunshading. Here too the pitch of the roof has been manipulated to allow for the optimum positioning of PV cells. The roof morphs again when it reaches the childcare centres, cranking down to a scale more sympathetic to its tiny patrons, and then again in its centre, where it bunches upwards to form a clerestory void for passive ventilation and light. In this sense, while the Hub projects an extroverted personality, the fundamentals have not been forgotten – the internal environment feels spacious and bright, despite the crowded program and tight footprint, and has been well tempered through passive systems (even if it is not entirely free of air-conditioning).

When tasked with this commission by the City of Latrobe, Suters was asked to deliver an icon – something around which this small township could rally, and something too one suspects that could offer a vision for the future based on more than just the burning of dirty brown coal. Suters has delivered a project that speaks unsentimentally of Churchill’s history as a power industry town, but with a certain degree of optimism too for the future of this small community. Has it delivered an icon? That question of course can only really be determined by time and the community itself – demand for the Hub’s services, however, is soaring, and by that metric we must surely judge it a success.

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