Architecture

The Glasshouse: Arts Conference and Entertainment Centre

July 29, 2010

Behind the fragile facade of Tonkin Zulaikha Greer’s new building in Port Macquarie lies a robust design reminiscent of some of Australia’s most enduring civic architecture.

2010 marks the 200-year anniversary of the beginning of Lachlan Macquarie’s reign as Governor of New South Wales (1810-1821). On arrival Macquarie quickly set about an ambitious and unprecedented program of public works to cater for growing numbers of convicts and free settlers. Commissioning not only new buildings (hospitals, post offices and town halls) but also road networks and whole new towns. One such town is Port Macquarie on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, named-so by the explorer John Oxley whom Macquarie had commissioned to search for locations for new penal outposts. The city is home to the recently completed Glasshouse Arts, Conference and Entertainment Centre (The Glasshouse) designed by Sydney-based architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer (TZG).

Like the foresighted governor that inspired the town’s name, the town’s officials understood that the changing demographic of the city demanded appropriate social infrastructure, not as a short-term political panacea, but as an investment in the city for the benefit of future generations. They set about a long process to determine what facilities were needed and, perhaps more importantly, how these facilities might project the values of the community into the future in built form.

It is too easy to assume that this is in fact a key role of any government body charged with the long-term interests of its constituents, but politics at all levels is a far more complex matter. The political framework here was fraught with tensions following a series of disputes regarding re-zoning and possible sale of foreshore lands by the state government, a process resisted by the community, local politicians and council employees. In what could be described as payback, this project contributed to the bringing down of the elected council and the sacking of senior council staff. Allegations of budget mismanagement and poor community consultation were made and inquests undertaken.

It is true that from the project’s conception to its completion, the budget did grow considerably, from $6M to $33M. In the process, however, the brief requirements grew too – from the conversion of an existing cinema, into a project that includes a local history museum, an art gallery, conference facilities and a 600-seat theatre. This expansion, in fact, was actually the result of extensive consultation – it was the community that saw the initial proposal as short-sighted and called for the expansion of the brief, demanding a project that would remain a community asset in 200 years, just like the city’s fine churches, lighthouse and courts.

The Glasshouse is located on the northern edge of the CBD, on the corner of Clarence and Hay Streets – neither of which figured in Macquarie’s early plans. In fact, the entire town was re-planned in the mid-1800s. Macquarie’s original street pattern was of some influence in the planning of the new arts centre, whereby the figure-ground of the new work swerves and twists to mediate between the old and new street alignments and suspected sites of archaeological significance. The resultant form is a sinuous shroud of dark tinted glass that sets it apart from its commercial and retail neighbours.

Two large timber forms appear to float within the glass ‘skirt’ that defines the building’s perimeter, one housing the regional art gallery and the other the sumptuous 600 seat theatre. This box-in-a-box strategy is a familiar one in contemporary performing arts venues, where an outer façade provides weather protection. An interstitial space between external envelope and black-box theatre becomes foyer and circulation, a place for the audience to promenade and be on show. TZG has deployed this strategy before for the remarkable Carriageworks (2006) project. While the theatres at Carriageworks are sheer off-form white concrete set against a patina of brickwork and cast-iron, the rich inner shell of ship-lapped local timbers here contrasts sharply with the cool glass façade. In this sense the building is akin to Jean Nouvel’s Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne – albeit at a more modest scale.

The transparency of the façade and the activity of the foyer animate the building by day and by night. By day, tourists and locals alike meander in and out, either gathering information on local events (the box office also serves as the tourist information centre) or visiting the regional gallery – and to the great joy of the operators sometimes both. By night, theatre-goers can be seen from a distance sipping champagne and promenading up the grand staircase, performing in the tradition of pre-show voyeurism. When the lights flicker and bells ring those watching and those being watched enter the main auditorium through rich red light-locks.

The theatre interior is the highlight of the architectural show; luscious red carpet and seating are offset by a complex array of patterned timber acoustic panels. In the early stages of fabrication the sub-contractor was unsure if they could execute the detailed forms – they now feature prominently in the fabricator’s promotional material. The intimacy of the theatre and the intricacy of the detail within are extremely successful. While the detail and form of these panels are functionally derived, they appear playful and decorative. In comparison, the façade seems all too serious and sombre.

At the early stages of planning the client group understood the project needed to be multi-faceted and the brief included additional space for conference facilities. In some ways the success of this public facility is not the quality of its architecture (sorry, TZG) but it’s overall vitality in the face of adversity. Early indications are that it is proving to be a financial success, with the conference facilities booked for the next few years. This enables an income stream that keeps the centre viable and able to invest in live theatre and exhibitions of national and international standing.

There are subtle details within the project that make it particular to its location. Port Macquaire has one of the most benign climates in Australia, hence it was a fairly easy exercise to establish a mixed-mode ventilation system for the foyer space, with water from the nearby Hastings River used for heat exchange. All the timber for the project was sourced and milled locally; the town has a long history of forestry, timber milling and shipbuilding. Timber from a large Norfolk Island Pine tree that stood on the site has been made into bench seats for the foyer by a local craftsman. Initiatives such as these have helped create a great sense of ownership among the local community, who are still struggling with the controversy of the early phases of the project’s life. This information is relayed to me not only by the architect and the client, but also the local taxi driver.

To create a good work of architecture, architects need one thing more than anything – a good client; one with a good brief, one with vision and determination. Lachlan Macquarie appointed Francis Greenway as Civil Architect while he was still a convict. NSW has many fine buildings attributed to Greenway thanks to his employer, but as the Parliament of New South Wales’ describes in its historical account of the time, Macquarie’s noble ideals were undermined by harsh realities and constant opposition. His appointment of ex-convicts to senior positions and his concern for public morality led to indignation among immigrant settlers and military officers. They lobbied to have an inquest into Macquarie on issues including his over-spending on public works. In a case of history repeating itself, the foresight of Hastings Council and its commitment to investment in cultural infrastructure contributed to significant controversy in the town. Luckily, despite Parliamentary inquests, a year of archeological investigation and a long wet construction period, TZG has another great building for its portfolio – and Port Macquarie has a community asset that will hopefully endure for the next 200 years.

John de Manincor is a practising architect, part-time educator and the Sydney editor of Architectural Review Australia. John is a principal of DE MANINCOR RUSSELL  ARCHITECTURE WORKSHOP, a practice tactically located at the nexus between professional services, research and education.

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