This article appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific 125: Architecture and the Arts.
The multiplicity of ‘community’ is elegantly captured in Gregory Burgess’ Burrinja project, which has expanded and enhanced the existing facilities of this established community cultural centre. Burrinja is the result of almost 20 years of community lobbying and multiple stakeholder partnerships, having started its architectural life as the old Shire of Sherbrooke offices. Since 1998 it has operated as a venue for performance exhibitions and arts education, with a range of small to medium spaces for these purposes carved out of the original 1970s brown-brick structure.
The brief was to construct a signature, dedicated performance space in the form of a 400-seat auditorium, complete with backstage facilities including dressing rooms and a green room for 200 performers. There was also an upgrade of the building’s foyer, staff amenities and carpark space, and the improvement of accessibility for pedestrians and visitors with limited mobility.
The original building has been re-energised with a thematic new design.
Budget constraints meant that much of the existing building’s facade and interior would be unmodified, save for minimal interventions such as renewed carpeting and paintwork. Other original aspects, such as the prominent orange-painted steelwork on the building’s exterior, have been re-energised through thematic incorporation into the new design. In contrast, the impressive new auditorium is a standout feature, successfully integrating architectural styles and materials. The challenge of bringing old and new together, without diminishing either – a kind of conversation between structures – is approached through an echoic reference to the histories that come together in this place, both human and environmental. Despite the significant presence of the auditorium addition at the rear of the centre, it has a strong sense of integration and respect for its surroundings.
The challenge in the auditorium’s construction was structural and poetic. The sloping site required significant negotiation to accommodate the volume and mass of the structure, which is supported by graceful, arching concrete columns as the ground drops away. The unusual situation of the centre on a residential street also required a sensitive approach to the auditorium’s requisite size. The building’s potential to overwhelm its space is negotiated through its majestic curved form and a striking yet understated feature wall facing the street. This sweeping facade references the site’s bushland situation and also its indigenous community, acknowledged with a significant collection of Aboriginal art housed inside.
Underpinning the new auditorium, the challenge of the sloping site was largely overcome with graceful, arching concrete columns.
For the length of the wall, a forest of vertical markings appear to shift and breathe in the daylight, changing colour from orange to earthy brown in irregular patterns, merging and then emerging as distinct elements. Painting a base orange glaze onto precast concrete and then rolling other colours over the top created this animated yet reflective effect, communicating a sensitivity to the purpose of the building and to the past history of the site.
Inside, the warmth of racked seating in wood and maroon covering mediates the vast auditorium space. At the edge of the unelevated stage, a row of moveable bench seats, also in wood and maroon, creates intimacy and flexibility. Back and side walls painted in purpley-blue produces a moody sense of mystery, working off the maroon-coloured seating and enhancing the theatricality of the space. The technical equipment trussed above the stage is on full view here, celebrated rather than hidden away in a counterpoint to the veiling effect of the walls. Backstage facilities, built into the existing structure, are large and roomy, with carpet and tiling that picks out colours used elsewhere in the building, orange and purple in particular. A stage door and loading bay area belie the complexity of their planning, tucked into the base of the auditorium as it rises on its pillars.
Inside the new auditorium: warmth, intimacy, flexibility.
The view from the auditorium’s second-storey foyer brings into one frame the many elements of this project. With the new building’s curving form visible on one side, a lower roof of the original building appears on the other, while remnant bushland unfolds beyond the edge of the site. This joining of structures creates a layering of form, colour and materials. These visual layers shift according to one’s perspective on the building, both from within and outside, and inculcate an ‘aliveness’ to the architecture that complements and supports its varied program.
This collaborative ethic is embedded into the history and function of Burrinja, and Burgess’ response to the task of melding old and new understands this. Rather than fight against the existing building, he has woven it into his retelling of this place, orange steelwork and all. In the process, Burrinja has been remade as a cultural and architectural destination.