June 5, 2013

With the Knox Innovation, Opportunity and Sustainability Centre (KIOSC) in Melbourne, Woods Bagot delivers a sustainable architectural design that responds to the building’s environment.

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The story of this building could be about innovative education in sustainability, though it is more than that. It could also be about the delivery of measurable outcomes for sustainable design, but it is more than that too. This building is about the capacity of architectural design to trigger a response to the environment and to contribute to questions of that environment’s future. This is not to dismiss the first two points: the building is a result of a collaborative program called the Knox Innovation, Opportunity and Sustainability Centre (KIOSC) between Swinburne University and a number of secondary schools in the City of Knox, in Melbourne’s east; a program where students visit the university campus and experience interactively some of the science in our environment. It is described as a trade-training centre, with an emphasis on green jobs and training for new economies and industries. The school principals were key motivators for the project – facilities such as this should be appreciated and replicated.

The main corridor connects the teaching spaces


Likewise, the building exhibits a broad range of features that are now, thankfully, mainstream building techniques – a mixture of passive solar design, water and material recycling and power generation through photovoltaic and geothermal energy. As a simple machine for tempering the environment, the building can be a concrete teacher of how it regulates its own comfort.

But what of the other architectural moves and their capacity to teach spatial intelligence and to leave an enduring image on those who visit and learn here? What does this design, its spaces and its decorated surfaces, give to that experience? The KIOSC website, set up before construction, still makes no mention of the building that houses it. It is so often assumed that a building is the neutral container for a set of social activities, but this is anything but a neutral container.

The amphitheatre provides external social and teaching areas


There is a key moment in this design: the experience of being seated on the concrete steps facing the front facade. It is a public event space, easy to imagine filled with participants and onlookers, but with an unusual proportion. The steps are sunken in a super-compressed amphitheatre.

The facade in front is so close, with the stage almost non-existent. The ribs that form the facade hover over as they bend out to form the projecting eave. Behind and in front is a small garden and beyond that, the ramp negotiating the sloping site. At one end, the space under the ramp creates its own experience, and at the entry there is the faintest reminiscence of Harvard University’s Carpenter Centre for the Visual Arts – where the ramp in Le Corbusier’s 1963 project creates a foreground to the building’s background and bisects the space below. There is the barest enclosure of the amphitheatre space, as the building floats in its asphalt campus non-plan. The back of the building is unambiguously that: grey and utilitarian and facing a service lane. This exaggerates the stage backdrop reading of the facade, a curtain hung on the box. When seen obliquely (as it is from the approach and entry) it reads as a pleated surface, which is amplified by the curvaceous geometry of the ribs and the gradation of colours. And so, when sitting front-on to the facade on those steps, the curtain opens up with the back stage interior of the building revealed, mirroring the stage space. While the front-back contrast bears comparison with a decorated shed, the curtain is far from a thinly printed veil. The depth of the ribs is comparable with the deep, bent glazing mullions of the Sydney Opera House. So as they get closer, the ribs reveal themselves as robust structure, as much as a delicate curtain.


Ground level (L); Level one (R)


The interior is not simply a backstage; there are some highly composed rooms and lush timber surfaces. The plan shows its fabric thickening around these curved corners and cranks to sculpt these spaces. But it is the thin space stretched along the edge of the ribbed facade that interacts with the amphitheatre. At the upper level this is like a gallery shopfront, or more accurately, a kiosk – full of information niches and displays on one side and the outside sky and amphitheatre on the other. So wheeling around to face the amphitheatre from these gallery spaces, you realise this is theatre in the round. Sitting on the steps of the amphitheatre, the two interior levels of gallery space form the reverse side of the audience and at close range, since the configuration is so compressed. An event in the amphitheatre is easily imagined, set against the building curtain: the steps full, children viewing from the ramp, from the gallery on the upper level and from behind the fins at ground level.

The external facade ribs are an expressive aesthetic feature


Here though is the regret of the building – the glazed facade is mostly fixed and sealed, so instead of the monumental fins defining the edge of an operable arcade, they are the mullions of a glass wall. This is part of a wider problem with natural ventilation: a default tendency to glaze shut, driven by budgets, energy ratings and occupational health and safety. Here it would have completed the connection to that event space.

Despite that, the KIOSC successfully asserts the opportunity to be monumental, declaring the importance of a public event space where it could have simply been cast as a series of classrooms. The face of the building manages to shapeshift from a green pleated curtain hung from the roof to a series of muscular ribs supporting it. This, along with the carving of the site below, gives the KIOSC its key moment.

This article was originally published in AR130: Pawn.

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