- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Derek Swalwell
- Architect Architects Designhaus
In Tasmania life is both blessed and haunted by the tyranny of distance and the struggle for critical mass. Hobart, the state’s capital, is a great city and, with a population of around 150,000 people, is big enough to provide a thriving culture, yet small enough that you can still leave home 10 minutes before you need to be anywhere. While Hobart is the largest settlement in the state, however, two-thirds of Tasmania’s population live in the remainder of the island, and there is a constant question of how to share services across the whole state, rather than prioritising the capital. At the RAIA Tasmanian biennial ‘camping conference’ in 2007, Peter Myer suggested that the state should be thought of like a city, a collection of centres of different characters, but of equal importance.
The University of Tasmania (UTAS) has engaged with this idea by establishing three campuses across the state. The Cradle Coast campus in Burnie in the north was established in 1995, in a town of only 20,000 that is geographically central to a number of other, smaller towns. Prior to this, the one main attraction of the area seemed to be the ocean, which was thought capable of digesting sewage, and a number of key industries that were engaged in perpetuating this delusion, creating the perception that Burnie was a smelly, dirty place that you drive through but never stop in. A shift in the primary industry in the area, due to the closure of the tioxide plant and the associated pulp and paper mills in the late 1990s, ended a 60-year illustrious period for the city and, as a consequence, the population fell from over 23,000 to 19,000 where it hovered for the next 10 years. The decision for the university to create the Cradle Coast campus in the area is a long-sighted vision aimed at addressing a potential shift in the region’s prosperity and interests.
Prior to the university being established in the area, the youth of Burnie were traditionally faced with three choices: gaining jobs in retail or through apprenticeships, going on the dole or leaving the area to pursue other opportunities. The UTAS Cradle Coast campus primarily acts as a feeder for the university’s other campuses in Launceston and Hobart, enticing students into tertiary study by providing first year courses close to home. The university also acts as a research hub to further develop existing industries by offering regional studies into particular areas such as agriculture and the environment.
Cradle Coast’s new building by Hobart-based practice Architects Designhaus (formerly Crawford Padas Shurman) embodies the idea of the university as a catalyst in the community, and stands in complete contrast to the polluting industries from the previous era. Sandwiched between a Lutheran church, an old folks’ nursing home and surrounding sprawling suburban streets, the architecture of the new building signals this change. It provides a place for gathering and the sense of community required for a campus to work successfully, as well a new aesthetic that identifies the university as the ‘new kid on the block’.
Externally the building seeks to engage with the corporate identity of UTAS, providing a recognisable tectonic complementing that established by Peter Elliot in the Faculty of Arts, which was built on the Launceston campus in 2000. The south edge is articulated to form a new entry to the campus, adjacent to the reconfigured car park. The form of this element alludes to the graphic readouts of scientific instruments. Panes of red glass, the corporate colour of UTAS, play into the branding game, but also provide some beautiful moments where views to the surrounding suburbs appear through ‘rose-tinted glasses’.
The role of the campus as a catalyst is echoed in both the program and the arrangement of the building. The ‘campus’ was formerly a single building that housed teaching, administration and social spaces surrounding a courtyard, establishing a well-scaled gathering space that was unfortunately subject to cold south-westerly winds. New facilities are provided in a simple shed-like addition that extends the circulation pattern of the existing building through the careful consideration of the placement of entrances, to allow an easy transition between the two buildings. The large double-volume shed acts as a windbreak to shelter the original courtyard. A café and new courtyard occupy the north-eastern end of the site, with a visual link created between old and new social spaces.
Internally, circulation and functional spaces are merged to create open spaces that flow from café to computer lounge to library to gym and recreational room. The central two-storey atrium opens off the more intimately scaled reception and café areas, providing a new internal social hub for the campus. The new facility is, like this user group, quite unique in that the library sits within an open ground floor and relies on an honesty system rather than electronic security, a scheme that could perhaps only work in a small community. The visual permeability and centralised open circulation allows strong visual connections, ensuring that even if there are only two people in the building they are aware of each other’s presence, extending the sense of small-town community that exemplifies Burnie.
Unfortunately the openness of the interior creates problems of noise transmission and the periodic activity of students entering and leaving the upper level teaching spaces dominates the study and administrative spaces on the lower levels. The focus on the external aesthetics, in particular the architects’ desire to lend a heavier top to the building, has dominated the consideration of some of the internal spatial qualities. This has resulted in some windows that are either too small to provide adequate ventilation, or too large to successfully address summer sun penetration. But, as is the case generally in Tasmania, the project was built on a shoestring budget in a rather conservative context, and it is both adventurous in its aesthetic intent and generous in its social agenda. It provides an open and friendly environment that breaks down the perception of the university as an elite institution, providing flexible space that will be able to change as the campus grows.