- Article by Kerstin Thompson
- Photography by Trevor Mein
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Photo: Marysville Police Station by Kerstin Thompson Architects. Photo by Trevor Mein
The Metropolitan Fire Brigade’s (MFB) fire station in Windsor, a southeast suburb of Melbourne, is not simply in service to extinguish fires. In the long hours between callouts the fire fighters are opening their doors to the locals, a kind of extension of their community services beyond the actual fighting of fires to the more mundane but nevertheless influential act of entertaining children by trumpeting their combined house and workplace and of course vehicles. It is worth understanding how these kinds of modest civic buildings, particularly through their architecture, contribute in more ways than the official one of emergency service provider.
Designed by Australian architects, Edmond and Corrigan, it was the last of three they completed for the MFB between 1991 and 1996 in the Melbourne suburbs of Keilor, Oakleigh and Windsor. Each one continues to provide a focus for its community and, as a collection, they form a compelling essay on situated architecture, which despite dealing with a repeat type avoids the ‘cookie cutter’ approach. As a suite of modest civic buildings, which at regular intervals mark their host suburbs, they create an enduring and particularly local architectural legacy; one that provides a disciplinary context from which to draw upon in future projects. Certainly they have provided an important reference point for Kerstin Thompson Architects’ (KTA) work with the MFB and the Victoria Police.
Individually they offer examples of how architecture might be deployed as a localising force within a neighbourhood. Collectively they are formative in the creation of a network of civic infrastructure to underpin our city and suburbs. And finally they demonstrate how profoundly influential the commissioning of architecture by a repeat public client can be in determining the quality of our everyday built environment.
LOCALISING THE GENERIC
It is common parlance for architects to speak of ‘site responsive’ or ‘situated architecture’ to explain and justify buildings according to an understanding of place. What aspects of a situation serve as reference points for the eventual architecture and how may we draw parallels between context and built outcome? Evidently in KTA’s work every project seeks to exploit architecture to reinforce the particularities of place. The design process typically begins by observing and selecting local traits – formal, material, typological, cultural – and from these developing architecture that has resonance with and forms relations between these. The architecture may use continuity or discontinuity to highlight the selected aspects of the local. It could involve the reworking of a type or it could be the orchestration of a qualitative effect. The ephemeral and the permanent resources of a site are equally useful for the purposes of exploiting the specifics of site to develop an architecture that emerges from it.
KTA’s four police stations, completed over a six-year period, is the outcome of this site-responsive approach. In the generation of the design, variations in the physical context were drawn upon, as well as the contrasts in community expectations, to localise a repeat type and use architecture to emphasise a particular aspect of place. Each station, in effect, is different, despite the constancy of program (police station) and three having an identical brief. The differentiation occurs through the application of a generic brief to a specific site and situation.
The sites for the four buildings vary considerably. Warrandyte and Hurstbridge police stations (2007), commissioned as a pair, both occupy Melbourne’s green wedge suburbs. Carrum Downs police station (2010) occupies a highway location in the growing belt of suburban development to Melbourne’s southeast. By contrast, Marysville police station (2012) is set among a rural town situated deep within the remarkable forests of northeastern Victoria that were burned in 2009’s Black Saturday bushfires.
Warrandyte, Hurstbridge and Marysville are imagined as siblings – they share some programmatic DNA. But the influence of place and the context of their development – client, site, community – differentiates their eventual formal personalities. The material and aesthetic traits of each reflects their situation and their various parti comes from massaging the arrangement of the common program to achieve key functional relationships in a form responsive to the adjacent conditions.
The suburbs of Warrandyte and Hurstbridge are characterised by a distinctive bush landscape setting. Their respective communities have conflated this ecological context with a political one aligned with a suburban environmentalism. This geographic and social ‘green-ness’ was a design-driver for the architecture. Both stations feature a front facade of green-glazed bricks to acknowledge the community’s preferred identity as ‘green’.
For Warrandyte, the glazed facade reflects the vegetation of the surrounding flora to the extent that the building plays a game of camouflage. A kink in the overall form enables the station to both address the street and direct interior views from the muster area towards the nearby Yarra River. If this station registers something of the landscape, the Hurstbridge station – situated on Main Street – recognises the adjacent built form, notably the neighbouring roofs in its identity and character.
Through the design process and eventual public reception of these initial stations it became apparent that these modest facilities are less about security and lockup and more about the day-to-day guardianship of the wider neighbourhood. This directed the architectural language and expression to present the police force as more endearing than punitive, resisting the typically fortress-like language of other stations, while maintaining a civic presence. For instance, Warrandyte’s figurative quality is perhaps what endears it to its local community. It has been described as ‘anthropomorphic’, with its bent plan and green, ‘furry’ surface or skin. Internally, the stations are generous and light-filled, offering a sense of home for all users.
The civic agenda of the police station as place-maker is most evident in the Marysville station. In the rebuild of the Marysville township post-Black Saturday this humble station was pivotal to the re-establishment and reformation of the community. A high level of community engagement demanded that the architecture for this station, in forming the future, drew upon the somewhat illusive character of the township, as it has preferred to be remembered by its members. Timber is more closely aligned with this preferred character so, in response to this, Victoria Police accepted the use of this material instead of the usual brick palette. The Radcon weatherboard screen recalls the local timber industry, the vertical striations of the surrounding forests and the heritage of timber buildings that were most strongly associated with Marysville’s built past and which were now lost. Its articulation and material qualities quietly resonate with the greater landscape.
Exploiting the site’s dual frontage – to both the Main Street and the southern edge of the Marysville Heart parkland – the most active aspects of the program were strung along these edges to provide a visual exchange between the police and community. The long and low form of the station gently defines the park edge and frames the distant mountains. The tapered verandah nudges the street to herald the police while maintaining cherished views through to the park. In combination with the Marysville Community Centre the station completes the regenerated Marysville Heart, a public recreation space at the centre of town – instrumental in creating links between people, place and landscape.
Carrum Downs incorporates a community use program, most notably elderly citizens’ meeting rooms. But within this discussion it is most interesting for the alternative plan typology KTA developed to reflect the shifting culture of the Victoria Police as a community rather than an institution. Imagined as a mini-city the station comprises a cluster of programmatic elements, each figured as an individual volume, treated materially as a building and distinguished through a particular choice of brick. As a collection of elements they are united by the roof and the generous circulation spaces that at times overlap with and extend the adjacent program to form breakout areas for informal exchange and overlaps between the organisational divisions. The inclusion of internal courtyards allows light, ventilation and aspect to interior spaces while maintaining privacy and security to the external street facades.
Externally, the brick facade references adjacent housing and the fat fascia, the bigness of the service station’s canopy and other such prosaic building types. While the station is predominantly low in form, the entry tower shifts the scale of the facility from domestic to civic; and, as an illuminated beacon at night, provides a presence for the Victoria Police along the highway. It provides an important roadside marker in a way that is legible for this vehicle-centric outer suburban context.
A CIVIC NETWORK
In every suburb and town there is likely to be a fire, a police and an ambulance station. In addition to these emergency service facilities there are other civic buildings such as schools, community and maternal health centres and elderly citizens’ clubs. As a collection at the neighbourhood level they provide the physical foundation of a community and a formal endorsement of its civic potential. They punctuate and operate parallel to the private development that makes up the rest of our built environment. At a regional level these collections of serial elements – repeat building types – constitute a continuous civic infrastructure that links our suburbs and towns. If the individual station is about the neighbourhood, the collection of stations is about the city as a dispersed and sprawling web of minor centres under the broader custodianship of Melbourne as metropolitan region.
KTA has an ongoing interest in emphasising architecture’s role as ‘link’ rather than simply ‘object’. The projects for Victoria Police have, as a series, enabled the practice to pursue architecture as primarily ‘connective’ and ‘relational’. This offers a counter argument to the reduction of architecture to merely the ‘iconic’ in the fashioning of our cities. Since icons do not necessarily produce the fabric that holds a city or suburb together, there is also the need to direct architectural effort to producing quality ‘lesser’ grade or interval buildings – a general competency of the ‘stuff’ in between the architectural highlights. The crucial point here is that just as the stations operate as a policing network, so they have been conceived of in the design process, as a network of buildings. This agenda of the civic network and the emphasis on the urban design opportunity of a station such as Marysville is not part of the official brief given to the architect. This is the ‘something more’, added over and above the functional brief of a single station.
One could argue that as repeats of a generic brief these buildings are not one-offs, they are not special and therefore they are released from the demands or expectations of the signature building. And since they do not have the kind of program with a high culture imperative (sadly where architecture is normatively posited or seen as justified) such as a museum or the more grandiose civitas of a courthouse they are not expected to require or warrant architectural effort. By emphasising the iconic imperative of a very small handful of buildings, architects by implication reduce the effort and expected quality of what is not deemed iconic. Therefore, the ordinary and everyday building gets overlooked from architectural attention; the result of which is a conglomerate dross, simply excused with the hope that the occasional icon can somehow compensate for the general paucity of quality in the conventional and everyday. How few signature buildings actually live up to the expectations placed on them, let alone the further task of holding together the combination of elements that make up successful urban fabric.
The suggestion here is that the legacy that these buildings leave collectively – when recognised as a pervasive civic network that extends throughout cities, suburbs and regional towns – is arguably greater than the one-off, signature building. This is why greater demands should be placed on their individual and, it follows, their composite quality. Done well, these common buildings offer considerable opportunity for architecture that enhances the experience of the everyday and the ordinary. How do we encourage more rigorous architectural attention towards these projects? This is where the crucial role of the commissioning body cannot be underestimated. Government and other agencies such as the Victoria Police, the MFB, Ambulance Victoria and Department of Human Services can, and some do, lead the way as repeat commissioners of architecture. They can set in place processes for the selection of consultants and the briefing, design and procurement of buildings that prioritises quality of outcome: quality that is evident both within the organisation (measurable by say functionality and amenity levels, etc.) but also outwards in terms of contribution to place. The issue of fee levels in the selection criteria should be balanced by the long-term value that these numerous projects can deliver to our built environment. And when excellence is achieved and the buildings are endorsed – through awards or community acceptance for example – then it is worth acknowledging the effectiveness of that client who in turn may be encouraged to raise their architectural expectations higher because our cities and communities will be rewarded with something more.