Owen G Glenn Building

Mar 27, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by John Gollings
  • Designer
  • Architect Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp

Asked why he is so excited about the design for the Owen G Glenn Building, University of Auckland Business School, Dean Barry Spicer draws this critic’s attention to the view seen through the large window opening of his office. The building’s flower-like blossoming volume opens a vista into Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour. The visual and spatial implications of the harbour are suggestive of the presence of a world beyond the ocean and the track of its financial fluctuation is expected to be one important task of today’s global business. The globalisation of information and capital has introduced, among other things, a sense of spatiality, and the monitoring of its ups and downs should concern any business school. Starting from this, the design by Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT) in collaboration with Archimedia for the Owen G Glenn Building hinges on a couple of issues that are central to the present state of architectural practice.

Walking away from the Dean’s office, at the other end of the building’s curved corridor the aforementioned image of the world-business is balanced by another flower-like opening, through which one embraces the Domain, one of Auckland’s oldest and largest parks, which like most parts of the city has its own ups and downs. The design of FJMT/Archimedia has struck a significant chord in bringing the two alienated worlds of business and nature together. Standing in various terraces of the complex, but also in the frontal podium, the suggested visual paradox loses its oppositional germ. Outside of the main volume, and still within the landscape created by the project, one’s attention rather turns to the design’s chosen parti, a pavilion type building that is tectonically anchored to a podium.

Central to the best projects designed by FJMT are the tectonics of the earth-form and the frame-work. The company’s engagement with these important aspects of the discipline is not an academic exercise, but is deployed eyes wide open to the given program and topography of the site. Instead of listing buildings that the suggested genre runs through, a closer inspection of the Owen G Glenn Building seems instructive. This much is clear from an early diagram of the design, where a rotated bow-tie form occupies the site with its frontal symmetrical ribbons centred on the site’s central axis, whereas the rear ones accommodate Grafton Road. The design’s engagement with the site is best seen from the upper points of the campus’s last hill before descending for the Business School. Seen from this point, itself a major route leading to the gardens of the Domain, one cannot but take note of one of the building’s entrances, the spatial and topographical qualities of which are primarily informed by the way that the bow-tie volume of the pavilion rests on the top of the main podium. The tectonic contrast between heaviness and lightness is sharpened by the dark colour precast cladding of the podium, which also references the smooth and shiny metal-glaze screen of the pavilion.

The same tectonic language informs the second main entry path to the complex. Approaching from Wynyard Street Mall and ascending the stairs to the podium, one’s spatial experience is informed by the architectonic dialogue taking place between three volumes: the rectangular mass of the podium, the projective flower-shape volume of the pavilion with its finely detailed blades, and the metal-clad volume of the entry to classes and auditoriums located under the main podium. Noteworthy are the tactile aspects of the cladding of these three volumes – the smooth reflective glass and metal screen of the main building, the dark precast cladding of the podium and the metal clothing of the entry volume to the classes, the base of which is finished in red. Similar to a stage set design, the tectonic of theatricality permeating the complex is one dimension of the economy of design pursued here successfully. And this in conjunction with the global business of architecture where spectacle, i.e. theatricalisation (Gevork Hartoonian, Routledge 2006), has turned out to be the inevitable architectural solution, as most famous architects aim to address the global culture of image-making. Related to the tectonics of the pavilion are the glass blades that exceed the volume’s surface. This is not your modernist idea of the free-façade. These blades are a tectonic representation of the building’s planimetric organisation, an essential aspect of a pavilion system where, contrary to traditional will for unification, various parts are assembled together. Furthermore, the concept of dematerialisation at work in this project draws its aesthetics from today’s highly sophisticated glass pane production industries. FJMT does indeed maintain a materialistic approach when it comes to articulating the screen of its projects.

There is another dimension to the firm’s inclination for glass and construction transparency that should be mentioned. In addition to its potential for phenomenal and literal transparencies, popularisation of glass by modern architects was originally sought in relation to nature and landscape. Beyond the expressionism implied in Bruno Taut’s architecture, and the intermingling of glass with nature in Paul Scheerbart’s visionary landscapes were perhaps responding to the advent of the second nature, the technological world. The dialogue with nature initiated with glass transparencies is rethought in the FJMT/Archimedia design through the organic form that permeates the aforementioned blade tectonics. The bringing together of architecture and landscape through these tectonics of undulating blades is a recurring theme in the firm’s recent projects, achieving its most sophisticated language in the complex under review here.

Another aspect of the same design economy, pursued by Richard Francis-Jones, is associated with the firm’s commitment to ‘critical practice’. At a time when res publica, the most civic dimension of architecture, is on the verge of vanishing, it has to be challenging for an architect to invest in creating public enclaves. The main podium of the building, the design’s move to accommodate terraces, and the integration of horizontal and vertical movements culminating in the building’s atrium, are all part of spaces where students, visitors and the staff of the school interact with each other. It would not be stretching it too far to claim that, running up and down from the building’s stairs and elevators located in the atrium, students find themselves juggling with both the nuances of the market, and the landscape of the Domain.

Perhaps there was a good reason to place the main classrooms and large auditoriums of the complex underground. Layered into the site, these internally focused areas are comforting if one has to run away from numbers. In return, and there is always a return, it is the soaring, light-filled space of the atrium where one is given the choice: either to take the stairs at the cave-like opening and return to the classrooms, or else to move into the central entry space of the bow-tie volume, where a calm play of shade and light provide a momentary relief. Momentary because the numbers are ticking, they go up and down, again and again. Life goes on too, and as the Dean says, recalling a quotation by Louis Sullivan: “As you are, so are your buildings; and as are your buildings, so are you.”

Architecture today is struggling to hold onto disciplinary autonomy without losing its rapport with the global commodification of life. To this end, the FJMT/Archimedia’s design for the University of Auckland Business School is a feat of success.

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