Features

Interview: Nik Karalis & Hamish Lyon

June 28, 2010

The architects of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre discuss the challenge of creating a centre that engages with its urban context.

Andrew Mackenzie: Let’s begin with the convention centre typology, which often requires an architecture of the lowest common denominator. How does this new convention centre challenge that typology?
Hamish Lyon: As a type it’s rather like an airport, operating as both a global and a local building. At a global level there are strict guidelines to allow conventions and exhibitions to travel the world, but at the same time people want their travel experience to include local content. Similarly, the convention centre, like the airport, while catering to all the requirements of the global convention economy, exists as a poor cousin to traditional public buildings. Basically our brief was to design a building that elevated the generic convention centre from its second-grade civic position.
Nik Karalis: Remember most people go to a convention centre not for entertainment, but out of necessity. Consequently these buildings are designed around the functions of access and circulation and the need to feed and facilitate thousands of people. They are then put on a bus and sent home. We wanted to design a public building knowing it wasn’t a museum a library or a theatre, but nevertheless could be used by a general public, outside of the delegate calendar.

AM Early in the design development period the whole combined team travelled around the world looking at other convention centres. What flaws did you identify?
HL Boredom, bewilderment, disorientation. As they are designed to accommodate massive crowds arriving in short bursts, they’re universally dominated by crowd control mentality.
NK When there’s not a crowd there’s a lot of emptiness, dead-ends, endless walkways with no destinations, except perhaps for a meeting room or grey box. Yet it used to be a great building type. Joseph Paxton’s Great Exhibition Hall was the pre-eminent building in London in the 1850s. It was the major world event of its day, with everybody from all over the Empire flocking to visit. But today the convention centre has been taken over by popular culture such as the Home Show, the Boat Show or Sexpo.

AM Is there a tension in this combined task of accommodating volume while also activating the building’s urban potential?
HL Many of the buildings we saw did not have the opportunity to exist meaningfully within the public realm because they had been located on the industrial edge of cities or adjacent to the airport. But even those built in more favourable urban environments still seemed to miss the opportunity. In Australia there are several convention centres close to city centres and set within remarkable urban sites, which fail to embrace any sense of urban integration. Once you enter into their oceans of blue carpet you may as well be at any airport on the planet.

AM: Speaking of locality, could you say something of your intention to stitch this building into the city’s larger fabric, in particular the ‘urban triangle’ it sits within?
HL This conceptual triangle was seen as an urban form and part of the evolving city plan. In mapping the broader urban shift, the triangular diagram is a response to three urban axes. Firstly there’s the existing river axis; a second axes runs across the new footbridge to the developing Docklands to the north; the third axis extends along the bend of the river to Webb Bridge, where the city will grow in the future. So it’s a triangle made of three axes; the old city, the developing city and the speculation of the city to come.
NK There are other geometric determinates. The Plenary Hall inevitably called for a fan or clam shape, and the banquet hall required a square. We explored the ramifications of extending the radial clam geometry beyond the building and started massaging and working the geometries. Also it’s a highly irregular site bounded by the existing Exhibition building and the freeway. So there was a tension between functional requirements driven by the Plenary Hall, and the building’s big urban gestures. It was the overlap between the urban gesture and the program that brought it all together.

AM So given the centrality of flow, circulation, program and city context, the project was as much urban design as it was building design?
HL Yes, the big triangle really began as a simple urban diagram into which we embedded the programmatic elements – we found the two diagrams were kind of cooperating and coalescing into a single response.
NK The building became a fulcrum to stitch the city grid, the bend in the Yarra River, the existing Exhibition building and everything else that surrounded it, so it all fell into place.

AM Clearly there is an historical lineage here, in Roy Grounds’ geometric ordering just up the river from the Convention Centre.
NK Yes, we did discuss this triangular building behind Sir Roy Grounds’ NGV – the old arts school. The triangle in general seemed to stalk us: there are quite a few buildings that use its geometry, such as the Herzog de Meuron forum building in Barcelona, which we visited.
HL Of course, the triangle also offered possibilities in relation to the problem of convention centres forever following the form of modified sports stadium architecture.
NK This could define every one of Australia’s convention centres.
HL From the inception of the project we were interested in the idea that the building held its own, as public architecture. That’s a discussion that Nik and I had standing in the forecourt of Federation Square. To the extent that Federation Square captured an image of Melbourne as a centre for the Arts and for cultural and design activities of the city, we thought our building should do the same for international commerce, ideas and conferencing.

AM It seems that the MCEC attempts a fusing of the monolithic commercial block and the porous public building; the civic and the economic side by side?
HL This overlap is clearly central to this building, and I think both Nik and I are of the opinion it’s probably central to any building that’s built today. It’s a contemporary issue. There is no such thing anymore as a singular public building or even a singular commercial building. Public and private as defined by function or ownership is no longer a straightforward discussion.

AM Can you talk us through some of these metaphors of the project. Was this a deliberate engagement with another playful Melbourne tradition?
NK It was part of not allowing the building to take on the common anonymity of the convention centre. We structured the building into three public modes: the civic nature of a building that relates to the city it occupies; its hospitality dimensions, offering a hotel-like service; and its functionality, providing flexible meeting room accommodation. Each of the three modes was then assigned a relevant decorative/symbolic motif. The metaphors ranged from the big hull of the boat representing the maritime history of the docks, to a number of analogies representing Melbourne’s internationally renowned sporting events.
HL We tried to give the building’s interiors and all the major spaces a palpable physical dimension, not just a thin layer of decorating trying to hide a shed. It’s not an anti-decoration building, but it attempts to take certain motifs and embed them into the building in at an architectural scale.
We were conscious of Melbourne’s grand interior spaces, such as the great 19th Century reading room of the State Library of Victoria or Walter Burley Griffin’s Capitol Theatre in Swanston Street. We wanted the interior to become part of the collective memory of Melburnians, and not just be another object building.

AM There’s inclusiveness in this that points to the collaborative nature of the project as well. So this seems a good point to move onto a discussion surrounding the development partnership behind this building. How would you distinguish this the development from the typical global convention centre?
HL Thinking about this as a whole precinct liberated everyone beyond the idea of a single building type. So this big picture thinking brought with it some great benefits, for example in the way the services, utilities, loading docks and all the back of house facilities were buried underground. This meant the traditional problem of having operations consume public spaces was solved and it liberated the interior for uninterrupted public space.
NK This was a significant strategy, to bury so much program in the basement. We weren’t the only sponsors of the idea – the idea got everybody to the table at the same time. What appeared at first to be an outlandishly expensive and probably impractical outcome suddenly started to become semi-realistic, and we could see enormous positives.
HL Another example of our collaborative working relationship related to the green star rating. The government brief only requested a four star green star minimum, but the consortium thought it needed to be five if not six star. So the project set an ambition and achieved the result of being the world’s first six green star convention centre.
NK Interestingly, this is one benefit of privatising public buildings. It allows investment in infrastructure that isn’t fundable by governments. It also points to the need to look beyond the lowest tender and consider a wider range of options presented by the private sector. The consortium for this project had a battle to present its proposition, which wasn’t low bid, but offered other benefits. Where PPPs get bad publicity, is when they are driven by the lowest bid, and money is made out of the construction margins. In this project the money is made out of a long term strategy.
HL Discussion on this subject hasn’t really matured to a level the debate deserves. There are still people talking about developers dumbing down the final PPP solution, which is not a reflection of the process in general. The more difficult issue to be developed is how to present a holistic case within the limitations of the current assessment process.
NK Given this broader agenda architects can have a much more active political role than traditionally considered. If anything, our role has increased.
HL With so many inputs, the architect is one of the few people on the project that actually has a command of the whole picture. They literally become the centre of a vast network of people and ideas.

AM This project involved two distinct practices. Often partnerships are defined by a creative/management division of labour. Clearly this doesn’t apply here.
NK It wasn’t just the issue of the two of us working together, it also included the whole team. The way we enable ourselves to move through the whole scale of the project was to create different teams for the components, so that it could free Hamish and I to concentrate on the overall project direction and gain the various strategic approvals.
HL It wouldn’t have been the same building had we tried to work individually. Woods Bagot’s a large global practice, NHArchitecture is primarily a Melbourne practice, we each come from different arenas at a professional level. Even on the practical level such as the CAD and IT platforms both teams had to come together to make the collaboration work – it also brought artistic and intellectual opportunities.

AM So a crucial distinction here concerns not just the building per se, but the collaborative process, suggesting a different way of doing architecture.
HL Yes. There’s a fundamental shift in the way that buildings are procured now. We no longer have the luxury of linear design, development and then construction. Now, the builder is often programming the construction sequence and pre-ordering materials at the same time the architect is designing – that’s how contemporary infrastructure projects are done.
NK It’s also a building on the cusp between being a city in a building, a building in a city, a civic building, a commercial building… What is it? I think a lot of people are going to struggle to define what type of building it really is and how it fits into a city.

AM You mentioned history and context earlier. Were you particularly conscious of the site location and its history?
HL Definitely. As an example, a small corrugated iron shed in the middle of the site, containing the original pump used to drain the water from the dry dock, was not only retained, but actually caused the whole building to be deformed.
NK The maritime context acts as a trigger for the whole façade, which starts to ripple – the roof collapses as the two collide – heritage precinct and contemporary building.

AM One of the interesting things that has been said about the building is that it almost has a feminine nature. Was that a deliberate attribute?
NK Well that term, the ‘feminine approach’ is about stopping it being simply a robust, functional, generic and engineered building.
HL It references the idea of the convention centre having a long tradition of intense exchange, much like the great market places of the Middle Eastern or Asian cultures. The convention centre is, by its nature, a place of exchange so the reference to the feminine is about differentiating this building as a marketplace offering the customer a different type of interface.

AM Perhaps at the other end of the gender balance the building also has formal echoes of the space shuttle. Can you talk about this reference?
NK This originated from the desire to rethink the massive box. The reference accepts that the building is massive but its aerodynamic quality of the triangular roof minimises the leading edges and concludes as a big bat tail that ends at a single point.
HL It’s redefining the idea of engineering. A lot of the big convention centres traditionally operated with the grand 19th Century idea of engineering as the physical mastery of gravity. So span becomes everything – a visual demonstration of the engineer/architect’s capacity to defy nature with industrial technology and strength.
When we visited the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC we saw the stealth bomber and the space shuttle, and realised there was also something about contemporary engineering that is perhaps less obviously heroic. Yes, the space shuttle demonstrates incredibly advanced engineering, but you also realise that they’ve got the same problem when putting heat shield tiles on the wing as architects do when putting tiles on the façade of a building or on a bathroom wall. The NASA technicians confront the same constructional problems that all architects face. So the space programme is asked to resolve detailing at two ends of the spectrum. ‘How do I stick a tile on a curved surface?’; and ‘How do I make this thing operate at 15,000km an hour?’: this realisation led us away from engineering as bravado.
With this building you don’t see the enormous steel trusses – it’s all embedded. We’re not asking you to marvel at the physical power of the great cantilever but to realise that it is a formally coherent idea.

AM Touching briefly on sustainability, obviously this is both a vital consideration, but also one that is showing fatigue. Beyond tricking up the mechanical engineering etc, did you find that this was an energising part of the brief?
NK We knew what the big issues were in terms of representing how sustainability appears in the building. So for instance, with the volumes we were dealing with, the displacement system was a key component for us, in terms of getting air delivered at low velocity to the bottom two metres of each space. How did that relate to the entrances or to the Plenary Hall? How could it be used to our benefit and become a decorative element? So it was used in a way to inform what the building could be at the level of human interface, not just to get the points.
HL Fortunately, because we started this discussion at the very origin of the building, we could work with it at its fundamentals; it wasn’t just applying green technology after the fact. Sustainable initiatives were on the design agenda from the beginning and we had an opportunity to embed these into the core of the project.
NK Also flexibility was another aspect of the building’s lifecycle. The building is designed to have maximum usage, and it can adapt efficiently and quickly. There were a number of elements involved; allowing the building to be used for more than just one function, to use the displacement system as a decorative element and use the protection from the north because of the big glass façade of the roof to actually do more than just hold up span, but to shade as well. And also the displacement of the circumferential foyer was allowing the light penetration into it for winter as well as giving you exposure to the city, so these things – they had multiple usages, it wasn’t just targeted to be a green building, to be a building that responded to the aspirations of six star, but it’s actually worked.

AM I have a question to ask in relation to the virtual world. Was it ever a concern that the much discussed dematerialisation of communication would make the conference centre redundant?
HL Well we probably started with that kind of concern, because it seemed like we were designing an obsolete building. But in fact after doing the research and travelling to see other venues, it became apparent that the convention centre is actually a growing type because human interaction is still a great way to exchange ideas. It is arguably more important now than ever.
NK That experiential nature of people getting together and engaging in dialogue is what this building is about; the architecture is the interface of people, it’s not the things on the wall.
HL And those connections and meetings that occur outside the official itinerary are still one of the most efficient ways of trading ideas and commerce.
NK So these buildings are about a global connectivity of diverse people. There will be clashes of great minds in the building, exchanging ideas and dynamically interacting with the building. It’s actually a new type of building where you don’t look at a static object. This is the new art, it’s a lot more interactive than prescriptive.

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