Life Cycle: Warringah Shire Civic Centre

July 7, 2011

Though many may see the Brutalist exterior of EMTB’s Warringah Shire Civic Centre as dated, its tough exterior masks a sophisticated social and environmental ambition that remains as relevant now as ever.

The multi-purpose civic centre arose as a concrete response to a vision of modern community building from the 1930s to 1970s across Australian city and regional settings. Local governments – sometimes with provocation from community activist groups – worked to realise these ideals of community through purpose-built civic centres and memorial projects that provided council chambers, libraries, health and recreation amenities. These places were consciously designed, and continue today, as family-inclusive venues that can bring together a diverse cross-section of the local population, thereby going some way to counter the perceived isolation of the ever-expanding suburban ‘hinterlands’.

Many of these modern civic centres have become potent yet often ‘dated’ and ‘difficult’ expressions of public living in the 20th century, and are therefore worthy of careful documentation, conservation and adaptation to contemporary use. For this reason, Docomomo Australia has identified the Warringah Shire Civic Centre and Library complex at Dee Why, New South Wales, as one of five national examples as significant modern sites exemplifying governmental, judicial or political power for the Docomomo International Register in 2010. [01]

Originally envisaged as a ‘new acropolis’, the Warringah Shire Civic Centre precinct is located on a magnificent three-acre site that rises steeply from a flat coastal plain in the northern beaches region of Sydney. Col Madigan – chief architect of Edwards Madigan Torzillo Briggs (EMTB) – recalled his work with the Warringah Shire Council as one of the happiest jobs of his career, as he delighted in the task of bringing into reality the dreams of some remarkably visionary councillors under James Morgan, Shire Clerk. In the early, ambitious stages of the masterplan design, Madigan drew up a 100-year plan for the site, as he would later do for the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. The plan included a civic centre, library, gymnasium, art gallery, public plaza and war memorial, as well as a future museum to showcase the area’s Aboriginal history, and an auditorium for a future Warringah symphony orchestra. However, as was the case with so many far-sighted civic gestures of the mid-century period, the Warringah scheme was only partially realised, with just the library opening in 1966, followed by a much-reduced civic centre in 1973.

Regional public libraries emerged as an important architectural type in the post-war decades for testing new ideas in civic form and public programs intended to encourage active and accessible learning. The Dee Why Library at Warringah – a case in point – was to make a bold gesture on the site with its strong materials of exposed brick, precast concrete panels and clerestory roof clad in bronze. Internally, precast concrete columns allow almost the entire volume to remain open plan, with a simple program of administrative offices to the west, public areas to the east and entrance in-between cleverly articulated by a complex system of ramps. Strong moments of colour and a high level of reflected daylight together create a remarkably luminous, pleasant atmosphere – a far cry from the sombre institutional interiors of many earlier public libraries.

A winner of the New South Wales AIA’s Sulman Medal in 1966, upon opening the library was described as being ‘as modern as tomorrow’. In his speech at the ceremony, Madigan captured the challenges of strengthening cultural institutions in the face of Australia’s preoccupation with sport: “If we could make the proposed library at Dee Why as popular as the Brookvale Oval, we would be on the way to making the ideal philosopher-athlete for saving our distressed planet.”

The civic centre building, also by EMTB under Madigan and Christopher Kringas, and completed some seven years later, was designed to complement the library. Both works foreshadowed the firm’s major public commissions in Canberra: the High Court of Australia (1980), and the National Gallery of Australia (1982). At Warringah, the three-level civic centre sits imposingly over a rocky outcrop. The bush-hammered course aggregate concrete echoes this rugged terrain and works in harmony with the native foliage. When approached from the east, the three 12.8- metre-high concrete piers that support a projecting upper level create a sense of drama that also predicted the monumentality of the later High Court.

In contrast to its somewhat severe external appearance, the centre’s interior program and circulation demonstrates Madigan’s egalitarian, Fabian principles. The ‘telephonists room’ and the staff lunchroom enjoy stunning ocean views; and the ramps around the central lightwell are designed to promote communication throughout the three open floors and foster an esprit de corps among council staff. The visibility of the council chamber itself also embodies democratic ideals of transparency and participation in the deliberations of council. However, Madigan noted in 1991 that later partitions placed throughout the building obscured the “once democratic openness” of the building.

The landscaped setting of the buildings – rocky outcrops and indigenous bush planting to the design of landscape architect Bruce Mackenzie – was a critical part of the masterplan, and has grown to have a striking presence today. Mackenzie’s work here and elsewhere has been influential in creating a uniquely Australian approach to public landscape design. He made a pioneering contribution with his idea of “alternative parklands” through rehabilitated remnant reserves on Sydney’s foreshore that he described as “environmental sculpture”, simulating a remote naturalness within an urban setting. Warringah explores a similar vein of deceptive naturalism. Speaking with Thomas Trudeau, Mackenzie expressed his respect at Madigan’s manner of “tenderly inserting” the buildings into the Warringah site: built form wraps around natural elements to create a sense of environmental intimacy that is also reflective of both Madigan and Mackenzie’s desire to redress the balance between culture and nature.

Despite the apparent solidity of the buildings and the age of the landscape, there remains a tenuous, fragile aspect to the entire precinct. And despite both Madigan and Mackenzie explicitly planning with forethought for long-term growth and evolution, the possibility of wholesale redevelopment has been a constant threat. This is in part because of the ‘difficulty’ of its buildings, and in part because the masterplan was never completed, with expansion ever required.

The Warringah Shire Civic Centre and Library are today unambiguously significant buildings in architectural, historic and social terms. They represent the first major public commissions for Madigan and EMTB, and physically manifest modern social ideals for suburban community centres, expressed with growing environmental awareness. Notwithstanding both professional acclaim and general popularity with locals at the time of opening, the library and civic centre have been characterised – like many Brutalist style structures of the era – as uncompromising and difficult: to the point where they sit at the margins of public appreciation. And yet the tide may now be turning: a number of comparable civic sites of the same period and architectural outlook in the United Kingdom and the United States are being re-evaluated, with international organisations like Docomomo leading this renewal of interest in mid-century modernism.

Conserving this site as a successful civic precinct for the future requires careful thought. It is the hope of Docomomo that heritage listing decisions and the inevitable need for new work will be sensitive to the original vision of a communal spirit of place, and to the matured value of the whole site that has evolved from a group of bold and risky public buildings carrying civic ambitions very much of their time, to an integrated landscape of natural and built forms.

[01] The library is listed as an individual item of local heritage significance in the Warringah Local Environmental Plan 2000 and the draft Warringah Local Environmental Plan 2009. The civic centre is not a listed item, nor is the precinct listed as a conservation area. Both buildings are, however, listed on the non-statutory RAIA Register of 20th Century Buildings. Around 2004, nominations were made for both buildings to be listed on the State Heritage Register, but this did not eventuate.

Dr Hannah Lewi is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne where she teaches architecture history and design. She is the current chair of Docomomo Australia, and is co-editor of the book Community: Building Modern Australia, UNSW Press, 2010
Thomas Trudeau works as a heritage consultant and architectural technician. He is studying architecture at UTS.

Docomomo stands for the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the modern movement. This international organisation was founded in the Netherlands in 1990, inspired by the recognition that urgent attention was needed to document, conserve and promote awareness and appreciation of the architecture of the modern era. Docomomo Australia has been involved in the ongoing compilation of an international register of significant modernist works, and has spoken out against the destruction or disfigurement of notable modern Australian sites.

Leave a Reply

Sign up to Australian Design Review's Newsletter

Receive the latest:

  • news, insights, opinions from the interior design and architecture community
  • coverage on latest projects, videos and new products updates
  • events and job listings.

Sign up now!

Sign up to the newsletter