- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Christopher Frederick Jones
- Designer Wilson Architects
Well-known for its extraordinary contributions to institutional architecture, including the Bond University, MLC on the Gold Coast and the Lilley Centre at Brisbane Grammar School, Wilson Architects delights us by executing a solution for its own offices that is so entirely human. This is not to say that the solution is not grand, in fact it is, but in an intimate and culturally sensitive fashion that acknowledges history and evolution.
Established in 1884, the firm has been in continuous practice ever since. The Boundary Street residence was purchased in 1959 to provide the offices, but in 1981 a fire all but destroyed the building, before it was rebuilt in 1983. In 2005, when the staff grew from 15 to 40 (making physical expansion mandatory) plans for the latest refurbishment and architectural augmentation commenced.
One of the most startling facts of the design is its modest exterior. From the street at first glance, the house and workers’ cottages, which have been joined to accommodate the practice’s expansion, look wholly domestic. The two-storey house is quintessentially a Queenslander at its core. A Mackintosh-esque design of leadlight glass windows was added during the post-fire rebuild, but ostensibly the bones are intact. The external feature of latticework, though a structural and recent addition, is visually consistent with traditional solutions for baffling the Queensland light, while discombobulating timelines through a slightly modernist interpretation of staggered parallels. It is in fact nothing more than painted stud work, but is entirely lovely. Visually, the workers’ cottages are unchanged bar a gleaming whiteness to match the house and flat white window frosting, both of which negate any suspicion of a chintz interior.
Separating the properties was a 180-centimetre interstitial passageway. This space, previously unusable, has become the central fulcrum of the design. Closing the space at the top and each end with a two-storey wall of glass at the entrance, a slightly wider single height of glass to the rear and a ceiling, expanded the possibilities for the interior exponentially. Rather than leaving it as a corridor, the walls to either side of the passageway were, in parts, demolished. To the right, the lower portion of the ground floor wall has been completely removed. Above this is a long steel reinforced panel that supports the floor above, while providing an elongated horizontal visual to balance the vertical thrust of the two-storey void. This is further exploited by a parallel horizontal commencing with the stairs that ascend the corridor. Anchoring the twin parallels is Nimbus (2007) a round and textured sculpture by Queensland artist, Casselle Mountford. The higher portion of this wall has been stripped of its exoskeleton to reveal the charred timber struts. As a visual effect, the struts mimic the lattice of the building’s exterior, while allowing light to pour into the upper floor and principal work area of the practice. They also make a firm acknowledgment of the practice’s longevity and its phoenix-like ability to overcome setbacks.
The wall of the cottage to the left has been addressed in an entirely different fashion. Rather than open it in swathes, the ancient wall has been painted white with an area partially removed to accommodate a glass door. The brickwork surrounding the aperture has been left unpainted, its friable state exposed. The room beyond is white-on-white with an abundance of (natural) light that appears to border on the artificial. This is a very good solution for a Brisbane office where light can be problematic. Rather than block the sun out completely it has been harnessed by filter and walls, which bounce light back into the space without glare. And while this room is clearly a meeting room it pays homage to its past with the original windows left intact though shrouded with wide bands of frosting (3M Crystal) that allow visual connectivity with the room beyond.
Completing the original cottage was a lean-to kitchen and brick fireplace. What remains is the fireplace, its back wall forming a continuation of the inner wall line, while the body occupies space with the presence of what Hamilton Wilson quite rightly describes as an “isolated sentinel”. It is in fact a beautiful object, its squat base rising to an elegantly long throat, topped with a circular form. Again the majority has been painted white, but a channel on each side has been left to expose the original brick. The chimney itself now forms the corner wall to a modern open kitchen that flows directly to an outdoor space.
The outdoor room is a revelation of cool open space. Ceilinged with opaque Ampelite panels (Webglass), the left (two-storey) and far wall, are composed of the same white lattice featured on the building’s façade. As well as being a visual continuum, the lattice allows light into this area, while Ampelite sheeting on the exterior provides privacy and tames the elements. Colour and movement have been added through a beautiful green wall of delicate maidenhair and similar ferns. The verticality of this room has been visually augmented by the right hand wall, which is in fact a glass box that sits outside of the interior frame. Not only does this device expand space, but it also allows light to penetrate the entire interior and convey a sense of integration between areas of work and rest. Further humanising this tall narrow space is the horseshoe of seating in North Queensland spotted gum (with ‘Double Check’, Maraham outdoor cushions), which has also been used as the lower portion of the left wall and principal staircase.
The foyer created by the void is floored in exceptionally beautiful grey sandstone (Stone House Creations), which extends into the kitchen and outdoor area and reappears on the second floor landing. In effect, the corridor between the buildings has been turned into a channel of cross-ventilation that cools the remainder of the building. This is augmented by central air-conditioning and the cooling effect of the 40-millimetre stone flooring. The spotted gum staircase adds warmth and softens the whole without compromising the strong and purposeful lines.
As a legacy of its portfolio of government projects, Wilson has a robust understanding of both legal requirements and engineering. This has manifested as an incredibly delicate handrail with supports that ease and then vanish with descent, before reappearing as a zigzag of steel at reception.
The upper floor houses the practice proper. Wilson believes the practice works at its best when all parties are able to interact. With this in mind, space has been pushed to maximal effectiveness through an extension into the back of the building and computerisation of all aspects that had previously required boards and paper. The blackened framework of the room’s previous incarnation forms a visually open screen and perimeter on one side with charming pink stained glass and windows framing another. The aforementioned leadlight window provides a third and the super modern extension the fourth. Four such disparate walls would normally create a sense of chaos, but Wilson understands the light of Brisbane and has allowed it to flood through the predominantly white space wholesale. The effect is a clear and crisp interior within an interesting shell diffused by light.
Dedicated meeting areas positioned away from the main work area also allow this room to be optimally used. A bridge crossing the void connects the space to a separate room in the upper floor of the cottage. In keeping with Wilson’s philosophy, this room allows those working on a specific project to interact freely without disturbing the rest of the practice or being isolated. On the lower floor an additional meeting room is the only room without a superabundance of light. It is comparatively cave-like with its cork walls, floor and ceiling (Regupol ‘Vision Kush’), but that is where the comparison ends thanks to simple Eames furnishings (Eames Plastic Side chair – Eiffel base).
As a whole the project is exceptionally good: the office is light and air filled. Space has been reclaimed without extending the footprint, and the flow of work and life moves freely within the building. Light and heat have been addressed through the exploitation of the one and the exclusion of the other. In all, it is a solution for which Wilson Architects deserves accolades as it firmly acknowledges both its roots as a fourth generation family practice and its presence on the national stage of exceptional architects.