At the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, which opened in August, it appeared that financial gloom had precipitated a new era of sobriety and conservatism in European and American architecture. The biennale was nostalgic for an earlier period of modernist connoisseurship and adverse to architectural experimentation. For Australian architects on the cusp of the Asian century, when China will provide the biggest story in urbanism since the industrial revolution, this perspective seemed misdirected. The best ways to ensure our built environments have a sustainable future are unlikely to be found by looking backwards.
Australia’s relative prosperity might lead you to expect a healthier culture here, but it is still hard to find in one building that combination of qualities which characterises the very best architecture: deep disciplinary understanding and innovation, while meeting the needs of both the client and the community. The year’s outstanding exception is the new RMIT Swanston Academic Building by Lyons Architects.
The building doesn’t easily allow for conventional comparisons. Its 11 storeys have been wrapped in an undulating crystalline curtain that alternates between triangular windows and sunshades. The unbroken geometric exterior intriguingly shifts between form and recessive surface, frustrating our expectation to see a building as a series of levels and hierarchies.
Large balcony openings that carefully create views for those looking out from the building’s public spaces counterpoint the facade. These openings are projected into the centre of the building, creating super-sized light corridors that bring the exterior world deep into the interior. For hundreds of years, buildings with large footprints have relied on courtyards to provide light and ventilation. Experiments avoiding this convention have almost invariably failed, but here the crisscrossing corridors have created an open and light interior.
This is a building that looks forwards rather than backwards, where a commitment to innovation both extends the discipline and has created a wonderful learning environment in a comprehensively sustainable project.
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