Architecture: Brain and Mind Institute, Sydney (2008)

Photography – John Gollings

 

BVN Architecture – BRAIN AND MIND RESEARCH INSTITUTE, CAMPERDOWN NSW

Winner of Health Building Category, 2010 World Architecture Festival

Faced with a project like this Louis Kahn may have asked – “What does a Brain and Mind building want to be?” When you collect a series of research laboratories, offices, counseling spaces and administrative spaces what do you get? Moreover, if the site is urban and sandwiched between a pair of heritage buildings, what to do? The exterior here responds more to the need to craft a well thought-out external architecture, than anything obviously  about the brain and the mind. Not surprisingly, the task of resolving this sizeable addition is made even more difficult by a need to place one volume on top of one of those heritage buildings. In a formal sense the volume stacking exercise actually works very well through the visual “lightening” the material of U-Glass brings to the elevations.

A giant steel support armature – part structure and part sculpture – is instrumental in this success. The springing point of the steel armature also denotes entry – however the significance of this device for the whole building is greater than that. What may have been a clever reinterpretation of something seen elsewhere[1] is at BMRI, a far more significant presence. The steel armature at Camperdown prescribes the totality of the street elevation, rising full height and full width, supporting and delimiting a massive U-Glass box. With this intensified structural responsibility to discharge, the armature also gains a much amplified architectural connotation. The eye is drawn to it – it buttresses the entire frontal plane of the building. Noting therefore, that steel and U-Glass are used well, so too are the other external materials: the craftsman-like fair face concrete block and the tactile hardwood screen beside the entry complete the set of street façade materials.

Considering the same architect’s George Browning Centre in Canberra – where an earlier instance of the armature appears – and this Camperdown building where it has been used, is the steel armature something of a BVN trope? Yes, it seems to be a figure of (architectural) speech, but, importantly, it is somewhat unique and clearly not a universal (architectural) motif. Something universal would invite appropriation and wide-spread adoption by others. BVN’s steel armature trope is particular, and it would not lend itself to appropriation. In this interpretation a trope is therefore clever and a motif is mindless.

Plan- Level 3 - courtesy BVN Architecture

Internally, especially in the lobby-void with its volumetrically varied and rich spaces, BMRI extends the honest expression of materials, with their negligible extent of layered-on finishes. Again it’s a BVN exercise in truth – truth through a direct expression of telluric materials and exposed structure.

This building stands for the occurrence of a mature architecture positioned at the intersection of building craft and intellectual curiosity. It has a well-defined physicality, the eye tells you these forms and their materials are real and palpably physical. The eye invites you to experience them. This work certainly doesn’t have the two-dimensional look of a built architectural drawing; it is something far more experiential.

In considering this work it is productive to note that, some years after his landmark essay on Critical Regionalism,[2] Kenneth Frampton reflected[3] that:

“Towards a Critical Regionalism” was elaborated in terms of space/place, visual/tactile, tectonic/scenographic, and last but not least, artifice/nature. I argued that these dichotomies should not be construed moralistically as positive and negative values but rather as polarities that necessarily stand in opposition to one another in much the same way as universal civilization and local culture are unavoidably interdependent.

A further fifteen years on these same polarities and the sort of regionalism in contradistinction to universalism still pertains, perhaps even more so in an age of ubiquitous media such as the present.

Indeed the eminence of works like the BMRI building implies an exemplary mode of architectural deportment, not only for BVN but for the region the practice works in. It is in works like this that the limits of what architecture can do are shrewdly understood and the craft of design through buildings and their latent potential to express architectural physicality, is developed.


[1] For example Col Madigan used similar folded steel plate forms as sun-screening supports elements in the National Gallery in the early 1980s

[2] Kenneth Frampton “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance”, in The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983) edited by Hal Foster, Bay Press

[3] “Universalism and/or Regioinalism. Untimely Reflections on the Future of the New” Domus magazine c 1995

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