Text description provided by the architects. This project is prominently located in the heart of Surry Hills, an inner-city suburb of Sydney whose community is characterised by a diversity of age, income and cultural backgrounds. The architectural context is also diverse: residential apartments, terrace housing, shops and commercial/industrial premises vary in scale though their architectural style is predominantly Victorian. The site is very constrained, measuring just 25 by 28 metres and bound on three edges by roads: Crown Street, the main street of Surry Hills, to the east and two residential streets to the south and west.
The project’s brief was developed in close consultation with the very active local community. The key approach that emerged from these discussions was that the community wanted a facility that everyone could share. Rather than only a library or a community centre or childcare centre, it became clear that it was important to have all of these facilities together in one building, in one place. In this way the building became a truly shared place where the whole community could meet and use in different ways. Important, too, was for the building to represent and reflect the community’s values.
In response we developed what for Sydney is a new type of public building. It is not a singular typology, for which there are many precedents, but a hybrid public building that is many different things in one: a library/resource centre, community centre and childcare centre all integrated into one modest building and accessible by all.
Transparency became an architectural theme at many levels, allowing an inviting and welcoming building that is accessible and open to public view. At the same time it was important that the building was not merely ‘transparent’, or only expose what is accommodated within, but that it represented and embodied the values of the community. Accessibility, openness, transparency and sustainability were key values as was a general sense of aspiration.
From our early studies, four integrated formal elements emerged: a new simple open space and platform, a prismatic glass environmental atrium, a suspended ‘U’ shaped timber form and a transitional foyer space.
On the southern edge, the Collins Street road closure was converted to a modest public park with a raised grass platform. This new space extended the function of the building and reasserted itself as a public place.
The tapered glass atrium evolved in response to the ambitious sustainability objectives of the project, and equally to the sense of layered transparency and the project’s aspirational quality. The series of glass prisms creates an open, transparent façade, akin to an open dolls house, and addresses the new open space so that all the different activities of the centre are visible and displayed, encouraging participation.
The timber ‘U’ form embraces the prismatic environmental atrium and orient both towards the south and the new little park. The ‘solid’ sections of this timber form are made of automated louvre systems that filter and control sunlight and view. This warm timber form is lifted above the ground to create transparency and accessibility.
The foyer space is a lower transitional form that mediates the scale of the building against the adjacent shops while creating a welcoming, transparent entry. Suspended cloud-like roof profiles bring daylight into this space and extend out above the street to mark the entrance.
The environmental atrium has become emblematic of the centre and clearly identifies the new building and public place. Looking from the new park through this prism façade, the functions of the building are apparent.
The library on the ground and lower-ground levels contains a diverse borrowing collection of approximately 30,000 items, local history collections, some reference material and public access computers. The community centre on level one comprises a function facility for 125 people and adjoining verandah, meeting rooms, commercial teaching kitchen, Neighbourhood Centre administration offices and amenities. On level two, the childcare centre provides accommodation for 26 children in two groups (1–2 and 2–5 years) and includes an outdoor landscaped play space with automatic shade roof.
A key project objective was to establish a new Australian standard of excellence for environmentally sustainable design in civic buildings. The building incorporates many sustainable design innovations and seeks to integrate these into the architecture and explore the expressive potential of such systems. This is most evident in the environmental atrium.
The environmental atrium’s series of triangular, tapering airshafts draw in clean outside air and passively cool it. Experimental use of plants to bio-filter pollutants is integrated in the gardens of specially selected plants within these glass enclosures. Natural daylight is filtered through these layers of glass and garden and flow deep into the interiors.
The array of environmental initiatives intrinsic to the design also include a thermal labyrinth for passive filtering and tempering of the air, solar-tracking timber louvre systems, automated fabric shading, mixed mode ventilation, extensive photovoltaic array, geothermal cooling bores, green roof, rainwater collection and recycling, and sustainable material selection.
Computerised building management and control systems (BMS) automatically monitor and control the internal environmental conditions of the building, adjusting the ventilation and sunshade louvres throughout the day to control heat load, light and shade, and switching lights on and off when required. The BMS also monitors and records both electrical and hydraulic systems to maximise the environmental efficiency of the building and identify system faults.
The centre has been embraced by the local community since its opening. It is a welcoming community place for all ages and all social groups. It provides facilities that embody the values of equity of access to information and resources that are essential to building communities.