The terms critical regionalism, popularized by theorist Kenneth Frampton, proposed an architecture that embraced global influences, albeit firmly rooted in its context. That is, an approach defined by climate, topography and tectonics as a form of resistance to the placidity of modern architecture and the ornamentation of postmodernism. Bringing familiar elements to a particular location can allow the building to be better accepted and incorporated into the local context. This was the case of the New Maitland Hospital, which incorporated a large brick panel next to the main façade, as a reference to the community's traditional symbols.
The project was built to serve and accommodate Maitland's growing population, one of the fastest growing regions in Australia, in The Country of the Wonnarua Nation of the Upper Hunter Valley. Above the front entry sits a glowing brick screen with Indigenous symbols depicting the narrative of the Wonnarua nation. Its beauty may seem unusual in the context of a clinical health zone, but it’s one of many features that make the New Maitland Hospital unique. A twofold design representing the Wonnarua story, with traditional symbols that refer to the surrounding context and community. This depiction was the result of a collaboration between the community, local Aboriginal artist Saretta Fielding, NSW Health Infrastructure, BVN Architecture and Flexbrick, alongside LOHAS Australia.
Upon consultation within the community, Saretta was able to pinpoint key elements of the cultural narrative, “It was really important that we reflected Wonnarua people because the New Maitland Hospital is on Wonnarua Country, so bringing their totem, the wedgetail eagle, was an important part of the design. Also, the Wonnarua are known as the people of hills and plains, which was another very important aspect of The Country to bring onto the design. It was important to respect our elders and acknowledge past, present, and future generations through symbolism that picked up people and our elders in particular”. Along with the aforementioned symbols, the work of art makes use of the earthy color palette of natural clay, which resembles traditional ocre in the Biami cave and is commonly seen in places throughout The Country, its texture referencing natural engravings in the area.
According to the architects, “Awash with art, connected to Country and with a focus on whole-person wellness, it’s a place that is co-designed with its community. And it’s deeply and meaningfully site-specific. The statement red screen and the red brick façade are a nod to Maitland Hospital’s location as the former site of a brick quarry. For much of the community, this connection resonates with their own personal and family history. All through town, this is a kind of vernacular – a common language that unites civic architecture with its primary industry, referencing the past."
The screen itself is an “arbour” – a long structure of terracotta tile curtains threaded onto stainless steel mesh. The concept of ceramic textile refers to an industrialized system of flexible sheets of baked clay for tiling, cladding and laminated structures with a ceramic finish. They can "wear" façades, roofs, squares, and explore new relationships with architecture. The initial brief called for an awning, but the architects saw a bigger opportunity, one which was 12m higher and 75m longer. Through a complex process using 3D modeling and parametric tools, the BVN team embedded an original artwork into Flexbrick. A 1000 sqm canvas that provided the perfect platform for Flexbrick and its bespoke combination of 4 different terracotta tile colours to represent this collaborative design work.
The result is an installation that’s become a major piece of public art. One that celebrates and welcomes its multicultural community. Easy to install and simple to maintain, the Flexbrick arbour is also a practical solution to an expanded entryways in need of protection. The light-permeable façade acts as a natural sunscreen, reducing solar radiation using terracotta tiles.