Dr Chau Chak Wing Building
The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is a bold, yet polarizing, addition to Sydney’s growing skyline. Designed by Gehry LLP, it is located in Ultimo, an inner-city suburb several kilometres from Sydney’s central business district. It is Australia’s first work by the globally renowned studio and, unsurprisingly, has generated a healthy mix of anticipation, admiration and disappointment.
Located on the University of Technology’s urban campus, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is a postgraduate business school named after its key donor, the Chinese-Australian philanthropist Dr Chau Chak Wing. The twelve-story tower contains teaching and learning spaces which aspire towards new educational models.
The building is also a savvy marketing tool, the bricks-and mortar embodiment of the university’s progressive agendas. It is iconic, instantly recognizable and intentionally controversial.
At an urban scale, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is a piece of sculpture, a twisting tower made up of 320,000 individually lain bricks. This material choice relates to the history of this suburb, which is dotted with old industrial brick buildings. Yet, unlike many of the surrounding structures, which are solid and impenetrable, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building replaces flatness with endless folds, dips and curves.
Undoubtedly, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is designed for its external appearance and, in particular, around a key façade the faces east to the city. On this primary elevation, it does not disappoint. The brick façade wriggles and writhes, unfurling as it moves skyward. This animated formalism is a pleasant contrast to the many banal corporate towers that litter Sydney’s centre. In terms of Gehry’s repertoire, it’s also a refreshing departure from the silver curls of the Bilbao Guggenheim, his most famous work, and signals a move to a new material palette.
Up close, it’s easy to appreciate the texture and variation in the bricks, which flicker and peel from the façade. These bricks, along with the rectangular windows that puncture the brick curves, also bring a human scale to the building.
Moving around the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, however, this sense of scale and delicacy begins to slip. The brick contours are sliced open by glass walls, a gesture which continues around to the western façade. Here, shards of glass cascade downwards in a composition that is harsh and jarring.
Inside, these glass cuts reveal their function, bringing light deep into the interior. Yet, despite these good intentions, the exterior form and interior experience never quite feel reconciled. Columns pierce the building at odd angles, interrupting circulation spaces. Brick butts up against plasterboard. Certain flourishes, like the faceted stainless steel staircase, appear gimmicky and garish, and bear little relationship to the building’s overall language.
The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building still contains a few delightful moments. The oval classrooms are composed of radiata pine glulam beams, which are arranged like twigs in a nest. These rooms receive borrowed light through small internal windows, and form refreshing educational spaces.
Similarly, there is a certain appropriateness to the interior fit-out. Although it can’t exactly be described as timeless, it has an informal, rough-and-ready quality that’s perfect for students, with bright colors and curved seating forming study spaces and lounge areas. A moment of understated elegance appears in the deep window reveals, which provide pleasant spaces to sit and study, framing views to the trees and city beyond.
Yet the joyful experience of walking around the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building’s warped, wacky and wonderful façade never quite translates to the interior, where the spaces come undone. In this way, Gehry LLP’s first building on Australian soil is conflicting, in more ways than one. It is undoubtedly a welcome addition to Sydney’s skyline, a courageous and clever departure from the generic glass towers that are coming to define all urban centres. As an external form, it’s also well appreciated, with members of the public delighting in the façade’s expressiveness. It’s iconic, instagrammable and undeniably unique.