The Nishi Building
By Jennifer McMaster
Canberra, Australia’s parliamentary capital, is often labeled bland and bureaucratic. But the new Nishi Building, designed by Molonglo Group, sits in stark contrast to these traits. It is progressive, quirky and vibrant, and, as a result, has put Canberra back on the map.
The Nishi Building is the brainchild of Molonglo Group, a development company headed by Johnathan and Nectar Efkarpidis. Having grown up in the city, the pair wanted to inject it with something distinctive and cosmopolitan.
Molonglo Group collaborated with over sixty architects, designers, makers and artists who, together, designed the Nishi Building and its precinct, New Acton. Among this list of collaborators were Japan’s Suppose Design Office, Melbourne-based Fender Katsiladis Architects and March Studio, and landscape architects Oculus. The result is a project that has no singular design hand but, rather, is enriched by collaborative input.
Formally, the Nishi Building is composed of two low, squat towers. The first building is defined by origami-like folds of concrete, which provide the upper floors with angled privacy and views. The second tower, meanwhile, is a more generic glass box, whose rear facade is tastefully embellished with blackbutt battens and planting.
Molonglo’s Nishi Building is a mixed-use development made up of shops, commercial offices, apartments and a hotel. While this sounds jumbled, the spatial arrangement is simple in plan and section: public functions, including shops and the hotel, occupy the lower floors, while private offices and apartments are situated above.
All of these programs share an entrance, a spectacular wooden installation composed of over 2,150 pieces of recycled timber. These explode outwards, forming walls, a ceiling and a central staircase. The splintered nails and gnarly ends of each piece of timber give the space variation, texture and tactility. It’s a pleasant, and intentional, contrast to the cold, clinical decor that usually typifies commercial interiors.
The staircase leads upwards to a lobby, which simultaneously acts as a meeting space, restaurant and hotel concierge. This space is consistently occupied with a mixture of locals, workers and travellers, who eat, relax and mingle in the open-plan layout.
The ground floor space is dark and moody, with light coming from circular cuts in the concrete ceiling. These round skylights look up to a fern garden, which also acts as a central atrium for the building above. Pre-cast concrete blocks are stacked into nests, forming concierge desks and a central fireplace. To provide warmth, the furnishings have a homely, bric-a-brac quality that is intentionally eclectic.
Moving upstairs, the Nishi Building splits into a mixture of private apartments and hotel rooms. The hotel occupies the two lowest floors, with rooms looking inward to the atrium, or out onto the lake. The rooms are cosy and dimly lit, and each suite is furnished with a unique array Australian objects and artworks. The material palette is also localised, with layers of timber, textured chipboard and concrete referencing the rough-hewn materiality of bush shacks.
By contrast, the Nishi Building’s twenty apartments, which occupy the stories above, are compact and contemporary. The apartment interiors display much less personality, but are clean and crisply designed. Their interior planning is experimental, with apartments ranging from neat one-bedders with fold-out beds to split-level apartments.
The Nishi Building also displays admirable environmental initiative. The hotel uses a palette of recycled and repurposed materials, while the apartments rely exclusively on natural ventilation. Building staff are also trained in sustainable practice, opening and closing doors throughout the seasons to regulate temperature and air flow.
Molonglo Group’s Nishi Building exemplifies how a single building can contribute to place, culture and community. It places good, sustainable design at its core, and relies upon this ethic to build its brand and identity. So far, it has hosted curious travellers and like-minded residents from all over the world. But, more importantly, it has generated a loyal local following in Canberra, which seems ready to embrace this bold new development.
Molonglo Group’s Nishi Building is the antithesis of a typical commercial, residential or hotel development. It favors messiness, localism and pluralism over the expected and generic. In such a way, it is quickly leading, and emblemizing, change in Australia’s capital.