A 'pure' design problem?

I am about to embark on a design project that I am tempted to call a 'pure' architectural problem. What is important about this observation, apart from the details of the job, is my impulse to refer to it as a 'pure' problem. This implies that some architectural problems are 'impure' or contaminated in some way, a condition that this project somehow avoids through a convergence of circumstance, siting and brief. The distinction is false: a phantom idea that seems solid at first glance, but becomes progressively more vapourous the more it is examined.

My impulse to call the project a 'pure' architectural problem comes from it being relatively unencumbered in certain ways, but it is a lazy taxonomy. The brief is to design a library and community services building for a township outside a regional city here in southern Australia. The township is sorely lacking in public institutions, buildings and spaces, and as such the new building will provide an important social function. Stay-at-home parents will be important beneficiaries of the project, as it will give them space to come together in public, in a non-commercial setting. As such the project promises a lot for a growing community, and the social performance of the buildings must be outstanding or an opportunity will be missed. This social factor, and the project's limited budget, are the chief encumbrances.

The project is relatively less encumbered by its setting, and this is where it departs from my usual work. The building will be built on a greenfield site - one that is literally a green field at this time. Construction vehicle access will be direct and easy; the site slopes consistently but not steeply to the west, and access to services such as sewer and electricity is straightforward. The subsoil is a bit shifty, which causes some complications in the design, but on the whole it will be a straightforward build. Conceptually, the building will be an object in a field, a condition that many architects would view as ideal, a chance to 'strut their stuff'. After all, the quintessential architectural project is the heroic object positioned 'in the round' like a sculpture, with its sublime body visible, and hence consumable, from all angles. Isn't it?

I think my impulse to call this a 'pure' architectural problem comes from an awareness of this apparently 'ideal' condition, that of the unencumbered architectural object 'landing' on the big, empty site. It is curious that I might be tempted to call this 'pure', as I tend to think of the ideal as something quite different. With my team, the ideal project is one that is heavily encumbered - by a complex and dense urban setting, a built-up site, or even an existing building that needs to be accommodated in the new works. The energy of our architecture at WBa comes from the charge of highly constrained problems, which is why we love working with heritage buildings so much. We are not motivated by the desire to create heroic architectural objects - we are more interested in subtlety, nuance and insinuation. In our best projects, texture, surface and materials play more of a role than objects and sculptural gymnastics.

This library project is a very different beast, and yet it is perhaps still encumbered, albeit in different ways. Because the setting is so resolutely suburban, the user's understanding of the building will be more informed by visual iconography rather than a small-scale pedestrian experience. The iconography will inevitably be informed by somewhat inauspicious but familiar building types: the fast food restaurant, seen from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, is the most obvious example. This hardly sets my world on fire, but some elements of that archetype are interesting. These include the 'friendly' roof form that marks the building in an otherwise homogeneous and horizontal landscape, and the need to carefully choreograph the transition from vehicle arrival to pedestrian entry.

On balance, I would now like to rephrase my description of this project. It is not a 'pure' architectural problem, but neither is it an 'impure' architectural problem: it is just another design problem, one that demands a typically specific response, albeit in different terms than those I usually work in. Others would relish the opportunity for some architectural heroics set against a big sky and dominant horizon. The challenge is to bring the sensibilities of my more typical work to the greenfield site. Let's see how that unfolds.

For more sketches, check out the project in my portfolio