Architecture That Communicates

Architecture That Communicates

Architecture can perform many functions beyond providing shelter. It can function as a landmark, providing a sense of location and direction. It can create an experience, or a mood.   And it can communicate, although sometimes in a very abstract way that leaves a great deal to the interpretation of the observer.

In the case of Swanston Square, a recently completed apartment complex in Melbourne, Australia designed by ARM Architecture, the communication is very visible, and it is quite specific, not abstract at all. The facade of the building is an 85 m (279 ft) tall image of William Barak, the last traditional ngurungaeta (tribal leader) of the Wurundjeri-willam clan. Barak, who died in 1930 at the age of 79, was an artist, an influential crusader for Aboriginal social justice, and an authority on Wurundjeri cultural lore. He is considered a vital link between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Melbourne.

Barak’s image now looks out over the downtown Melbourne business district, highly visible through the Swanston Street axis and from numerous other places in the district.

The image is created by the curved profiles of the composite panels that clad the building’s balconies. A photograph of Barak was converted into a line-screen, a standard graphic technique for rendering photographs in conventional ink-and-paper printing. It is similar to the dot-screens commonly used in newspapers and magazines, except that the variations of black or white are achieved solely by horizontal lines of varying thickness. The screen was then enlarged enormously, and the white parts were fabricated as white resin-based composite panels 200 mm thick. The panels are affixed to the front of the balconies. They stand out against the recessed black windows, black exterior wall panels and black balcony walls that form the black parts of the image.

The image is visible from quite a few places, but best seen from a distance. As the observer gets closer, it begins to look, increasingly, like curvy balconies. The tower’s ideal viewpoint is the Shrine of Remembrance (2.8 km away), which marks the southern end of the Swanston Street axis.

“We think a building of this scale and civic significance owes the public a visual and cultural contribution as well as providing thoughtfully for its residents,” explains Howard Raggatt, designer of the building and Founding Director of ARM. “Our design response was to mark the recognition of the deep history of our land, represented by a face of its ancient people, the Wurundjeri.”

Not to be left out, the northern and western façades present a very different picture, an interpretation of a heat map generated from pixelated, color-coded topographic/terrain maps. The podium car garage façade has a grid of portholes on the southern wall that look as if circles were subtracted from the façade. Selected holes on the garage wall are filled with polished aluminum discs to spell “Wurundjeri I am who I am” in Braille.

The 112m (367 ft) building boasts 31 stories of apartments plus a parking garage. It has numerous sustainable features including low-energy light and water fittings, a 31-story recycling chute with several baffles on the way down to slow glass objects, and a heat trace line hot-water system that prevents water cooling in the pipes reduce wastage while waiting for hot water arrive at the tap. It also includes amenities for cyclists, encouraging low-impact transportation.

But unquestionably, it is the face of William Barak for which Swanston Square will be known. Barak’s granddaughter, Aunty Doreen Garvey-Wandin, is a Wurundjeri Elder, and appreciates the importance of this very public homage. (‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’ are the official titles of Indigenous Elders. They carry significant authority.) “Something like this has been a long time waiting,” she said, “and I think it’s wonderful. My great grandfather would be so proud.”

All images courtesy of ARM Architecture