Fragile monuments

Ten years after the completion of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, there was a flurry of reviews taking stock of the building.

Enough time had passed to appreciate how expectations change after buildings are finished, but not enough time that the building was beyond critique and demanding of a more historical appraisal.

I raise the case of the Centre Pompidou not because of any stylistic similarities between it and State Library of Queensland (SLQ), but because it exemplifies a common set of tensions that have come to characterise the design of cultural buildings – between the impetus for monumental expression and memorable spaces, and the desire for flexible spaces that can cope with changing uses and the continuous staging of temporary events.

On its completion the Centre Pompidou was critiqued for looking ‘unfinished,’ anti-monumental and not enough like a building. After ten years it was critiqued for being too flexible, to the point that the interior of the building had to be remade for every exhibition and event. The brief for the extension of SLQ – for a more accessible building with more space for community use – encapsulated the changing role of cultural institutions, and the library as a building type, in the late 20th century.

Since then event culture has become the main game. At the Centre Pompidou this impetus was famously critiqued as an implosion of culture. At SLQ, I’ve always liked the fact that there is a tension between permanence and ephemerality, palpable in the juxtaposition of sculptural off-form concrete masses sheathed in scaffold-like veils and too-thin copper and polycarbonate sheets – it is a fragile monumentality.

But with the kinds of temporary events now held at cultural institution such as SLQ – ranging from markets, concerts and symposiums, to knit-ins and yoga classes – there is much pressure on the interstitial and circulation spaces around and through the building, particularly at ground level. The permeability of this level generally supports such uses quite well, even though it often results in the atrium space known as the Knowledge Walk being ‘filled-up’ with temporary structures, not to mention the chaotic chorus of small children engaged in craft activities.

 “…a grand River Room was proposed on the river side of the building…”

However, it is most conspicuous in Stanley Place, which is already crowded with the bus drop-off, carpark access, and level changes, and thus not able to function as the substantial forecourt that this evolving pattern of use, and large-scale temporary installation such as Vo Trong Nghia’s Green Ladder (2015), now demands.

During their 20 years of practice, Donovan Hill were renowned for developing the outdoor room as a trope for civic space in a subtropical climate, extending Louis Kahn’s concept of the room as the primary determinant of architecture, while inverting the convention of the European piazza as the dominant social-civic urban space. They successfully translated this concept across scales and building types. In the original design for the SLQ extension, a grand River Room was proposed on the river side of the building that would have matched the scale of the sublime Water Mall space in Robin Gibson’s Queensland Art Gallery. For various reasons this room was not realised. Traces of it, and the idea for a large spatial volume for civic occasions, resurfaced in the atrium and the Queensland Terrace. Arguably there have been benefits to this strategy. While the River Room would have corrected the general orientation of Gibson’s complex away from the river, it also would have obscured the external expression of Gibson’s original building, and the coherence of the complex along this edge. The atrium is very successful – volumetrically, climatically and as a gathering space for external vertical circulation that is both playful and functional. But with this success the building turns inwards and its logic comes from the centre rather than the periphery. A rethinking of Stanley Place could provide a counterpoint to this effect.

“SLQ is literally like an extension of home…”

I find it interesting that more so than these civic-scale rooms, it is the domestic quality of the whole complex that has been embraced in use. I don’t mean this as a criticism. For me, SLQ is literally like an extension of home. Not only because I live locally in a small apartment with two children, and we make extensive use of surrounding public space and parks. But also because it is comfortable and casual, with furniture, cushions and curtains that you can move around. It is this quality of the building that has been imprinted on the psyche of regular users, rather than the more ceremonial spaces. But this is a factor of programming as much as anything – the under-utilisation of the stair connecting the Queensland Terrace and the Knowledge Walk, is a case in point – a problem of lines of security and staffing as much as any need or desire for ceremony.

One of the critiques of the Centre Pompidou that has always startled me, reading across a time-lapse of almost 40 years, is the claim it was too ‘aesthetic’– which meant the architecture was too dominant over the uses that it housed. A similar critique was, anecdotally, levelled at SLQ at the time of its completion.[1] One change in our culture that the Millennium Arts buildings are a good marker of, is the general rise in interest and attention to design. Is this a maturing of culture that the Millennium Arts project aspired to represent?

“…a successful symbol for the cultivation of a design culture by the institution.”

The SLQ building has been a successful symbol for the cultivation of a design culture by the institution. It has hosted several significant design-focused events, produced a self-guided design tour for kids, and has made design a key theme in its collection through the Asia Pacific Design Library. Meanwhile, the outdoor room idea has been appropriated by the DIY, real estate and development industries.

The counterpoint to this can be seen on the other side of the river in that other significant precinct of our city – the government precinct along George and William street. In 2017 the Neville Bonner building (1998) – arguably the first civic building by Donovan Hill in the city, and a significant moment for architecture in the post-Joh era, to which SLQ in indebted – will be demolished, along with 80 George Street, completed at a similar time to Gibson’s Cultural Complex (which was heritage listed in 2015).

The demolition of these significant buildings exposes the real fragility of architecture in our culture. It raises important questions about the frameworks and mechanisms through which we value design, which need to be debated if we are really to come of age.

Susan Holden

Photo credit
Photo credit: SLQ western entry. Photo by Jon Linkins.
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State Library of Queensland officially re-opened to the general public on 25 November 2006. The building redevelopment was part of a major $291 million Millennium Arts Project which was a state wide infrastructure program by the Queensland Government in the early 2000s. In 2002 Donovan Hill in association with Peddle Thorp Architects won an international design competition to redesign the building.


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