Bengaluru-based architectural journalist, Architect Apurva Bose Dutta, who recently represented the Indian Delegation at the International Media Visit of Architectural Writers at Melbourne, writes about “architecture that confronts”, a realisation that dawned upon her on her meeting with the award-winning ARM Architects of Australia.
“Architecture is a curious craft”, the famous words of Professor Christopher Charles Benninger has stayed with me right from my architecture schooling days! Architecture can calm you, relax you, make you at ease; but it can also shock and stimulate you and question and challenge your ideas. Recently, the award-winning architecture, urban and interior design practice, ARM Architects based out of Melbourne and Perth, were honoured with the 2016 Architecture Gold Medal, Australia’s highest award by the Australian Institute of Architects.
It robustly validated that Australia, a confluence of disparate architectural styles is all for architects who pursue the unconventional way and “dare” to experiment. Known for their “daring, controversial designs and their architectural outspokenness”, ARM Architecture was established by Late Stephen Ashton, Howard Raggatt and Ian McDougall in 1988, and has been one of the most influential architectural offices in Australia in these three decades.
Instrumental in shaping the idea of public architecture throughout Australia, ARM challenges design thinking with its out-of-the-box solutions. One look at the Melbourne CBD, and you know that most of the major buildings are a product of ARM. Working on diverse typologies of buildings with distinct designs solutions that don’t hold a common thread, the firm’s designs inherit a language that compels onlookers to stop and look at their building designs.
Examples include the Barak building, an apartment building of civic significance due to its imprint of William Barak, the last leader of the aboriginal tribe of Australia, on its front facade; the Melbourne Recital Centre with its flamboyant facades and halls imagined as musical objects; Geelong Library & Heritage Centre with an apparently eroded sphere and a front façade; the RMIT Storey hall and Green Brain indulging in its green colour palette and the renovated Hamer Hall at the Southbank arts precinct exulting in its vibrancy. Other such mind-boggling designs include Perth Arena, a sporting facility at Perth, Melbourne Central Shopping Centre, Wanangkura Stadium at South Hedland and the Arts West Building at the University of Melbourne.
The firm is exemplary for great team work with a lot of “heads” in place, but all the while making every project a combined effort of the office and not relegating success to individuals. Behind every design solution, especially for public buildings, there exists a deep research into history, culture and identity to gain inspirations to infuse a narrative into the building itself. However, are the “shock values” in the buildings’ design of the firm relevant, which evidently oppose buildings that are “ordinary” and “boring”?
Quiz ARM on their bold, edgy and provocative designs and Mark Raggatt, director of the firm calmly replies, “Our architecture is driven by ideas, and its purpose remains to construct a cultural identity through the story we narrate through our buildings”. Seemingly, the firm is not afraid to use an extravagant splash of colours, as you realise in the Barak Building.
While the front façade has been skilfully conceptualised with Barack’s face profile to offer a special view from the Melbourne’s Swanston Street Axis, the rear façade, is an atypical melange of colours. Or the National Museum of Australia in Canberra acclaimed as one of ARM’s most controversial buildings, which seemingly is the only building that brings a lot of energy in the otherwise calm and quiet Canberra. In this context, however, the reconfigured Shrine of Remembrance built on an artificial hill, is perhaps a departure from the above designs and one that moves you with the emotional connect it generates through the sunken courts and “Galleries of Remembrances”.
ARM’s buildings have been successful in attracting huge influx of people, which could indicate the influence of architecture in people’s lives. The firm has recently released its voluminous monograph, a good 1300 pages’ book resembling a bible and forthrightly seeking to talk about ideas in architecture and not buildings alone.
Titled, “Mongrel Rapture – The Architecture of Ashton Raggatt McDougall”, that suitably defines the firm, the monograph specifies how for ARM it is important to “talk” about architecture, instead of relying on the idea that architecture speaks for itself. Now, that’s a contradiction for those who have always believed and have been taught that buildings or architecture should speak for themselves. Clearly, ARM is a firm which thinks unconventionally!
ARM’s many heads are thinkers in themselves – architects who not only create, but occasionally voice their thoughts at academic, public and media discourses, driving forward an architectural culture.
The firm has interesting projects in the pipeline including the renovation of the main concert hall of the Sydney Opera House, and the on-going work on Elizabeth Quay masterplan, and National Museum of Australia.
There have been much deliberations on the identity of Australian Architecture. While some architects in the country are still trying to find out an answer, as are the onlookers, would it be safe to say that the architecture of ARM is defining Australian Architecture? It is time to ponder and to start looking for answers!
The Storey Hall & Green Brain, Rmit University, Melbourne
These two additions to the campus of RMIT University could well be symbolic of the abstractness, the materiality, the shock value and the colour infusion that ARM brings to its projects.
While the Storey Hall (1995) houses RMIT’s contemporary educational, exhibition and conference purposes, the Green Brain (2010) is the extension of its facilities in its neighbouring corner building. Both seem to connect to each other through the striking green façade.
The Storey Hall’s façade depicts a cave-like entrance inspired from an amethyst geode and is topped by bronze tiles, while its interiors feature interlocking of different concrete volumes, juxtaposed to give a dynamic appearance.
The Green Brain has green protrusions modelled from green fibreglass panels, forming canopies at two levels. It makes it hard to ignore it, even if one doesn’t approve of it! The “Brain” is derived from the famous Penrose tiles, named after mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose, albeit in a softer and fluid version.
Text By Ar Apurva Bose Dutta
Photographs Ar Apurva Bose Dutta, ARM Architects