Brisbane buildings, Hong Kong’s underpasses and Valencia’s design renaissance.
In the grounds of a now-defunct garden centre in north London, a forgotten glasshouse caught the eye of Hasa Architects. The firm converted it into a peaceful event space and the Highgate Bowl glasshouse was born. Birch plywood forms the floors and joinery of the building, a neat contrast to the dark steel frames of the original structure.
The founders of Brisbane’s M3 Architecture have a rare skill: they design large-scale public buildings that communicate a distinctly Australian brand of humour and optimism. “Joy is a word that we use a lot around the office,” says Michael Lavery, who started the firm with two university classmates in 1997. “It’s really important to us.”
Nowhere is their playfulness more obvious than the Rod Laver footbridge, a raised thoroughfare near the edge of the Queensland Tennis Centre. Its geometric trusses perfectly mirror the rubber role of a Dunlop Volley, a brand of shoe that is popular among Australian teenagers.
Across town, M3 Architecture is also responsible for the Micro Health Laboratory at the University of Queensland. It is a redbrick structure shaped, rather aptly, like a brick. “Our buildings are often tied together by very defined ideas,” says Lavery. “It’s more interesting to embed a layer of culture into a project.”
Among the best examples of the firm’s story-led approach is the work it has done for high schools across Brisbane. Two years ago it completed three new buildings for Mount Alvernia College in the city’s north. The widespread use of arches subtly evokes a European monastery, while a central vegetable garden pays homage to the school’s association with St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology.
For Lavery, the underlying hope is that his studio’s work inspires creativity in students. “We always say that if we can’t change the world, we’ll make a difference in our home town.”
Micro Health Laboratory
A masterclass in masonry; cool inside and durable outside.
Cape Tribulation House
Off-the-grid beach house featuring a large built-in sofa.
BGGS Creative Learning Centre
A series of Escher-like internal stairs encourage socialising.
More than 1,200 walking bridges and tunnels have been built to get residents in Hong Kong around on foot. However, many of these structures are underused or even unused, with the millions spent on them going to waste.
What went wrong?
The underpasses were intended to distribute large street-level foot traffic to similar routes below ground. But the colourless underground walkways became more appealing to the city’s homeless and pedestrians have shunned them.
Hong Kong should take note of Taiwan bookseller Eslite, which transformed a 300-metre-long underground tunnel into a “book street”. “These spaces can ramp up community economy and creativity,” says Martin Fung, architect-cum-lecturer at Hong Kong University. With ground level space at a premium, he thinks that underpasses could also become affordable spaces for the hawker food vendors vanishing from the city.
A new political and economic panorama in Valencia is priming Spain’s third-largest city for a renaissance in design. A recent indicator is the unveiling of the Fundació Per Amor A l’Art, a privately funded cultural centre and scientific research institute within the refurbished art deco walls of a former machinery factory.
Interior architect Francesc Rifé worked closely with Valencia’s Michelin-starred chef Ricard Camarena to design the onsite restaurant. “I believe a restaurant needs to create a bond with each visitor,” says Rifé, who harmonised the use of natural light with wide spaces and plenty of Spanish fittings from Marset, Santa & Cole and jmm.
“As a chef, Carmena understands that gastronomic experiences go beyond cooking, so together we harnessed a sense of spaciousness to create silence, warmth and intimacy,”adds Rifé. As a mark of respect for the building’s industrial heritage a second interior skin of walnut wood and lattice dividers was applied. All of which confirms Rifé as Spain’s go-to guy when it comes to the design of gastronomic spaces, not least with a CV boasting projects for Ferran Adriá’s El Bulli Lab and a host of restaurants from Girona to Barcelona.
“This is architecture’s ‘new black’,” says CF Møller partner Mads Mandrup Hansen, as he leads me through his Danish firm’s impressive Maersk Tower, newly opened in Copenhagen. “An architect 10 years ago might have said a dream job is designing a national museum but today it’s to be working on major research buildings.”
Annexed to the University of Copenhagen’s Panum building, the tower has integrated landscaping and copper cladding that can move to reduce sunlight – all part of the effort to create something carbon-efficient. But Hansen says the most fun part was creating laboratories that facilitate scientific breakthrough. These open-plan spaces echo Google’s collaborative working environments but instead cater for today’s wealthy science set – wealthy because the industries reliant upon their research continue to boom.
In Basel a design rivalry is growing between Swiss pharmaceutical giants Roche and Novartis. The latter’s Frank Gehry-designed HQ is a work of art in its own right. Built for a cool $2.3bn (€1.9bn), its form divides opinion as much as the drug-maker it houses. In 2015, Roche took things to the next level by commissioning Herzog and De Meuron to design Switzerland’s tallest tower – it is also one of the world’s most sustainably minded hig-rises.
Herein lies the real beauty in this new trend of grand architectural commissions. Whatever your opinion on the social impact of big pharma, the thread that binds these buildings together is a focus on breaking new ground in sustainable architecture. A beautiful museum might impress visitors with a spectacular form but the spectacle in these works is design innovation – and it will have a positive impact on our built environment for years to come.