Distinction of design reflecting a sense of place

 

 The Green Well Building, taking its place in Bath Street. This image (cropped) and all images of the Green Well Building courtesy Mike Gillam.

 

UPDATED, Saturday 24 August 2013, noting the contribution to the mall redevelopment of the consultancy led by Steve Thorne of Design Urban Pty Ltd.

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

No other single entity has put its stamp on the contemporary face of the Alice Springs town centre to the same extent. With the redevelopment of the northern Todd Mall and Parsons Street and the construction of the Green Well Building on Bath Street, the design work of architects Susan Dugdale and Associates has raised the bar of the built environment across key sites from east to west.

 

In contrast to the generic look of much of the town is Dugdale’s statement of the particular, each structure reflecting her commitment to the expression of a regional identity and the idea that “Alice Springs is a special place”.

 

At left: Susan Dugdale (centre) with associates Miriam Wallace and Brendan Chan.

 

In the Green Well Building, which won top prize in the 2013 Northern Territory Architecture Awards,  “special” is the word. It is above all the elegant distinction of the design and its many pleasing details that puts it so many notches above its neighbours, while not being overbearing.

 

If you stand back from it and look northwards up Bath Street, you can see that in its rectangular mass built to the boundary it is comparable to the adjacent Anangu House as well as Helm House on the next corner. This helps reinforce the CBD grid, adding “a missing tooth”, as Dugdale says, into what has become a mouth full of holes. The site had been vacant for more than a decade.

 

The mass of the building is broken into strong horizontals and verticals, like its neighbours. Its rusted steel and pale anodized aluminium louvres similarly strike dark and light notes, while offering the satisfaction of their difference and liveliness. Even the pronounced curve cutting the large window into the front facade is faintly echoed in the curved columns of Anangu House.

 

The southern façade is the most boldly assertive, with its greater mass of rusted steel, its two circular windows – unique in their form throughout the CBD – and the long box of the first floor floating above the carpark, made almost festive by the subtle dance of colour along the louvres set into the deep reveal of the window. There are only three colours in play here, but their random placement allows for different combinations and reflections off one another, creating the impression of a broader, shimmering palette.

 

The circular windows are protected from direct sunlight and not screened by louvres. Their glass reflects the surroundings, introducing another dynamic element to the façade at the same time as linking it into its environment. They are surprising, which is gratifying in itself, and they also tie in imaginatively with the well that gives the building its name. This is a heritage-listed, once functioning well used when the site was occupied by the home of the late pastoralist Lizzie Milne. It is preserved and honoured in the forecourt, accessible from the street, with a small interpretive plaque and heritage plantings, including an orange tree. (This little garden is irrigated from a rainwater tank, which also provides water for toilet-flushing.)

 

Continuing clockwise around the building you come to different treatments again on the western and northern facades as the building is – unusually within the CBD – free-standing. The northern façade (above right), above the carpark, may eventually be built out but meanwhile it is also satisfyingly distinctive and elegant with its long low windows sitting inside an elongated rectangular form cut out from the façade, repeating the rounded corners from the windows on the front and opposite side.

 

There is a tension between the robust character of the rusted steel cladding and the overall sleekness of the design as well as the delicacy of the louvres; between the steel’s deep colour and velvety texture and the louvres’ pale sheen; between its association with the rural and industrial and their association with the new technologies of the 21st Century. Like the surprise of the circular windows, this tension is gratifying. It gives you something to dwell upon, think about – an experience rather than a bland backdrop.

 

This is pushed along further in the foyer (at left), with an almost wild dance of vertical and horizontal lines doubled by the mirror-clad walls. There are the verticals of the louvres that you can see through the glass, and the verticals of the wooden battens that hold the mirror panels in place; the east-west horizontals of the awning slats outside as well as the strong bands across the footpath, and the north-south horizontals of the timbered stairs. To add to the experience there’s the view of the outside street and the reflection of the street that is behind you. Suspended in the stairwell, as if floating, are the cloud-like light-shades, augmenting the sensation of a slightly unreal space.

 

All this quietly stated aesthetic virtuosity is pleasingly more than skin deep. Dugdale praises the Northern Territory Government for letting a tender requiring the building to have a five-star energy rating. Without this stipulation, as a business venture it would have been built to the less exacting requirements of the Building Code.

 

Dugdale also expresses her appreciation for working with the construction team, Asbuild: “They are totally on board with the design process.”  The owner of Asbuild, Paul Graham, is one of a consortium of four to develop the building. The others are Steven Brouwer, Colleen Thomas and Andrew Thomas.

 

The original tender was for the provision of 1000 sqm of office space, while the final building provided more than double this. The departments to be housed were not specified, so the interior was designed for maximum flexibility, to accommodate different fitouts as well as possible future use changes, a principle of sustainable design in itself.

 

The five star energy rating was achieved mostly through passive means: a thoroughly insulated shell, including the floor of the second storey; the selection of the glass (some glasses transmit heat more than others); the admission of natural light while screening out most direct sunlight with the deep reveals and the louvres. The foyer acts as a buffer zone, insulating the interior offices, while benefiting from their conditioned air as it is cycled back through the space.

 

At right: The most beautiful office window in Alice Springs. 

 

Orientation of the building to maximize winter sun and minimize summer sun was problematic given the unhelpful orientation of the whole CBD grid, 24 degrees off the cardinal points. With most of the long streets running roughly north-south, most CBD building lots face east-west, exposed to the morning and, more problematically, afternoon sun.

 

The most difficult façade in this regard was the front, exposed to morning sun. Dugdale wanted an active frontage to the street – too often missing in downtown Alice Springs – and designed the front to be as transparent as possible. At street level the glass is shaded by the slatted awning extending over the footpath, itself attractively repaved and thus integrated with the building. The second storey window is protected by its deep reveal and the louvres.

 

Head away now in a north-easterly direction, taking in as you go some of the lows of our central streets: the surface carparking on both eastern corners of the Gregory Terrace/Bath Street intersection; acres of it on the north-eastern corner of Gregory Terrace and Hartley Street, part of the 40% of the CBD area given over to surface carparking. And appreciate even more how the Green Well Building has tucked away its carparking, behind and under the building, with that elegant floating box over the driveway.

 

Now we’re in Todd Mall, heading for where the Sails once were, the point separating the more lively southern mall from the problematic north, separating the eastern section of Parsons Street that heads towards the river, from its western section with a clear view all the way to the distant Dog Dreaming range, and largely obscuring the majestic old Tree of Significance, sometimes called the Grandfather Tree or the Tree of Knowledge.

 

At left:  The de-cluttered intersection, looking west.

 

The Sails’ removal was the most significant piece of de-cluttering in the mall redevelopment. And with them went a lot of other ad hoc bits of street furniture, signage and so on – 32 structures large and small, according to Dugdale’s count. Add to this the removal of exotic trees from the base of the old tree, work requested by the traditional owners through the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, which was happily underway anyway and in tune with the desire of the design team to open up this whole area, allow it to breathe … and to breathe the life of the town towards the river.

 

For Dugdale this is the most important accomplishment of the redevelopment, the core of the Parsons Street project as proposed by the consultant team led by Steve Thorne of Design Urban Pty Ltd in Melbourne and which included Dugdale. The project was one of six proposed, with Parsons Street and Todd Mall North chosen by the Town Council as the first cabs off the rank.

 

When I am there with Dugdale, there is still a bit of work going on behind orange barricades, but it is a clear day, with the winter sun sending its long rays down Parsons Street from the west, through the filigree of branches of the grand old tree, through the moth-shaped perforations of the shade structures, filling the large space of the intersection and eastwards through to the banks of the river where the white bark of another Tree of Significance is lit like a shining beacon (below right).

 

If you are drawn now to walk down to the river you’ll find the Riverbank Garden. It couldn’t be simpler. A well-maintained lawn invites you to sit; the trees do the rest.

 

More than any of the design features this explicit opening up of the street and intersection to the grandeur of the natural landscape and its cultural significance takes a big step forward for the CBD and indeed the whole town. Dugdale credits the creative framework by Mike Gillam for the ideas behind this part of the development, ideas embraced by the Town Council, which commissioned the works with funds delivered by the NT Government.

 

In keeping with Gillam’s emphasis on biodiversity, the water elements are ephemeral, as they are in nature. The Rainwater Reflection Pan in front of the old tree is designed to fill only when it rains; otherwise it is there as a simple circular feature in the paving.

 

The Cascade, gravity fed from a water storage tank, will be driven by the irrigation requirements of the plantings in the garden beds along Parsons Street East. As suits desert plants and with a nod to the delightful event of the occasional flow of the river, they will be flood irrigated, with the water pulsing out and trickling down through the raised brickwork in front of the benches.

 

There is a road through the Parsons-Todd intersection now, but the 10 km speed limit means it will never become a busy thoroughfare, and the reserved pedestrian area is spacious. With the removal of a few bollards and the raising of others to close the street to traffic, a major gathering place becomes possible. It will be a regular feature of town life on market days and nights and ready to be pressed into service for special events.

 

The sheer number of bench seats in the area is striking – an insistent invitation to linger, enjoy the winter sun, the views and what they represent, watch the passers by, meet there with friends. Critical to enjoyment in warmer weather will be the development of a tree canopy designed to enmesh with the Shade Moths.

 

The Moths create a degree of shade and shelter, extending the feeling of welcome. They are also part of the statement of this being a special place. They are a dominant feature of Parsons Street and the intersection, the impact heightened by the two sets developed as a work of public art by Pip McManus. She has stressed the moth motif with simple cutout moth shapes in the canopy and elements of text. Looked at directly the text reads backwards. Light completes the act of deciphering, throwing the texts right way round onto the rusted cross-beams where they burn brightly (above left, image courtesy Pip McManus). Discerning a precise meaning is less important here than the realisation that there is meaning. The moth motif is a reference to the life cycle of the caterpillar, in particular the Yeperenye caterpillar, sacred to the Arrernte, the original inhabitants and traditional owners of the whole town area.

 

Looking up Todd Street North, as it is now, the Shade Moths are repeated. They might seem a little extraneous outside the Alice Plaza (below right) but they do connect Todd Street back to Parsons Street, creating a sense of unity, a coherence of vision. Other subtle aspects of the design also do this: the dominant warm earthy tone of the new paving, with contrasting black and white stripey notes in the rumble strips and other paving features that define the places where pedestrians and cars are about to mix. The three-metre wide space bordering the shopfronts throughout and the alignment of the seats and poles supporting the Shade Moths also add to an experience of roomy continuity. Clutter has been minimised by cantilevering lighting and other utilities off the poles.

 

In Todd Street North there is again the welcome of a substantial amount of seating, although quite different, interestingly so, from the bench seating in Parsons Street. Dugdale dubs the steel benches the Caterpillar Seats, as they take their shape from the caterpillar’s undulating movement.  They are designed to be multi-purpose and playful. Young children might climb on them; skaters might skate them – this will be for council and the community to decide.

 

More seating will be installed soon along the footpaths of Todd Street North – steel benches designed in another public art commission by Elliat Rich. A light sculpture to enhance this part of the street is in the planning stages.

 

Smaller details reflect the care given to the whole undertaking, from the inclusion of the name bricks from the now demolished rotunda right down to the small rusted steel posts that now support the protective chain around the old tree. Subtly attractive, they are also a pleasingly scaled-down version of the new bike bollards. It’s the sense of care taken, reflecting local identity and civic pride and offering a welcome to townspeople and visitors alike, that is the great achievement of the redevelopment. For the rest, it’s up to people – individuals, council, business –  to respond, to bring life to the place in the same caring and welcoming way.

 

 

 

Team members working with Susan Dugdale:

 

For the Green Well Building, Maria Raharjo and Miriam Wallace.

 

For the Todd Mall redevelopment, co-designer Miriam Wallace and landscape architect Jen Clarsen from CAT.

 

Other work in central Alice Springs by Susan Dugdale and Associates includes:

 

The Stuart Highway Fence.

 

The 4th auditorium extension to Alice Springs cinemas facing Leichardt Terrace.

 

The façade of the Yeperenye Shopping Centre on Hartley Street.

 

The Nurses Quarters, corner Stuart Highway and Stuart Terrace.

 

The dry-cleaners’ building, next to Woolworths service station on Wills Terrace.

 

 

 

RELATED READING in Alice Springs News Online:

 

Spirit of Parsons Street wins international award

 

More than bricks and mortar needed

 

Will Alice Plaza businesses turn around?

 

 

 

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8 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Posted September 6, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    I still think the house that was previously in this position was much nicer on the eye. Sorry guys, but I’m sure there are a few of us locals that would possibly agree with me.

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  2. Anonymous
    Posted August 31, 2013 at 11:05 am

    Thank you for your thought Alex. On another matter: Whose idea was it to put the painted (?) red bark / mulch in the landscaped areas of Todd Street / Mall? Was that in the design brief? Wasn’t the river sand good enough? The mural on the ANZ car park wall is a bit trippy as well.

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  3. Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:13 am

    In response to the queries put forward by Anonymous concerning the Green Well Building, I’ve recently been informed its construction proceeded only after the NT Government guaranteed occupation of it with government departments; and the NT Government has been paying rent on this empty building since its completion.
    This would amount now to a considerable amount of public money expended on rent for an unoccupied building, at a time when the NT Government is imposing significant restrictions on expenditure for necessary items for the day-to-day functioning of regular public service operations (eg. stationery in schools) and hiking up charges for essential services.
    There are people in the “ordinary world” who are very, very annoyed at what is going on in this town, but of course are constrained from speaking out because of the risks they face from punitive action by government should they do so.

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  4. Sue Dugdale
    Posted August 27, 2013 at 10:55 am

    I am hugely remiss in not acknowledging the work of urban designer and architect Steve Thorne of Design Urban when Kieran Finnane interviewed me for this article. Steve Thorne was our design team leader for the concept and sketch design stages of the project, and a valuable team member for ongoing stages. Steve’s broad knowledge and experience of urban design along with his open eyes and ears have served Alice Springs very well. My apologies Steve!
    Steve has also produced analyses and reports on the Alice Springs CBD for the NT Government that provide valuable material for future planning. They include:
     Alice Springs Urban Design Audit, 2009.
     Alice Springs Central Activity District Built Form Guidelines, 2009.
     Alice Springs Central Activity District Parking Evaluation and Recommendations, 2009.
     Alice Springs Central Activity District Residential Capacity Study, 2010.
    While I am acknowledging valuable contributions to the project in general, the team at CAT Projects were excellent project managers and the Asbuild team did a great job on site – importantly for us and the project, both CAT Projects and Asbuild were on-board with the design ambitions of the scheme. Consultants on board included Greenhill Engineers civil engineers, Geoff Miers for horticulture advice, Brian Blakeman Surveys, Hydroplan irrigation designers, NJA Consulting structural engineers, and MFY Traffic Consultants. And most importantly, NT Government kicked it off, Alice Springs Town Council took the plunge, and the Mall traders and the public put up with the process.

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  5. Anonymous
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Splendid building indeed – a “rose” among “thorns”. In my view, there is no disputing it looks good / is designed well and is setting a benchmark that hopefully other CBD land owners will follow … but, nearly one year (?) after it was built, why is this landmark building still empty? Is there a tenant paying rent on the empty building? Meanwhile, the architecture / ambience of Helm House, Anangu House, Centrelink and the Westpoint buildings is attractive enough to be fully tenanted?

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  6. Mike Gillam
    Posted August 22, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    Kieran, Clearly the cultural and scientific information I’ve provided is not easily conveyed and certainly not by plaques.
    I’ve not seen Pip’s sculptural stenciling but agree wholeheartedly with your reasoning: “Discerning a precise meaning is less important here than the realisation that there is meaning.” If informed locals or guides are needed to fully unravel the stories of the street that’s great!
    I’ve never seen David Attenborough fazed by complexity but he is a great communicator and always finds the essence, the means and the words to pay tribute to his subjects.
    I should add that research for a book on the Hawkmoths of Australia is underway and the authors intend to highlight the cultural significance of local species to Arrernte people.
    Believe it or not, there are a great many hawk-moth aficionados around the world and many of these special interest groups seem to fly under the radar of tourism planners.
    And Kieran, I would suggest the assiduousness you apply to critiquing art and design in central Australia is without equal … Anna Georgia Mackay is a fortunate intern and judging by her efforts in this edition (Time spent joyfully), a deserving one.

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  7. Kieran Finnane
    Posted August 22, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Mike, Thank you for the precision of your information and the prod to approach the mall and indeed the town, rich in cultural sites, with a greater spirit of inquiry into what custodians choose to disclose and reflection on its significance.

    The gap between what you relay here and what I have understood points to the need for interpretive material for what has been done in the mall. Small plaques, clearly, don’t necessarily get noticed or read, and only the most assiduous visitor (which should at least have been me) is going to pull together the significance of the small elements of text in the public art Shade Moths.

    I hope future budgets will allow for an imaginative response to interpretive work.

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  8. Mike Gillam
    Posted August 21, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Kieran, Firstly, congratulations to Sue Dugdale and Associates for securing the Tracy medal, a rare architectural victory for Alice Springs.
    Re. cultural information and the mall. To my mind, your considered story reinforces the need to clarify Arrernte cultural sites and songlines highlighted in the mall.
    I was asked to provide a reference for designers and artists commissioned to work in the Parsons Street section and I recommended further anthropology to expand interpretation of the site and uplands visible to the west.
    The “grandfather tree” and “tree of knowledge” cited in your story is also a part of the epic kwekatye boys travelling north story – information noted on a small sign in Parsons Street.
    Range features to the west are more complicated and include multiple and overlapping sites and songlines. While important ‘wild dog’ sites occur in the Alice Springs town area I’ve not heard of these western uplands referred to as “dog dreaming range” – this may well be correct, partly correct or a case of multiple truths, regardless, as stated in my brief to the NT Govt: “… Highlight the presence of mountainous features to the west. At approx. 3.5 km a low ridge (euro sacred site) is visible and behind this feature at 9 km a distant bluff, possibly associated with Utnerrengatye (totemic caterpillar) dominates the horizon. (custodians need to check and verify this information) …”
    Finally, the moth wing shade structures in your article reference the ever popular Yeperenye. I did not specifically reference this caterpillar and moth in my work, partly because it’s well and truly acknowledged within the contemporary language of place (eg. Yeperenye shopping centre and Yipirinya school) and given the incredible richness of Arrernte creation stories I thought we should avoid being unduly repetitive.
    With the placement of moth wing shades in the street-scape I think it may be useful to consider these as generic representations of hawk moths, specifically the four, possibly five species that represent three very important and distinctive totemic caterpillars.
    The Arrernte and scientific names for these caterpillar ancestors are Utnerrengatye (Coenotes eremophilae), Ntyarlke (Hippotion celerio) and Ayepe-arenye or Yeperenye (Hyles livornicoides and Agrius convolvuli).
    Surely it’s time we recognised the importance of these additional Arrernte totems. Of relevance, one of the artists working on a moth shade canopy sought this information from me and so I know it was her intention to include these three caterpillar ancestors in her work and I believe the Latin names as well.
    I certainly encouraged this inclusive and bilingual approach. Perhaps I’m nit-picking but given the close proximity of the new Tourist Commission offices I think Alice Springs should try to provide our cultural tourists with a richer understanding of place and in Todd Mall and Parsons Street our looking glass can reveal ancient Arrernte, ancient Latin and early European.

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