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The National Centre for Synchrotron Science (NCSS) by Bates Smart, in the outer-Melbourne suburb of Clayton, is a new building representing the public face of the Australian Synchrotron – an advanced third-generation 3GeV light source with a high-quality, low-emittance, stable electron beam. The synchrotron is a machine that accelerates charged electrons to create an electron beam that travels at close to the speed of light. Travelling in orbit the electrons release intense radiation – synchrotron light – which can be filtered and directed down “beamlines” for non-destructive, high-resolution, rapid, in situ, real-time imaging and analysis techniques. It creates the conditions in which to see.
Kristen Whittle of Bates Smart says, “NCSS has been designed to offer the visitor a series of new and exciting experiences of light.” Here, we might recall Le Corbusier’s foundational passage in Towards a New Architecture (1923):
“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage; the image of these is distinct and tangible within us without ambiguity. It is for this reason that these are beautiful forms, the most beautiful forms. Everybody is agreed to that, the child, the savage and the metaphysician.”
But what has the light revealed – beauty or savagery?
The NCSS is a glowing building: square in plan, it forms a pigeon pair with the circular synchrotron. The polycarbonate facade has been hand painted with a dichroic finish, giving it a pearlescent sheen that shifts with changing light conditions. The interior is tall and monochromatic; within is a shimmering cella clad in acrylic sheets that receive and refract daylight from a hidden source above.

It is one in a string of glowing pearls that continue to appear in the design pages all over the world, each as beguiling, translucent and blank as the next. Whittle says, “The absolute mantra of the project is to create meaning through reduction – paring back the detailing and the finishes – so that the sole experience for the visitor … is the quality of the light, nothing else.”
There is more here, another story. What is the source of this architectural glow and what meaning might it create? This story is barely a silhouette on the polycarbonate scrim.

The archetypal glowing box is the New Jerusalem depicted by John the Apostle (or maybe John of Patmos) in The Book of Revelation. The New Jerusalem is a vision at the heart of Christian eschatology, the philosophy and theology that is concerned with the final events of history – the end of the world. The New Jerusalem is shown to John as a glowing golden cube; “the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal” (Revelation 21:10–11); “The City was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide” (Revelation 21:16); “The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass” (Revelation 21:16).
This is the city at the end of time, a vision of a city where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

That revelation is a vision of the end times, not of scientific infrastructure. John’s vision of the crystal city is recalled time and again in Western architecture, from the Gothic cathedrals to the modern day. The Australian Synchrotron, too, seeks an enlightenment utopia; it is seeking cures, the “synchrotron light of high brilliance, ranging from infrared to hard X-rays is supplied at the end-stations of beamlines enabling advances in treatments for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.”
Bates Smart isn’t shy about its goal of manifesting in architecture the hopes of synchrotron science. “We wanted to match the revolutionary calibre of scientific research that’s being done at the Australian Synchrotron with a building that, through its materiality and poise, would make light and the work of the research manifest in the material fabric of the building,” says Kristen Whittle. The NCSS reflects and refracts the eschatological dreams of a new earth without illness, free from dementia.
But the world is not like that, is it? The world is savagery and beauty in equal measure. What is it that this beautiful light reveals? Wherefore the glow box?
The oft-deployed pearlescent glow of the NCSS should not be mistaken for a mere quality. Architecture is not a science and it is not a problem for science – it is a problem for philosophy, for art, for politics and for building. The glowing box, like so much in architecture, is at once ancient and contemporary, sacred and profane, and both ephemeral and violent. The relationship between science and modernity swings from utopian to cynical and back again. The nineteenth-century hope for a mechanical paradise turned to despair after the Great War; the birth of the internet age has brought revolution and paranoia. Architecture can contain this gyre of meaning. It can create the conditions in which to see.
At the dawn of the modern era Francisco Goya painted the midnight execution of resistors to the Napoleonic army. The picture is The Third of May 1808 (1814), a night beyond redemption. Between the victims and the mechanical firing squad is a lantern, a glowing cube: it is impossibly bright and at once reveals and is witness to the pitiless brutal violence. It is an image of singular tragedy but also of modernity gone awry before it has even begun. The lantern is pure surface but it irradiates the scene. The light, here, is not the subject or object, it is the means. It creates the conditions in which to see.
In 1971 Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange irradiates the image again. In the opening scenes the blue-black silhouettes of Alex and his droogs applaud the slumped but songful wino before administering “a bit of the old ultraviolence.” The viciously backlit scene reveals no form, only shape and shadow; there is no “magnificent play of masses brought together in light”; rather, this light creates the conditions in which to see. Each picture creates the urge to look away.
The beneficent bloom of the NCSS may appear to be a far cry from Kubrick’s unflinching portrayal of human psychopathy, but the historical foundations for this building are ankle deep in blood. Architecture is a typological art form and the NCSS is a temple. When the Greeks and Romans looked at temples they saw blood. The NCSS doesn’t have columns, frieze or pediment, and there are no bone-shaped triglyphs, but it’s a temple nonetheless.
In classical temples the columns formed a kind of screen between the common man and the cella, God’s dwelling place within, dividing the sacred from the profane. The NCSS has replaced columns with a double layer of concrete wall and polycarbonate screen. The layers have been lit and apertures have been cut in the concrete wall to create the impression of the cella or another kind of space within the glowing external skin. The “windows” cut in the inner concrete layer of the facade give the impression of rooms and spaces, of levels to which the windows correspond, creating an incidental relationship with the facade. This is true of the office spaces on the first floor but the “windows” are otherwise arbitrary, an impression or shadow rather than a reality.
Inside we find a peripteral plan, very much like a Greek or Roman temple. In the centre of the main space we find the cella at the heart of a building. It also glows, but this time, with daylight pushed into the space by skylights fitted with a magnifying sheet of lenses, a rainbow sheen refracts across the acrylic panels that make up the surface. We might be reminded of Bruno Taut’s exquisite Glass Pavilion for the Werkbund Exhibition of 1914. Paul Scheerbart’s inscription on the pavilion read: “The joy of colour/Is only in glass-culture. /Larger than a diamond /Is the glass-house’s double wall.”
The cella in the NCSS is not the house of God, but a lecture theatre, no longer the sacrosanct domain of a select few but now the future forum for countless lectures, debates and discoveries. In the grey felt dampened room the ceiling lights hover like halos waiting for the elect and the curious, a fitting appropriation for contemporary architecture.
We began at the end of times but now we turn to the beginning; in the blinding moment of creation: the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the wind moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (Genesis 1:1–3)
Chaos and void are divided from light; in the beginning God did not create form but the conditions in which to see.

First published in Architecture Australia – January 2013 (Vol 102 No 1)
DOWNLOAD: RMIT Design Hub Drawings (PDF)This resource has been removed by request.


So the building isn't open yet but that gives us the opportunity to ignore architecture for a minute and talk about the building in the city.

Melbourne is a grid city. This means quite a lot. It doesn't have axes, in the École des Beaux-Arts sense.
The grid is meant to be unyielding but permissive, democratic, pragmatic, mute.
Despite this, much has been made of the Swanston Street Axis, from the point that it nudges around the Shrine of Remembrance, to it's kink at the former CUB site. It's hard to resist drawing that line through the site, continuing Swanston Street into eternity.

Sean Godsell resisted that temptation.

His RMIT Design Hub is just another building in the city. Apparently.

So let's look at it.

The Building holds the corner. The 'front door' is off the corner on Victoria Street. Retail Voodoo (which seems to infect everything) would insist on a diagonal corner entry, denying the street as address and implying that people are incapable of finding an entry that is around the corner. So Godsell's entry affirms the streetfront as proper for addressing the street.

Swanston Street, however, is a different matter.

The mass of the building runs into the street, providing neither street front, nor formal relief. This is a wall (a nice climbable one, but a sheer wall nonetheless). This is a rejection of the city and a profoundly anti-urban gesture.
The finished floor level (FFL) at the Victoria Street entry is FFL 23.50, internally a ramp follows the natural incline of Swanston Street as it heads north. I only raise the ramp because it brings us to the northern 'servicemen's entry' to the building at FFL 25.10. Past this entry, a stair descends rapidly to the sunken forecourt.

Back on Victoria Street, to the immediate west of the building is the primary approach to the forecourt which bottoms out at SSL 19.70. The building privileges this forecourt. It has art in it.

Adjacent to the forecourt is a low shed housing offices and archives and beyond that a vehicle ramp to carparking below. This gives us a total of 31metres of negative street front on Victoria Street, which, if your a Melburnian, you will recall isn't 5th Avenue.
Beyond the RMIT design hub is a wasteland where the brewery once stood. Grocon have been developing their interests for site over several years, NH Architecture prepared a masterplan which formed the DNA of the current development plans. Planning permits have been issued. Which is why it's a strange site to see a 5metre south facing concrete wall (it will apparently have greenery) at the northern end of Design Hub site. This wall frustrates potential connection through the site as does the archival building, sunken court, and vehicle ramp. This is articulate urban isolation, deliberate and composed.

The attitude that this might be a building in the city is a good one, and has strong arguments in favour of it over the will to axial urban design. However, this building is not one seeking to engage the street and by extension the city. It negates the messy convulsions of the city but fails to offer fresh conditions.

One can't help but wonder if Godsell wasn't hoping for something a little more...

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DOWNLOAD | Transition Vol.1,No.4, Oct. 1980

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The Pleasures Of Architecture Conference 1980: The Interviews
First Past The Post•Modernism: An Exercise In Metaphor | Neville Quarry
The State Of The Art | C. Elwyn Dennis
Glenn Murcutt's Houses | Ian Mcdougall
The Romance And Illusion Of The Architecture Of High Technology | Michael Keniger
Book Review: 'Delirious New York" | Richard Munday

Ian Mcdougall & Richard Munday

For many of the delegates at the "Pleasures of Architecture" conference, the most lasting impression was gained where they found that the less than smooth course of events inadvertently turned the spotlight on them, It was disturbing to realise that. in comparison with the Mid-Atlantic architects. Graves, Baird, and Koolhaas, they had not more than the barest notion of their own bailiwick. Also disturbing were the "Completion of Engehurst" entries from Australia's creme de la creme, trying hard but often vapid and sycophantic. And so it was perhaps that the event appeared to be not much more than an inaugural cultural ritual, staged to meet a vague national architectural obligation, rather than signifying the full-blooded emergence of architectural endeavour worthy of debate. Nevertheless it was a success in a salutary way. It tested the water and may have brought to the fore issues which are well enough appreciated but too uncomfortable to live with. Architecture in this country cannot be said to give cause for great pride, nor does the attitude of society to architecture give much cause for gratitude. This is grim, but architects cannot blame society if its expectations are low or if it is unreceptive. In this country the institution of architecture has been worn complacently and deceitfully by architects to conceal mass torpor and lack of substance. Those few who have made some contribution to architecture have eventually been feted with unbelievably uncomprehending relief, At the conference there did seem to be a softening in this attitude, a realisation that the responsibility for architecture lies with architects, that is, with themselves, and that the solution to a lack of substance could not be imported. Acceptance by architects of that responsibility is an important step, but architecture will not issue once or because it is taken. Architecture is not the fulfilment of an obligation: it contains a fortuitous element. It is a fallacy to say that if there hadn't been Bernini there would have been someone else. Architecture will not come about just because it is needed as a national totem . However, obstacles are in themselves no incentive, and while opportunities are best utilised by those who Create them ad hoc to suit their requirements, architecture would be a more realistic proposition than it is now if architects did something to create opportunities for each other, The schools of architecture in Australia could in general playa far more constructive role in architecture than is now evident. The significant contributions now being made to architecture are being made by architects such as Graves, Baird , and Koolhaas, all of whom have spent more time in universities than in drawing offices. It is of course ludicrous to regard academic involvement as some essential precondition for architecture; nevertheless it is important to realise that, because very few academics in Australia have evidenced much interest in theoretical speculations or in a serious commitment to practice, and because even fewer practising architects teach or have undertaken research , the possibility of a movement in architecture, of a type com• parable in any way to that which emerged in Europe and the United States over the past twenty years, occurring in Australia would be virtually inconceivable, There is some evidence of architects taking time off from the office to catch up on what is happening, or to do some lecturing, and this is fine, but it is hardly what is called for. Practising architects should be given access to architecture schools for the purposes of study and research , and under• take teaching as a means of reviewing their work and concerns, and extending them under these rigorous but sheltered circumstances, Many academics nurse presentiments of uselessness and would benefit from direct involvement in architectural practice, an arena which offers its own rigours. Others should be more assiduous in their demands for research time. And it is time for some permanently tenured academics to show cause. These suggestions are basically gratuitous when the problem could well be a matter of the wrong people or a sense of despair, but at the "Pleasures of Architecture" conference, highlighted by the sybaritic insinuations of that title, many Australian architects were shocked and embarrassed by their sudden awareness of their own emptiness. After such a revelation it is to be hoped that there will be some changes.

DOWNLOAD | Transition, Volume 1 No. 3, March 1980

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Editors | Ian McDougall, Richard Munday


Post Modern | The Renewal of Style in Architecture | Philip Drew

3345 : A Project | Michael Trudgeon

An Interview With William Turnbull Jnr

Ars Sine Scientia Nihil | Peter Kollar

Parliament House, Canberra | Two Designs

In Search of a National Symbol | John Rockey

DOWNLOAD | Transition Vol. 1, No. 2

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Editors Ian McDougall & Richard Munday


Looking at the Sydney School | Jennifer Taylor
Four Melbourne Architects | an exhibition
Parliament House Canberra | 9 Designs
Architectural Style in Brisbane | Dr. G. de Gruchy

Book Review
Supermannerism by C. Ray Smith Richard Munday

Letters, etc. replies to Vol 1 No.1

Made in Australia

Cox | South Morang Train Station

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DOWNLOAD: Architecture & Arts, October 1958 (abridged)

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Architecture and Arts, October, 1958


What is Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright

Design, Leo Lionni

Recent & Current Works of Grounds, Romberg & Boyd

DOWNLOAD Architecture and Arts, September, 1957

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Architecture and Arts, September, 1957


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