One element of my tour of Melbourne that really surprised me was how much I liked the new Melbourne Convention Center by Hamish Lyon of NH Architecture and Nik Karalis of Woods Bagot.
I think the most important thing architect Hamish Lyon told me about the new Melbourne Convention Center was that he wanted it to become a part of the city's architectural scheme, embraced by locals as another landmark to which they'll become attached, and understood by visitors as more than just a place where large groups of dentists get together. "The overriding thing for us," he told me, "is that we want people to feel the very clear shock that this is not a typical convention center. I want them to feel that it's more like a concert hall or a museum. And we want them to feel that it's a part of Melbourne."Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
Viewed from high above, you can see how the Convention Center (black roof) sits nestled between Melbourne Exhibition Center—the massive white roof in the foreground—and the tower of the new HIlton Hotel, part of which is still under construction. Elements of the zinc facade of the Convention Center run directly onto the facade of the hotel, uniting the two buildings on the banks of the Yarra. The connection from Hilton to Convention Center is far more graceful than that between the Convention Center and Exhibition Center, which are smack up against one another with only a small glass portal between them.Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
Here's a view of the Convention Center as viewed from the circular drive in front of the Hilton Hotel next door. The hotel's podium, just beneath the 15-story tower, leads directly into the Convention Center. My Melbournian architect pal Emilio Fuscaldo told me that the tapas restaurant in the Hilton is pretty good, but I never got to try it. Tapas is surprisingly popular in Melbourne right now, and I had some really great chorizo at Bar Lourihna on Flinders Lane. Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
The "pineapple wall," so-called for its resemblance to the exterior of the fruit, on the interior of Plenary Hall (the main auditorium) mimics what's on the outside, and suggests a kind of building-within-a-building scheme for the Convention Center. Due to the massive amounts of glazing, one really does feel that there's an exterior facade as well as an interior one. And continuing that interior facade into Plenary Hall gives the space a real sense of being contained—enveloped but independent. The chairs in the hall, and there are some 5,500 of them, can actually fold down into the floor, permitting the space to be used as a massive open area for a cocktail party, or, as I suggested and Hamish shot down, a preposterously large ballroom.Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
Here's another view of the pineapple wall on the interior of the building. The black zinc facade of the building is also a series of triangular panels (the same is true of the fractal facades at the city's Federation Square, actually). I really like the attention to color paid at the Convention Center. Public buildings which try to get too hip often feel like nightclubs with the lights turned up, but the orange glow within the wooden structure gives the whole thing a sophisticated, yet professional feel.Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
In this shot you can see the copious amount of natural light that floods into the foyer and halls of the Convention Center. Not only does this help keep energy costs down, but it allows visitors to actually look out and see the city of Melbourne. Out the windows you see the banks of the Yarra River, an old ship docked out front, and the new development of the Docklands Precinct. Lyon also managed to put all services for the building on the basement level, allowing for expansive views and the ability to walk out of the building onto the riverfront courtyard from nearly every point in the building. Though natural light is a big part of keeping energy costs down, and getting that six of six Green Star rating, Lyon told me that "in order to get six of six you can't have one big energy efficiency strategy. You need to have thousands of little ones. Because we were building from the ground up, we got to essentially put in whatever we wanted." And because the lease on the building is 30 years, longer-term investments will payoff for the lessee—the Plenary Group—and strategies that encourage durability and low maintenance are all the more important. A couple green strategies Lyon did mention, though, include an aggressive passive cooling system, a heat/air conditioning system that instead of heating or cooling the whole space from above are targeted about four feet off the ground to reach actual human, and an on-site water treatment system that can reuse all black water.Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
Another design feature of the building that I like, perhaps more in theory than in practice, is that the patterns on all the carpet are meant to mimic elements of Melbournian culture. The rose pattern on the carpet here is supposed to evoke the rose from the floral bloom at the very famous Flemington Spring Racing Carnival. This horse racing event is actually a holiday for Victorians, and as my cabbie in from the airport put it: "Even little old ladies with no real money to speak of have laid a few dollars on the Racing Carnival. It's that important."Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
Though the structure of the Convention Center is steel, it's the black zinc that defines its facade. This huge cantilever extends 40 meters out over the courtyard to provide shelter for any outside exhibitions.Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
Here is Plenary Hall totally opened up. There are a pair of huge, retractable, sound-proof panels that can come out and split the hall into three smaller spaces. Lyon said that the sound-proofing is so complete that you can have a rock concert in one section of the hall and a poetry reading in the one next door. I didn't get to see that myself as there was an accountants' meeting going on when I visited. Didn't hear a peep from them, though.Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
Here's a quick peek at one of the corridors, up one level and inside the pineapple wall. As you can see, the orange glow gives the gallery a kind of warmth, but the view out the big windows is still what dominates. Unlike most convention centers, which really could be anywhere, this one does try quite hard, and successfully, to connect to the exterior world. Lyon and his design partner Nik Karalis of Woods Bagot made a world tour of convention centers, a grim prospect indeed. "Convention centers are really boring." Lyon recounted. "In five minutes you're asleep. They're like Greyhound bus stations at 3 AM. And about as architecturally adventurous." Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
If the Melbourne Convention Center is to truly integrate into the architectural life of the city, it's certainly pointing in the right direction. Instead of being, as Lyon says, "a utilitarian beer barn or sports stadium thing on the edge of town," this one is quite near the action. Just across the Yarra from the Central Business District of Melbourne, and a stone's throw from the developing Docklands, it's well situated to truly interact with the city.Image courtesy Peter Bennetts.
Before meeting Lyon I stopped in for a light breakfast at Cumulus Inc., a nice little cafe with identity by Round, the design firm that incidentally designed a book, The Private Life of Public Architecture, that documents the construction of the Convention Center. We chatted in his Flinders Lane offices before I went to the tour of the new Docklands facility, and we discussed his vision for the building, the origins of its "pineapple wall," how it managed to win a six out of six stars in the Green Building Council of Australia's Green Star rating system, and why convention centers are usually so unutterably lousy. Check out the slideshow for a great view of the new Convention Center (it's only opened this year) and to see what Lyon has to say about the project.