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Dr Chau Chak Wing Building
Gehry Partners, LLP

December 05, 2015 /

Sydney, Australia

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The new Dr Chau Chak Wing Building peeks beyond the trees in Ultimo, Sydney. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is a bold, yet polarizing, addition to Sydney's growing skyline. Designed by Gehry LLP, it is located in Ultimo, an inner-city suburb several kilometres from Sydney's central business district. It is Australia's first work by the globally renowned studio and, unsurprisingly, has generated a healthy mix of anticipation, admiration and disappointment.

Located on the University of Technology's urban campus, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is a postgraduate business school named after its key donor, the Chinese-Australian philanthropist Dr Chau Chak Wing. The twelve-story tower contains teaching and learning spaces which aspire towards new educational models.

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Design model of the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Gehry LLP

The building is also a savvy marketing tool, the bricks-and mortar embodiment of the university's progressive agendas. It is iconic, instantly recognizable and intentionally controversial.

At an urban scale, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is a piece of sculpture, a twisting tower made up of 320,000 individually lain bricks. This material choice relates to the history of this suburb, which is dotted with old industrial brick buildings. Yet, unlike many of the surrounding structures, which are solid and impenetrable, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building replaces flatness with endless folds, dips and curves.  

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The main façade is a contorted brick skin arrayed with square openings. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

Undoubtedly, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is designed for its external appearance and, in particular, around a key façade the faces east to the city. On this primary elevation, it does not disappoint. The brick façade wriggles and writhes, unfurling as it moves skyward. This animated formalism is a pleasant contrast to the many banal corporate towers that litter Sydney's centre. In terms of Gehry's repertoire, it's also a refreshing departure from the silver curls of the Bilbao Guggenheim, his most famous work, and signals a move to a new material palette.

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Up close, the façade takes on a crumpled appearance. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2015 Jennifer McMaster

Up close, it's easy to appreciate the texture and variation in the bricks, which flicker and peel from the façade. These bricks, along with the rectangular windows that puncture the brick curves, also bring a human scale to the building.

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Bricks texture the facade in delicate patterns. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

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Brick detail. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

Moving around the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, however, this sense of scale and delicacy begins to slip. The brick contours are sliced open by glass walls, a gesture which continues around to the western façade. Here, shards of glass cascade downwards in a composition that is harsh and jarring.

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The building's western facade. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

Inside, these glass cuts reveal their function, bringing light deep into the interior. Yet, despite these good intentions, the exterior form and interior experience never quite feel reconciled. Columns pierce the building at odd angles, interrupting circulation spaces. Brick butts up against plasterboard. Certain flourishes, like the faceted stainless steel staircase, appear gimmicky and garish, and bear little relationship to the building's overall language.

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The shiny and reflective curves of the stainless steel staircase, which connects to a lower entrance. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building still contains a few delightful moments. The oval classrooms are composed of radiata pine glulam beams, which are arranged like twigs in a nest. These rooms receive borrowed light through small internal windows, and form refreshing educational spaces.

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The oval classrooms, which encourage in-the-round learning-, receive borrowed light, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

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Stacked radiata pine glulam beams form internalised classrooms. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

Similarly, there is a certain appropriateness to the interior fit-out. Although it can't exactly be described as timeless, it has an informal, rough-and-ready quality that's perfect for students, with bright colors and curved seating forming study spaces and lounge areas. A moment of understated elegance appears in the deep window reveals, which provide pleasant spaces to sit and study, framing views to the trees and city beyond.

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Colorful study spaces inside the building encourage informal learning. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

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Scooped out windows let soft light into the interior. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

Yet the joyful experience of walking around the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building's warped, wacky and wonderful façade never quite translates to the interior, where the spaces come undone. In this way, Gehry LLP's first building on Australian soil is conflicting, in more ways than one. It is undoubtedly a welcome addition to Sydney's skyline, a courageous and clever departure from the generic glass towers that are coming to define all urban centres. As an external form, it's also well appreciated, with members of the public delighting in the façade's expressiveness. It's iconic, instagrammable and undeniably unique.

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A square window reflects Sydney's urban context back onto the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

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Level 2 floor plan, with lower ground access. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

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Level 3 floor plan, with access to the Goods Line. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

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Building section. Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Gehry LLP © 2014 Andrew Worssam

Facts about Dr Chau Chak Wing Building

Building Area: 18,413m²

Completed (year): 2014

Client: University of Technology, Sydney

Design architect: Gehry Partners

Executive architect: Daryl Jackson Robin Dyke

Principal contractor: Lend Lease

Total project value: $180 million

Project manager: UTS Program Management Office

Services engineer and ESD: AECOM

Structural engineer, transportation and traffic, lead façade consultant: ARUP

Brick manufacturer: Austral Bricks

Bricklaying: Favetti Bricklaying

Archaeological investigation and excavation: Australian Museum Consulting

Early works contractor: AW Edwards

Archeological consultant: Casey & Lowe

Aboriginal archaeological investigation: Dominic Steele Consulting Archaeology

Heritage assessment: Godden Mackay Logan

Acoustic consultant: Marshall Day Acoustics

Accessibility consultant: Morris Goding Access Consulting

Stainless steel stair manufacturer: Urban Art Projects

Last updated: December 07, 2015

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