Frank Gehry’s "paper bag" – a new architectural icon for Australia?

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The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building designed by American architect Frank Gehry (Photo: Andrew Worssam)

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American architect Frank Gehry’s first work in Australia was officially opened Monday. The AUD180 million (US$138 million) Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is part of the business school at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and will house over 1,600 students and staff. Australia’s Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove has called it "the most beautiful squashed brown paper bag I've ever seen."

Named after the Chinese-Australian billionaire who contributed a total of AUD25 million towards the cost, and whose son Eric attends the university, the building was first approved in 2010 and work began in November 2012.

The most striking feature of the building is its east-facing sandstone colored, undulating facade. The building is made from 320,000 handmade bricks, set an angles so tricky that one of Australia’s master bricklayers had to come out of retirement to complete the project.

Why brick? "The 19th century buildings in Sydney are still the most accessible," said Gehry. "There is a humanity about them and the modern buildings can be cold and off-putting so the idea of using brick was a part of the (building) community here, there is a brick culture."

Sir Cosgrove agreed, saying that "the traditional notions of hallowed sandstone quadrangles, spires and large lecture halls as symbols of tertiary education have been reinvented."

The inside of the building certainly tries to avoid the hallowed nature of yesteryear’s universities, with oval classrooms and areas designed to encourage students to collaborate. Lecture areas also avoid the traditional hierarchical structure.

Interest in the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building has been strong and reviews generally complimentary. It has also been awarded a 5-Star Green Star rating, owing, among other things, to an aircon system that senses then adjusts for the number of people in a room.

"This building can and will be manipulated over time and will change as it's being used," said Gehry. "People will invent ways to use it. The tendency to build buildings where everything is fixed for a fixed program is an obsolete."

Gehry himself is something of an interesting anomaly, not simply for his designs but because unlike other architects he does not really write or publish much on the great, overarching theories that inform his work.

In fact, the UTS building was originally scratched onto a napkin with a pen over lunch when he had the simple idea of a treehouse. After that some 150 wooden and paper models of varied sizes were built, the final designs were modeled using aviation software from Dassault Systèmes.

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