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Book review: The Private Life of Public Architecture

The detailed narrative of the design and delivery of the 6 Star Green Star Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre becomes a lens through which to examine issues ranging from the opportunities and limitations of public-private partnership models through to the relationship between form and function in civic buildings.

Between the thoughtful essays and personal snippets by the architects, Woods Bagot and NH Architecture, and the outstanding illustrations and photography, The Private Life of Public Architecture is a rich banquet of a book that gets below the skin of the entire process.

Editor Andrew McKenzie in his introductory essay says, “What distinguishes the buildings of today’s global public culture is the flow of capital. The tradition of industrial monopolists funding cultural philanthropy has been reversed.”

Enter the PPP as a mechanism for providing public benefit using the profit motive as a driver. As the architects and builder Brookfield Multiplex explain, this can create additional risks in costing projects under conditions of strict commercial confidentiality, and it can also lead to design outcomes that are less than stellar.

In coming up with the initial bid design for the convention centre, a team comprised of architects, builders and developers undertook a study tour of convention centres around the globe.

The function of the building itself is one that in many parts of the world results in spaces that are “universally dominated by crowd control mentality”, NH Architecture principal Hamish Lyon tells McKenzie.

McKenzie says the convention centre lies “somewhere above the species of big box retail and below that of university building” in architectural evolutionary terms.

The illustrated explanation of the process of iterating the end design for the Melbourne centre is fascinating – from foam shapes and scribbles through to Perspex models with fibres representing wind sensors.

The inspirations for the building’s final form (which included the space shuttle), and the need to work within that form to create flexible spaces both at a global standard and infused with local cultural references, give a tremendous insight into how competing imperatives can be balanced.

Threading through is the sustainability story. Lyon tells McKenzie that the sustainability discussion started at the initial stages.

“We could work with it at its fundamentals, it wasn’t just applying green technology after the fact.”

The way in which energy efficiency was improved through thermal mass, shading, orientation for natural light, and innovative HVAC solutions including a volume displacement system that results in heating or cooling only being applied to the lower two metres of air space – human height – are explained.

Then, in the last section, glorious images of the final result celebrate the PPP team’s achievement and inspire some hope that PPPs can achieve great things when a client and a team are prepared to step outside the box and aspire to brilliance.

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