New Dr Chau Chak Wing building for UTS business school, designed by Frank Gehry (photo by author)

I had a look the other week at the newly completed Dr Chau Chak Wing building at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). It’s the one designed by internationally renowned architect, Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim, Bilbao. I couldn’t get inside because the fitout’s not quite finished, but you can see a lot from the official UTS video (lots more info here in the official media package).

It’s timely to revisit what I said about this building three years ago when UTS first revealed Mr Gehry’s proposed vision for its new business school; Is good architecture all about marketing?

As I noted at the time, this is an expensive building; all that melting brickwork and cascading glass doesn’t come cheap. The cost is reported to be $180 million for 16,000 sq m of floor space; that’s around twice as much per sq m as comparable but straightforward academic buildings. It wouldn’t surprise me if the architect’s fee (excluding consultants) for someone of Gehry’s stature was twice the customary commission.

That’s OK from UTS’s point of view because they’re not buying function alone; clients pay the Gehry premium for marketing reasons. They want to get noticed. The university’s administrators hope the dramatic appearance and the imprimatur of a brand name architect will boost the institution’s competitiveness in the national and international education status race.

I don’t know if they’ve seriously analysed the cost-effectiveness of architecture as a deliberate form of marketing, but their calculation (or hope?) is that it will sell more university places.

The use of architecture for marketing might fit nicely with the ethos of a business school, but I’m not sure the university’s expectations will be met. While they’re not exactly a dime a dozen, there’re now plenty of “Gehrys” around the world. And he’s not the only designer of wacky looking buildings: so-called “iconic” buildings by starchitects are almost commonplace e.g. Dubai, Shanghai. Other Australian universities, like Monash and RMIT, are playing the same game.

Indeed, it’s not self-evident that this is a sensible way to market a university. It costs a lot and the inevitable compromises in utility involved in function following form are either around for a long time or cost a lot to fix. Further, while it seems the building has grabbed the attention of sophisticated Sydneysiders, that’s not necessarily the same as persuading UTS’s target market.

In fact it’s not inconceivable the association of starchitecture with places like Dubai might one day make this fixed form of marketing a liability for an intellectual institution. This is an interesting building, but it’s not as if UTS has gotten itself an architectural icon that’s in the same rarefied space as the Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim.

In terms of its appearance, I don’t think the Dr Chau Chak Wing building is quite as visually arresting in built form as it appeared in the pre-construction renders. That’s probably in part because the novelty’s been dulled by another three years of seeing ever more over-the-top buildings being proposed or built around the globe.

Another reason is the building struggles a bit for free air; it’s surrounded on three sides by existing buildings and doesn’t have the extensive clear space around it that other iconic buildings like the Opera House have. That’s not really surprising; a business school isn’t as obvious a choice for a “statement” building as a high culture activity. (1)

In fact the worry it would be out of context with Ultimo’s streets can be put aside; it fits in comfortably because the scale and overall form are roughly consistent with its neighbours. I wouldn’t say it’s unobtrusive but it certainly doesn’t look, as some feared, like a gold tooth on a rat.

While I understand why it looks wacky, my biggest disappointment is the lack of a convincing explanation – a theory or rationale – for why the building looks the way it does i.e. why it’s this particular “wackytecture” rather than some other. There’s no evident reason why the Dali-esque melting aesthetic should emerge from the function of the building – it’s a business school after all.

I’ve noted before that the original UTS PR blurb says the design is inspired by “the concept of a tree-house structure”; it’s “a cluster of ‘tree houses’ or vertical stacks of floors with spatial ‘cracks’ in between”.  Just why those attributes makes sense for this particular function in this particular location isn’t explained. In any event that’s not ‘a theory’ in any meaningful sense – it’s more of an analogy.

There’s no apparent relationship between the look of the building and Ultimo either. UTS made some references to its use of brick as somehow “Ultimo-ising” it but that’s unconvincing; brick is such a universal material it’s ridiculous to put so much contextual weight on it. In any event Gehry uses bricks in this building in an entirely different way to existing buildings – almost a ‘Gaudi light’– and, moreover, hangs them off a steel frame so they’re cladding rather than structural.

As I noted when this building was first announced, it could be built pretty much anywhere. It’s truly an international design; despite the rhetoric about context, I suspect that’s exactly what UTS wanted.

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  1. The fourth side will be the proposed Goods Line walking/cycling route.
Interior ground floor; taken from outside through glass (source: author)
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