The Andreas N. The Liveris Building on the University of Queensland’s St. Lucia campus is a bold piece of architecture. But is it too bold?
Some would say yes. Likewise, some would dismiss this project – a joint effort by Lyons and M3 Architecture – as a colourful, seemingly hermetic and anti-contextual building that fell in from space (or Melbourne) and crafted with a sensibility that traces architectural lines that are unheard of in the Contradictory to a are Queensland slang. If this is your first take on I would encourage you to park this review while you do a more thorough reading.
I use “read” intentionally as the Liveris building is generated from narration, anecdotes, and a multitude of overlapping ideas. The design team’s practice leaders, Lyon-based Carey Lyon and M3 Architecture’s Michael Banney, ran – almost simultaneously – the practice-oriented PhD model at RMIT University’s School of Architecture and Urban Design, graduating with PhDs in 2018 and 2017. The development of their dissertations allowed both authors to articulate a very clear approach to their design and conceptualization process. For Banney, architectural ideas emerge from concrete observations, anecdotes and stories—often things that are overlooked or uncovered through careful investigation. For Lyon it is a process of generating a complex web of countless ideas, events, stories, patterns and details and then distilling them into a rich but clear synthesis. Working together, these two architectural minds initiate a commitment to the importance of ideas to drive an outcome that can be supported by spatial expertise and engineering resolution.
As the winner of an international design competition, the project stood out from a field that included Conrad Gargett and OMA, Grimshaw, Woods Bagot and John Wardle Architects, among others. The Liveris Building authors found that their collaboration was 100 percent balanced in terms of conceptual contribution, fueled by constant dialogue, friendship, and the ability to “trust each other’s eyes.” Execution of the design work, from the schematic level to the technical solution and documentation, was shared in proportion to the size of each office, with Lyons acting as the main consultant.
The building houses the Department of Chemical Engineering, named after a notable alumna: former Dow Chemical Chairman and CEO Andrew N. Liveris. (After his retirement, Liveris, along with his wife Paula, donated $40 million to help secure the building’s construction.) The design generation for Banney and Lyon was underpinned by three key themes: civic building, end-user culture, and the educational imperatives of the order. To use Banney’s term, the ‘relevant fodder’ – which was eventually synthesized into a holistic response – began with two emerging precedents: UQ’s Great Court, with its Forgan Smith tower and sandstone ambulatory, and the brutalist designed by John Andrews Building that previously stood the faculty. The aim of the architects was to translate their reading of the Great Court into a kind of contemporary twin. In particular, they used references such as the grain and color of the Great Court sandstone to generate the exterior color palette of the facade glazing. The architects predict that the axial alignment of the new building with the Forgan Smith Tower will also create an urban connection in the future. The Andrews building served as a stimulating precedent, with the architects noting the qualities of faculty-student proximity, the showcase of pragmatic engineering equipment, and what they described as the alchemy of a “comfortably condensed” faculty bursting at the seams.
The vertical form of the Liveris building aligns with both campus precursors, resulting in an urban planning strategy that occupies only half of the lot proposed for use through the competition. Building Instead of Outside has created an energized, compact and readable object in the campus landscape, with the additional site area programmed as a sociable garden space in an otherwise crowded part of campus. This step makes it possible to read the main facade of the building as a whole, while the other sides are more obscured.
The interior of the building is cheerful and engaging. The organization of the program is driven by the Pilot Hall – a large, multi-story underground testing facility, also located in the Andrews building, but tucked away. The pilot hall is the central element around which everything else revolves. The space is visible from the footpaths to the outside, immediately upon entering the building, and from almost all traffic areas around and inside. A dynamic atrium is stacked above the Pilot Hall. The atrium, proportionately compressed to be taller than wide, draws the eye to the soft daylight streaming through stained glass above and powered by John Portman-esque elevators, the mechanisms of which are celebrated through open exhibition.
The atrium is a moment where creative tension can exist between Lyons and M3. Having experienced a number of civic/educational buildings from each practice, I find that they take a distinctly different approach to collective vertical circulation. A typical M3 building, such as Brisbane Girls Grammar School’s Creative Learning Center, uses the atrium as a collective experience to be shared while traversing stairs and walkways; In contrast, the RMIT Swanston Academic Building by Lyons foregoes the unique atrium for more discreet and episodic experiences. In the Liveris case, the atrium is “both and”: a central coherent space punctuated by a dynamic interplay of stairs, floating cubes and visual cuts that are not orthogonal to the plan. It functions – as evidenced by a high level of student use on all levels of the building during my visit – as a series of “sticky” spaces for studying, socializing and learning. On the subject of pedagogy, it brings clarity to the diagram of stacked functional spaces. One can look directly into and through labs at the campus and city beyond, with programmatic usage changes highlighted by color shifts as one ascends, in a way that casts aside any sense of hierarchy. Here engineering is fun, accessible and inclusive, which is a triumph indeed.
Born of a true collaboration between architects who practice at the service of ideas, the Andrew N. Liveris Building invites you to think from the moment you see it. It is a building to be read, with the occupant collecting a series of direct, contextual and digestible anecdotes, rendered through form, material and colour. Highly technical and functionally sophisticated spaces are cleverly and efficiently combined to provide an asset that the university can use for a range of educational needs. Sturdy and candid details such as handrails, stairs and other direct moments of user interaction culminate in an unpretentious yet bold, sophisticated composition to be interpreted and savored.
— Chris Knapp is Research Director of the Building 4.0 CRC and Honorary Professor at Bond University, where he served as Director of the Abedian School of Architecture. He sits on the AASA Climate Action Committee and is Director of Gold Coast design firm Studio Workshop.