Dr Chau Chak Wing building: site-responsive?

What is it?

Frank Gehry‘s first building in Australia, the Dr Chau Chak Wing building at the University of Technology Sydney, revealed last week and discussed in an IndesignLive post viewable here. IndesignLive makes some peculiar comments about the design ideas behind the building: “The east-facing façade will be made of a buff-coloured brick reminiscent of Sydney sandstone, reflecting Sydney’s heritage architecture” and, “The west-facing façade will feature large shards of glass to fracture and reflect the surrounding architecture.”

What do we think?

We are somewhat bemused by the discussion of context in the IndesignLive post. Since when does Frank Gehry of all people create architecture that “seeks to incorporate and interact with its surroundings”, particularly considering this building looks so much like all of his other recent work?

Coming upon the Dr Chau Chak Wing building, the Guggenheim Museum or the Walt Disney Concert Hall, we are hardly going to recognise these projects as reflecting the nuances of their place – it doesn’t matter whether we’re in Sydney, Bilbao or Los Angeles, we have entered the nation of Gehry – a curvilinear country of crumpled, contorted volumes with repetitive, block-like windows whose embassies are spread across the globe.

Indeed, we argue that Gehry is the godfather of all contemporary starchitecture that forgoes context in favour of formal experimentation. Like him, none of the international architects currently enjoying stratospheric fame for such work ever truly engage with context or place. And how could they? Zaha Hadid’s telephone rings in London or Santiago Calatrava’s rings in Zurich and the person on the other end of the line is Italian or American or Portuguese. Hadid may never have even heard of Cincinnati, but what do the clients care? They know all about the transformation of Bilbao and they want in.

Thus the cycle is self-sustaining, both architects and clients working together to produce buildings that owe allegiance to foreign individuals rather than local place. We’re not sure what we think of this process yet – Calatrava’s work is sublime after all – but we do prefer that the force of globalisation be kept from overwhelming even the making of architecture, surely the most place-dependent of all arts.

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