L’Andre N. The Liveris Building on the University of Queensland’s Saint Lucia Campus is a bold piece of architecture. But is it too bold?
Some will say yes. Likewise, some would dismiss this project – a joint effort between Lyons and M3 Architecture – as a colourful, seemingly airtight, anti-context building fallen from outer space (or Melbourne) and wrought with a sensibility that follows bloodlines. architectural contrasts with a Vernacular of Queensland. If this is your first take, I would encourage you to park this review while you undertake further reading.
I use “reading” with intention, as the Liveris building is generated by narrative, anecdote, and a rich array of overlapping ideas. The practice directors leading the design team, Carey Lyon of Lyon and Michael Banney of M3 Architecture, undertook – almost simultaneously – the practice-based doctoral model at the School of Architecture and Urban Design from RMIT University, earning doctorates in 2018 and 2017. The development of their dissertations allowed the two authors to articulate a very clear approach to their design and conceptualization process. For Banney, architectural ideas are born from specific observations, anecdotes and stories – often things overlooked or discovered through careful investigation. For Lyon, it’s about generating a complex web of a myriad of ideas, events, stories, patterns and details, then distilling them into a rich yet clear synthesis. Working together, these two architectural minds initiate a commitment to the importance of ideas to drive an outcome that can be backed by spatial expertise and technical resolution.
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 authors of the Liveris building noted that their collaboration was 100% balanced in terms of conceptual contribution and was supported by constant dialogue, friendship and the ability to “trust each other”. Transportation of design work from schematic level to technical resolution and documentation was shared in proportion to the size of each office, with Lyons acting as lead consultant.
The building houses the Department of Chemical Engineering, named after a notable alumnus: former Dow Chemical Chairman and CEO Andrew N. Liveris. (Upon his retirement, Liveris, along with his wife Paula, donated $40 million to secure construction of the building.) Three key themes underpinned the design generation for Banney and Lyon: civic construction, culture end users, and the pedagogical requirements of the dissertation. To use Banney’s phrase, the “relevant fodder” – which was eventually synthesized into a holistic response – began with two imminent precedents: UQ’s Great Court, with its Forgan Smith tower and sandstone ambulatory, and the Brutalist building designed by John Andrews that previously housed the faculty. The ambition of the architects was to translate their reading of the Great Court into a kind of contemporary twin. More specifically, they relied on references such as the grain and color of the sandstone of the Grande Cour to generate the exterior color palette of the facade glazing. Furthermore, the new structure’s axial alignment with the Forgan Smith Tower will, according to the architects, become an apparent urban connection in the future. The Andrews Building served as an inspiring precedent, with the architects noting its qualities of closeness between staff and students, the display of pragmatic engineering kit, and what they described as the alchemy of a faculty ” pleasantly compressed” full to bursting.
The vertical shape of the Liveris building is inspired by the two precursors of the campus, resulting in an urban strategy that occupies only half of the site proposed for use by the competition. Building in rather than out has created a dynamic, compact and legible object in the campus landscape, with the additional site area programmed as sociable garden space in what is otherwise a congested part of campus. This displacement makes it possible to read the main façade of the building as a whole, while its other faces are more obscured.
The interior of the building is cheerful and inviting. The organization of the program is dictated by the Pilot Hall – a large multi-storey basement test facility also present in the Andrews building, but hidden away. Here, the Pilot Hall is the key element around which everything else revolves. The space is visible from the sidewalks outside, upon entering the building, and from almost all circulation spaces around and inside. Above the Pilot Hall is a dynamic atrium. Proportionally compressed to be taller than it is wide, the atrium draws the eye to soft daylight emanating from the colored glass above, energized by John Portman-esque elevators whose mechanisms are celebrated by an open display.
The atrium is a moment where the creative tension between Lyon and M3 can exist. Having experienced a number of civic/educational buildings by each practice, I notice that they take a markedly different approach to collective vertical circulation. A typical M3 building, such as the Creative Learning Center at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, uses the atrium as a collective experience to be shared while traversing stairs and walkways; in contrast, the RMIT Swanston Academic Building by Lyons eschews the singular atrium for more low-key, episodic experiences. In the case of Liveris, the atrium is “both/and”: a coherent central space punctuated by a dynamic set of stairs, floating compartments and visual slices not orthogonal to the plan. It functions – as evidenced by my visit by a high degree of use by students at all levels of the building – as a set 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 see directly into and through the labs the campus and the city beyond, with the programmatic shifts in use highlighted by color shifts as one ascends, in a way that abandons all meaning of the hierarchy. Engineering here is fun, accessible and inclusive, which is a triumph indeed.
Resulting from a real collaboration between architects who practice in the service of ideas, the Andrew N. Liveris building invites investigation from the moment you see it. It is a building that begs to be read, the occupant accumulating a set of direct, contextual and digestible anecdotes rendered by form, material and colour. Highly technical and functionally demanding spaces are intelligently and efficiently blended to provide an asset that the university can use for a range of educational needs. Robust and straightforward details, such as handrails, stairs and other direct moments of user engagement, result in a sophisticated composition that is unpretentious yet daring to interpret and enjoy.
— Chris Knapp is Research Director of Building 4.0 CRC and Honorary Professor at Bond University, where he directed the Abedian School of Architecture. He sits on the AASA’s climate action committee and is the director of the Gold Coast design studio workshop.