Healesville Sanctuary Building Review

It is not often that one hears a post-occupancy client comment that a building is “perfect… there’s nothing that could have been better”. It is even more rare (and refreshing) to hear a work of serious, erudite architecture described as “a ripper”. These are the words of Dr David Middleton, senior vet at Melbourne’s Healesville Sanctuary, about the new Australian Wildlife Health Centre (AWHC) by architects Minifie Nixon. The AWHC is Minifie Nixon’s second public building after the much-discussed Centre for Ideas at the Victorian College of the Arts.

Middleton, who was the driving force behind what he believes to be the first open veterinary hospital in the world, is clearly thrilled with the building. His idea was to turn a traditional veterinary hospital literally inside out, exposing all of the procedures and operations that would usually happen behind closed doors. This programme and its spatial elaboration were developed over time, in close collaboration with the architects, and Paul Minifie notes that zoo staff were unwavering in their ambition and belief in what architecture can do. In return, on a programmatic level, they have received a very well planned, practical, modest and clever building. On a formal level, meanwhile, they have received a very odd beast indeed.

Zoos today have reinvented themselves. No longer is it the humans who are protected from the dangerous creatures behind bars: we, the gawking hordes, are now recognized as the true threat. This is particularly evident at Melbourne’s Healesville Sanctuary, which in its very name outlines the precarious position of Australia’s indigenous fauna in the wild, threatened from every side by loss of habitat, feral predators, and the daily carnage wreaked by cars. This last aspect is emphasized at the AWHC by a large faux street sign warning “Beware! Humans!” The facility acts as the hospital for the sanctuary’s permanent inhabitants, but it also has an important role as a centre where injured wildlife, brought in by members of the public, are received, treated, rehabilitated and ultimately prepared for release again.

The visitor first enters into a main gallery, a doughnut of space with a glass-enclosed courtyard in the centre, and the outer wall slightly deformed into a bulging “apse” behind the reception desk. Here the visitor is placed immediately in the midst of the action, with a series of glass walled rooms bordering this space – an operating theatre, laboratory, examination room and recovery areas are all directly visible, while a necropsy is accessible but protected behind a screen. This arrangement means that a vet in the laboratory identifying a pathogen can speak directly to the people watching outside, just as visitors can observe operations, live and close up, and even witness post-mortem dissections. When we visited, a vet and two nurses were operating on a kookaburra, inserting a steel pin in its broken wing. It was an amazing thing to see, with the x-ray of the broken wing visible on a lightbox and the anaesthetised bird laid out on the table, no more than a metre away from us. It is through authentic experiences such as this, it is hoped, that visitors will gain a sense of the connectedness of all animal and human life, extending to an increased sense of responsibility for wildlife in the wider world.

Interpretative displays by Cunningham Martyn line the centre’s main space, and these are effective, interesting and well conceived. The workspace and research library at the rear of the building are generous and well lit, and apparently pleasant places to work.
But the real architectural action is on the façade, and in the main gallery above eye level, where the ceiling is a startling surface of continuous compound curves, gold fabric swooping upward into a series of funnel-like orifices. This element is in fact a formalized mathematical concept known as a ‘Costa surface’ or  ‘complete minimal embeddable surface of finite topology’. Its use here is part of the architects’ ongoing interest in design technique, and in bringing maths and architecture back into the close adjacency they enjoyed in earlier centuries. But while the association was historically about beauty, proportion, and order, in the AWHC mathematical geometry is used to a different end altogether.

There is also a level of mimesis in the AWHC, and it is of a curious type. It is not a zoomorphic mimicry of a creature in finished form, such as can be found at Gregory Burgess’s World of the Platypus, also at Healesville, with its platypus reference in plan. It is rather a mimicry of the more fundamental organic processes that produce all life, filtered through and modified by digital technology. This is most evident in the vaguely gecko-like mottled stripes of the AWHC facade, where the architects used a “cellular automata” algorithm which, when plugged into the computer and set in motion, “designed” the blockwork pattern. In generating the pattern, the computational process also ‘knew’ where programmatic building elements -  doors, windows and so on – were located, and transformed the pattern in response. Minifie states that the intention here was “not just a cold mathematical or experimental exercise,” and sure enough the resulting pattern chimes very well with the building programme, it opens itself to metaphor without pastiche, it expresses both artifice and the organic, and it suits the scale and pretensions of the building. It also seems to avoid some of the potential pitfalls of this kind of design approach, namely that it can result in a coy retreat, a refusal to admit the actual role of aesthetic judgement, a false and disingenuous abandonment of authorship and “design” as such.

But while in the façade this process works out, it is less convincing in the minimal surface object which, by its nature, can not be adapted – it is a self contained and self-fulfilling form. The interest and pleasure in appropriating such forms in architecture seems to lie in the inventiveness of working out how to use them – here we have this fixed complex form, now how big should we make it and what can we do with it? But there is a danger in this approach – that the appropriated element can be both conceptually and formally out of sync with the rest of the building. It seems to me that this is the case here: the gold element is bewildering in its incongruity, especially within what is otherwise a very coherent building. It is clearly far more than a solar chimney or skylight, and while it draws attention to itself as though it hada representational function (its height and colour alludes to cupolas, Minifie explains) it is very difficult to work out what that would be. Its spatial high jinks work well internally: the effort of puzzling out the geometry and construction, the appreciation of the vertical interpenetration of internal and external space, and the peculiar effects of light and air in the central courtyard are all curious, novel and pleasing. But externally, to my eye, this gold eruption above the parapet is perplexing.

In thinking and writing about this part of the building I have swung between extremes: between admiring the scholarliness and consistent experimental daring of the architects; feeling exasperated at what seems an intensely idiosyncratic (not to say peculiar and arcane) exploration of concerns which have nothing to do with this programme or client; appreciating the logic of the gold element as an expression of hierarchy within a flat disposition of programme (the whole thing can be read as a kind of perverse Stockholm Library); feeling a simultaneous distaste and fascination for the gold thing’s aesthetic and materiality, while also being amused by the architects willingness to redeem tensile fabric surfaces from their “hideously abject” (in Minifie’s words) association with service station canopies; and pondering the place of all this in the venerable tradition of the architectural folly. Ultimately, the simple reality is that the activities going on inside the building are so fascinating, and so well served by the architecture, that the more inexplicable or impenetrable aspects of the “content” will remain unremarked by its occupants and the lay public. Meanwhile we architects will continue with our abstruse disciplinary debates, which is surely the point. The complex and contradictory reactions that this building has and will generate in its architectural audience are surely one of the project’s great strengths.
As the fulfilment of a complex brief, the building is a resounding success. As an example of the architectural process helping to explore and expand a new kind of programme, and of the architect as a facilitator and agent in this process, it is impressive. As a formal outcome, while new, strange and interesting, it is not always so immediately satisfying. But if a building can juggle, sing and ride a unicycle at the same time, it seems churlish to complain if it drops the occasional baton.

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