Sydney’s International Convention Centre is a bold design statement with three distinct structures: the Theatre, Exhibition Hall, and Convention Centre.

Graeme Spencer, senior associate at HASSELL, was a key player in the design of the project, which was a joint venture between HASSELL and Populous, and will be talking about design elements, such as the distinctive facade treatments, at the next Design/BUILD EXPO May 3 to 5 at the ICC.

According to Spencer, the facade is the “skin” or “envelope” of the building, and the design team deliberately took a different tack from the typical CBD structure.

“We wanted it to have that sense of handcrafted quality,” Spencer said. “We didn’t want it to be another metal box on the skyline. We were very clear that we didn’t want just another insulated metal panel system.”

Rather than creating another building with metal cladding, the team took inspiration from the ocean in designing the facades for the International Convention Centre.

“When you look across Sydney harbour you’ll see the lovely play of waves and the ripple that you get across water,” Spencer said. “That idea is what we took to the convention center.”

The team chose sheets of Italian porcelain, three by five metres, that are five millimetres thick, to clad the underside of the Convention Centre’s floating soffit. The soffit treatment was designed with the look of a cloud resting on top of the structure. The porcelain tiles pick up the sparkle of the water in Cockle Bay harbor.

“We wanted a facade that actually could look timeless, and the particular porcelain tile we chose has a pearlescent quality,” Spencer said. “In the morning when you’re down there, you’ll see that Cockle Bay is actually shining across the glass. It’s gorgeous.”

The existing fountain on the site was incorporated into the new structure, and takes advantage of the play of light created by the facade. The facade is folded around the fountain in such a way that light bounces off the water and reflects off the facade.

The facade of the Convention Centre also incorporates a metal fin detail that creates texture and provides a bit of shading. The fin varies in depth from 300 mils to 150 mils, Spencer said, and provides a solar shading coefficient of 30 per cent. The fin “gives it another layer of texture across the facade, so it’s not just a monolithic glass box,” Spencer said.

With such a large project, Spencer noted, creating design principles was crucial for keeping the varied teams’ efforts cohesive.

“Those three design principles are the hot rock of the Theatre, the warm landscape tones of the Exhibition Centre, and the cool blue tones of the Convention Centre,” he said.

Creating three distinct structures was also a design-driven decision. Rather than creating a single monolithic building, the team reduced the scale by breaking it up into three separate buildings, making it better suited to its location.

By taking the approach of three buildings rather than one, the project also creates more accessibility on the entire site.

“Access used to be blocked between the existing site and surrounding neighbourhoods,” Spencer said. “You had to walk right around the exhibition centre.

“By breaking it up we were then able to create new avenues and pathways through the site and connect communities and the central business district.”

Creating three separate structures also enabled the design team to tailor the design for different uses. The Theatre is the entertainment building, designed with music in mind and boasting a glowing red rock facade to reflect an edgy rock and roll character.

The Theatre is clad with a metal mesh panel that floats above a roofing system.

“We used a rudimentary roofing system as the weatherproof envelope, but by cladding it with this mesh, the light opens and closes as you walk around the building,” Spencer said. “When the light cuts across it, that gray facade changes in its depth again.”

The Exhibition Centre embraces Sydney’s relationship to the landscape, reflecting Sydney’s proud relationship to the harbour.

The Convention Centre, Spencer said, is “the jewel of the project,” with a facade that’s all about water, light, and reflectivity.

“The way that we folded the facade and the materials that we chose is all about how light and water reflect off the facade,” he noted.

The material choices, Spencer noted, aren’t always highly engineered systems.

“Facades don’t necessarily need to be high-end, high-tech systems,” he said. “You can use materials really cleverly and get that idea of depth and scale.”