Frank Gehry’s University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) building is rising brick by brick, and its rippling façade is garnering global attention.
The new 14-storey building, named after Australian-Chinese businessman and philanthropist Dr Chau Chak Wing, is Gehry’s first Australian building. Its design reflects the starchitect’s signature look with its undulating and unconventional form.
On UTS’ website, Gehry said he “imagined a building that was a cluster of ‘tree houses’, or vertical stacks of office floors with spatial ‘cracks’ in between”.
The building was designed from the inside out, with the façade shaped to suit the internal spaces, which will provide teaching, learning, and research and office accommodation for UTS’ new Business School. It will span 16,030 square metres and rise approximately 50 metres at its Haymarket address. Chak Wing generously donated $40 million to the project, along with an additional $1 million for Australia-China scholarships.
The new building’s exterior has been likened to a “crumpled paper bag” and an “urban sandcastle” but it’s the structure’s extraordinary masonry that makes it stand out.
The building actually features two distinctive facades, referred to as the building’s “two personalities,” which are designed to reflect Sydney’s urban fabric.
The east facing façade features a “buff” coloured brick that curves and drapes in a collapsing fashion. AECOM actually developed the unique brick including its tie, mortar and backing system – the first building in the world to make use of this state-of-the-art innovation.
“When you looked away from the city towards the suburbs, there are a lot of old beautiful masonry constructed buildings,” said Stephen Giblett, building structures leader NSW/ACT at AECOM. “Gehry wanted the façade to reflect that mason look.”
“The other side features a series of curved chevron shaped panels (all glass façade) with wacky geometry.”
Gehry describes the glass as “slightly reflective to fracture and mirror the image of the surrounding buildings of the neighbourhood.”
Giblett added that the glass is Low-E, reflecting heat but absorbing daylight to reduce energy consumption.
In order to build and deliver the shape of the façade, a new type of brick was required, and this proved to be AECOM’s biggest technical challenge for the project.
“The geometry (of the building) is curved in a very extreme pattern, so it curves over 27 degrees and reflects a shape that I and others describe as a ‘draped fabric,’” Giblett said. “It’s a geometry that holds no sort of inherent structural merit so it simply wants to collapse.”
“Curves in architecture aren’t unusual but they’re generally found in the Catalan arches found in Spain for example; they usually have geometric reasoning behind them to work structurally and to keep the masonry in compression. These bricks had to do things that bricks aren’t made to do.”
AECOM also needed the brick to look good from every angle, so the company created a dry-pressed brick that was less sharp. The bricks had slots in them that were used to hold a stainless steel rod to tie them together using the firm’s newly developed tie system.
“Most bricks have a little notch or groove at the top called the ‘frog’ but the problem with that is that it’s only localised with a divot in the top,” Giblett said.
This strengthened design also removed the need for the brick to be longer or deeper so that more of each brick “sat on each other.”
With the brick developed, the next challenge was using them to actually create the structure, which Gehry insisted be built “brick by brick.”
Giblett said “conventional” curves were fairly simple to build through precast panelling but Gehry’s objective to have bricklayers and bricks and mortar proved challenging and dangerous.
“The bricklayers are building 10 courses of brick at a time, if one was to dislodge or come down it could literally kill people,” said Giblett. “So we had to design a system whereby you could temporarily hold the brick in this wacky geometry with the tie system, the mortar system and the type of brick we developed.”
The bricks also had to merge with the glass facade.
“He made the windows pop out in a box,” Giblett said. “These boxes feature 450 millimetre deep aluminium window sections so that the windows always protruded from the brick.”
This meant the brick and glass did not always have to be perfectly aligned.
When it came to binding the bricks, typical mortar couldn’t be used due to its fast-drying and overly-sticky nature.
AECOM was unable to lean on any codes, past practice or Australian or international standards to fulfil the project, so the company took a risk and built a full size floor to floor mock-up to test their innovations.
Working closely with UTS, AECOM utilised the campus’ labs to complete tie, mortar, bricks and strength testing that would create and support the façade.
“We could actually say we’ve proven it works because we’ve built it, not that it satisfies some sort of code,” said Giblett.
He added that the building’s unique form was made possible through the extensive labour required to produce it.
“When you build brick by brick, all the bricks sit vertically so it corbels in and out,” said Giblett. “It creates a much better lighting effect by doing it that way and I think that a lot of architects like the purity in the design so you often see with architecture, that hey prefer walls built on site rather than precast because it has a certain feel to it.”
“I think Gehry wanted that feel of brick by brick…it’s now become part of the language of the building.”
Giblett praised the work of the bricklayers on the project, describing them as “grand masons.”
The building is set for completion later this year.