SMH's Elizabeth Farrelly writes about Weave
Illustration: Edd Aragon
This is not about Kevin Rudd. Quite the opposite. It's about shelter from the storm.
What is architecture? Broadly speaking, I consider this the kind of undergraduate unanswerable that should be well behind you before your first inklings of mortality. Last week, however, two largely unrelated events returned it to my frontal lobe.
One was the NSW Architecture Awards. The other, rain.
Rain! How those nine nights and days felt like 40. Yet my house, bless it, held out to the end, or almost. Only on the very last day of that Old Testament weather did our roof start to leak. Not frogs, I'm grateful for that. Quite likely just vines getting uppity.
So for eight nights, as it bucketed down, I'd Google ''ark, blueprints,'' or similar, and go to bed pleased not to be in living a cardboard box or storm drain. Then, halfway through night nine, one small drip shattered my equanimity. One red bucket showed me that what I love most, not just about this house but about housedness in general, is shelter. Staunch, unfailing shelter.
Shelter is architecture's most fundamental promise, yet one it so often disdains. Necessary, sure. But interesting? Difficult? Beautiful?
Frankly, I'm with them. Architecture begins where building ends. Shelter as such is mere building, but shelter composed - shelter designed for proportion, light and meaning or, in Le Corbusier's words, as "the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light" - that's architecture.
Which is why ''emergency architecture'' has always struck me as an oxymoron. What you need after an earthquake is not magnificent play - right? - but a tarp and a good bit of rope. You're trying to waterproof the newspaper over your kids; you're not wondering how the light falls.
Yet two central Sydney buildings in this year's awards rollout made me rethink. One is Collins and Turner's lovely vine-covered starburst for Weave community centre in Waterloo. The other is Environa Studio's ultra-sustainable, ultra-surprising and seriously good-looking Wayside Chapel in the Cross.
Weave drew the big gong, the Sulman Medal for public architecture. The Wayside, although shortlisted, got nothing. Yet both demonstrate the value of architecture in situations in which immediate exigency is usually prioritised over anything resembling aesthetics.
Overall, the awards were a strange mix. Included were charming and eccentric small buildings: Lava's Martian Embassy in Redfern, Bates Smart's Iglu Central in Chippendale and Drew Heath's gorgeously inside-out Tir na nOg house, which won the Wilkinson.
Yet the most decorated building was among the dullest; FJMT's already over-celebrated Darling Quarter. Far from the firm's best work, it inexplicably took out the Lord Mayor's Award (although it totally turns its back on the city) and the Lloyd Rees urban design award, although its strongest public moment by far is the ingenious children's play area, designed by Aspect Studio's Sacha Coles.
Still, back to Wayside, which offers a solar-powered, green-roofed, spatially ingenious high-chroma inner sanctum for people in need. And to Weave.
Shane Brown hit Sydney in 1974, a 17-year old from the Bay of Plenty logging town of Kawerau, New Zealand. Many kids in his position gravitated straight to the art-and-drugs scene around the Yellow House in the Cross. Instead, Brown found himself employed by a group of local Aboriginal parents worried about their kids. He started work on the streets.
Squatting with assorted Bondi anarchists (that was then!), Brown had his own car and a base in the Rachel Forster Hospital, now slated for residential takeover. He'd sit - in his car, in parks - and just talk to people, finding ways to help them sort their lives. This became Weave.
In 1993 Weave was registered as an independent not-for-profit. South Sydney mayor Vic Smith housed them in a disused change-room on Waterloo Oval. It was pretty crummy. Bare concrete with 15 showers and toilets. "We demolished 14 of each," recalls Shane. He adds, a little wistfully, "with 12 staff, that was demolition one too many".
That concrete shed housed Weave for 15 years. Then, after the "best street skate park in Australia" was built next door, Brown asked the City for a renovation. To his delight, "Clover and Monica [Barone, CEO] just said yes."
The resultant building retains most of the existing breeze-block walls. A central court has been scooped out and paved in hardwood setts and glass bays pop out at each corner. This gives the whole a pinwheel of a plan, surprisingly reminiscent of the Rose Seidler House. But where that house, from 1950, seems to spin up and out of the landscape, Weave burrows down, bedding itself deep into the hillside.
But the building's most recognisable face is the star-form steel-mesh veil that envelopes it, a three-dimensional mask driven by the desire for graffiti-proofing but sheathed now in a profusion of flowering native climbers. The roof terrace has become a productive garden and plans for permaculture mentoring are afoot.
The starburst is the image - and keeps the vines from the gutters! - but the real magic is within. There, early school leavers are tutored by medical students, people with psych issues are counselled, the Streetbeat bus service shepherds Marrickville and Redfern teens safely home at night and the Kool Kids Club runs 230 programs a year for children from La Perouse. Under Brown's direction, 34 staff now deliver $2.4 million a year in social programs to a couple of thousand of mostly indigenous people.
Yet, just as the steel is softened by botanic exuberance, these lives are warmed, both by Weave's openheartedness and by architecture that bespeaks genuine respect.
They're still pinching themselves. Like, we're worth this? Winning the Sulman - sharing it with the Opera House, NIDA and Australia Square - amplifies that respect.
This is architecture. Shelter from the storm.
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD COLUMNIST, AUTHOR, ARCHITECTURE CRITIC AND ESSAYIST
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