The GPT Group’s Wollongong Central Expansion Celebrates Grand Opening

(October 8, 2014) - Today, The GPT Group celebrates the opening of the $200m Wollongong Central Expansion designed by HDR | Rice Daubney. Located just over 50 miles (approximately 80 kilometers) south of Sydney, the design proudly reflects the natural beauty and rich culture of the region, creating a renewed social heart and retail destination for Wollongong that fuses architecture, art and culture.

Inspired by a desire to do more than simply create a building, the project becomes pivotal in creating a truly catalytic urban transformation for Wollongong. The built form deftly creates a three-level "public street" that connects the northern and southern parts of the city. This connection allows the building to be permeable on many levels and knits together both existing and future parts of the city, making connections possible far beyond the built form. This role of catalyst also extends to the west where the building provides impetus and new possibilities to the existing main street.

"Quintessentially, the Illawarra [the region Wollongong is located within] is characterized by a unique dichotomy—a perception of a tough and gritty town defined solely by its history as a steel town and then a rich, almost achingly beautiful landscape held tightly between the escarpment and the Pacific Ocean," says Susanne Pini, director of retail + mixed use at HDR | Rice Daubney. "This friction defines the architecture of the building; a heroic, engineered and precise outer shell reflecting the man-made. The shell unfolds to an interiorscape; warm, organic and sensual, which celebrates the natural."

The use of steel, an obvious choice given the context, also echoes this duality; the main entry amphitheater forms a civic space open to the city's main intersection and steel is used in an entirely unexpected manner. Here, steel typifies strength and is used lyrically, almost organically, in the form of notched blades that change depending on the vantage point. Expressed steel frames order the façade in a rhythm reminiscent of ancient former land uses, holding between them shards of glass reinforced concrete echoing the fractured forms mirroring the dramatic form of the escarpment. This is contrasted by the impossible delicacy of the Illawarra flame tree, which is carved into the façade; subtly formed by shadow during the day and at night, illuminated by embedded lighting that transforms the abstraction into a constellation of flowers.

The main central connecting spine links three levels of a soaring pedestrian street off which sits the Cutting, which forms a three level eastern connection, and the Scarp, which provides a linkage to the street proper. The Cutting is characterized by a voluptuous and undulating curve formed in timber, which appears to open and close the aperture of sunlight, emulating the dynamism of light and form experienced in the rainforest and escarpment. Natural light links the spaces vertically through this spine, orientating people around the sun. The Cutting also houses a major art piece by international artist Maria Fernanda Cardosa, which explores the iconic topography of the Illawarra. "The piece resembles the movement of water," notes Carosa. "The multiplicity of water, its constant movement—from streams to rivers, to lakes, to oceans, to vapor, clouds and rain—is a powerful metaphor for the dynamic energy of this location."

Food is an important cultural connection to the region, binding its diverse population. The development links food across all three levels. This binding begins on lower ground, the home of fresh food where an iconic space named My Mother's Kitchen speaks to the importance of the kitchen as the center of the home in the Illawarra. Embodying the visual overload of street markets with the eclectic melting pot of the family kitchen, this precinct celebrates the ordinary—colanders hang from the ceilings, rolling pins adorn columns, and the floor is a cornucopia of color and pattern with a communal dining table that spans the length of the space. The street then houses alfresco dining, which extends the existing precinct and further connects emerging parts of the city. This connection of the built form out (rather than the typical inward looking model) was vitally important in establishing a cohesive response to the life of the street and, then, of the city.

The upper level Veranda houses a light-filled food precinct centered on the street; connections to the city are offered through window boxes that perch over the street and by giant opening doors (like big eyelids) that tilt open to feel as if the veranda is entirely part of the street. While allowing natural air through the space, the delicate screens carry another abstraction of the iconic Illawarra flame tree, scattering shadows of delicate blossoms across the floor.

The Scarp is a laneway precinct reflective of both the rich youth and university culture of the region, and also the emergent laneway culture of the city. The laneways are characterized through a diverse response to street art and art in general typifying the region. The scarp extends this citywide dialogue with artwork by Australian contemporary artist Numskull, which will be completed live starting on opening day as people walk through the lane—performance art in its most literal sense.

Reflecting on the expansion project, Pini adds, "A building in the city should not be a full stop; nor a pause; but an opportunity to start a fire."