Local Architect Makes Good

Long after the nuns at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea College told me I couldn't make a career out of shopping, we are set to launch my hometown’s perhaps most ambitious project: The GPT Group’s Wollongong Central. The expansion, which opens today, is a renewed social heart for the city — a lively retail destination that artfully blends architecture, art and culture. But the role it plays in transforming the community goes beyond a new place to shop.

The city of Wollongong is defined, largely by others, as a steel city approximately 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Sydney. But it sits on one of the most enviable parts of the Pacific Ocean nestled between water and the escarpment. This last part, however, is our little secret since the city’s industrial history leaves no room in the imagination for anything more than polluted, scarred and blighted.

Early in 2011 as we prepared to pitch for this project, we contemplated a black and white photo of my parents looking out from the lofty heights of Bald Point at the spectacular amphitheatre of the coastline and an emerging town and industry in the background. It was 1955, and was the first day of their married life. Their hopes and dreams were rooted in a place both exquisitely beautiful and brutal, raw and primal in the early days of immigration. But my parents made no distinction between these two contradictions. They only saw that in the contrast lay a future they could never have dared dream of in post-war Italy.

We started with a small, humble sketch. It was a promise that this building had work to do far beyond its footprint; it could either start a city-wide dialogue and serve as a catalyst for change and possibility, or simply be just another building.

Like many cities, Wollongong’s central business district had struggled to remain relevant. Its ailing main streets were bereft of active life, which is a common casualty of rampant suburban growth in many parts of the developed world. We opted to instead plant a seed that would grow with strong roots to reach out and connect parts of the city that had become severed, and would promote new growth where it had never dreamed to exist.

And with this black and white photo in mind, we contemplated how to create a building that would evoke the dichotomy of natural beauty and man-made heroic brutality. We often drew a passion fruit — it seemed an apt analogy — a hard, gnarly exterior shell that belied the fact that with one cut, the most luscious, unctuous and sensual interior was revealed.

The design took an exterior plane of folded shards of cool, precise glass-reinforced concrete and delicately overlaid it with a sprinkling of embossed and punched flowers — the buds of the iconic Illawarra flame tree. The entry uses emblematic blades of raw steel in an impossibly plastic way: hard and raw against delicate and lyrical. The interior then unfolds — a tall three-story timber “street” with undulating forms evoking the escarpment, which opens and closes in form, permitting light and shadow to fall — marking time and space.

So as The GPT Group’s Wollongong Central opens and concludes our three-year design journey, we are honored to have held a piece of the city in our hands, tending it with love and commitment. As architects, it was an honor. But the bigger, more wondrous contemplation is that our client feels this responsibility together with an unfathomable love of the place and a desire to tread the path less traveled. Today, we hand this piece back again in the full expectation that the seed planted will bear much fruit.

What's the lesson here? That every community we create is someone's home — our parents’, our friend’s, our children's, our lover’s — and it's our humble honor to make this home inspirational. But through the self-doubt and the angst (surely the lot of the architect — 8,500 colanders for a ceiling, any one?) the one thing we held onto was that we were creating not a building that the place finally deserved, but rather, a building deserving of its place. I hope we did that.