Review of Medical Centre by Grahame Rowe, Taylor Square, ARTICHOKE Magazine, vol. 09/02 June 2004
Grahame Rowe didn’t know what his next move was going to be. He had been living in Holland for three years, working at curating art shows to bring back to Australia. Fortunately for him, he met a friend of a friend who was looking for a designer to help set up the new premises for the renowned Taylor Square Private Clinic. This was enough of an impetus for Grahame to move back to Sydney and set up a small practice. This clinic was previously established across the road and already regarded as one of the leading centres in the world for innovation in its field: sexual health and in particular, HIV research. Under the direction of Dr Robert Finlayson, the clinic is one of the few that embraces all the associated factions of research and treatment. As Grahame describes, “it’s not your ordinary STD clinic that shovels penicillin into sailors”.
They had previously occupied a signature heritage building at the centre of Taylor Square and there was some reluctance in moving. The internal environment had been conducive to the central philosophy of the clinic, large informal rooms and high ceilings gave a relaxed and personal feel to what is essentially a team environment, almost a big family. What’s more, the large bay windows of the previous building offered the perfect viewing location for the annual Mardi Gras parade.
The brief therefore was that the team were not to be locked away from each other in isolated air-conditioned boxes. It was essential that a sense of connectedness be experienced for all the floors and therefore an orthodox office suite layout was not appropriate. The solution for this came in the form of linear void slot cut into second and third floors that visually and audibly connects all the upper floors. While it is only 500mmwide, this small opening contributes to the overall sense of a communal facility. The roof above the top of the void is translucent so that an amount of daylight penetrates into the space. When looking down from the top floor, although it is narrow, glimpses of people walking below give this connectedness.
The clinic is located in an old 1980s bank branch that, naturally enough had been built like a bunker. The vault itself was housed in 500mm thick concrete on all sides. The roof had been made as a thick concrete waffle slab. This made any future modifications to the building difficult and expensive. While it was single storey at the front, it sat like a missing tooth between two multi-storey inter-war style apartment buildings. From a streetscape perspective it was a disaster and Council wanted the whole building demolished and in-filled with a more sympathetic heritage facade. Total demolition would have been financially unsustainable. Furthermore, Grahame could see the potential of the existing building façade, dominated as it was by a series of vertically arranged terrazzo blades controlling the eastern sun. He successfully argued with Council that it was appropriate to build a modern façade that would bring contemporary architecture to Taylor Square. The built façade is recessed from the streetline to accommodate an outdoor terrace on the second floor. However the party walls and parapet continue to the front boundary and effectively contain and define a volume of space. The parapet line aligns with that of the adjacent building to the south and becomes a very successful example of contemporary infill: the missing tooth has been replaced.
The building has been increased to a total of four storeys. Originally a concrete framed extension was proposed, but due to the poor foundation material and the existing considerable mass of the existing, it was necessary to build with a lighter system, steel framed and clad. The discrete ground floor entry leads up a stair to the first floor reception and waiting area. It was important not to have this located at street level for reasons of privacy and security from the street, it also enables a separate retail tenancy to be housed in the ground floor space. The centrepiece of the first floor arrival point is the reception desk. Bulletproof glass 25mm thick was salvaged from the old banking chambers and has been used to form the walls of the desk. The scratched glass has been given a new lease of life with graphically printed vinyl film that has been applied to the back surface. The graphics are a repeating pattern of the new logo for the clinic and were designed by Michael Killorley, a uni colleague and friend of Grahame. The logo is an abstraction of a blue cross, the universal symbol for sexual health clinics.
The reception area introduces a number of materials and colours which recur throughout the building. The clean white plasterboard ceiling hovering above the reception desk contrasts with the greyness of the original coffered waffle slab that now forms the ceiling over the waiting area. All the joinery as well as the lift car has been finished with an easy wipe down laminate that is an over the top wood grain look. There is nothing subtle about this wood grain, nor is there anything subtle about the patterned lime green carpet. It is vivid colour and was specially dyed from a standard range. Throughout the building it brings a dynamic colourful quality and is especially bold when seen against the white and grey neutral palette that are the wall colours.
Beyond the reception, the first and second floors are occupied with treatment, testing and research rooms. The third floor contains a separate tenancy and a microbiology lab that was originally intended for the ground floor. There are two internal stairs, both of which are used for circulation, though for different purposes. The front stair is for general users of the building while the rear stair is more private and used by the doctors. It avoids things such as urine samples being carried through the front reception area.
The building and its interiors are a successful embodiment of the aspirations of the clinic. Its core work deals daily with matters of the utmost gravity, and the building respects this functionally, however the atmosphere is not sombre, but instead uplifting. When cornered on the stair, the director, Dr Finlayson offers, completely unprompted, “we’re very happy here”. In terms of losing the box seat view of the Mardi Gras parade, the outdoor terrace on the second floor still offers a reasonable though not as quite as good outlook but as Grahame philosophically explains it, “well, we’re all getting a bit older”.