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Ministry by design: fjmt’s Salamanca Building

When the politics of a project involve Parliament itself, the architectural facilitator must be expert in multi-party negotiation. fjmt brings the design conversation back to the land and its people with Salamanca Building at Parliament Square, Hobart.

Designing any workplace – especially one providing amenity and space for a modern Parliament and its Parliamentarians – is never a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s always a case of horses for courses. Naturally, if the horse is designed by a committee it may prove ungainly, so the challenge is always to ensure that the end result is fit for purpose.

Designed by fjmt, the 11-storey Salamanca Building is Hobart’s latest office tower, offering the opportunity for state-of-the-art design. The building steps back on the upper levels with smaller floorplates to preserve city view corridors. It sits behind Parliament House, the two now connected by a three-level glass link. The building accommodates both Executive Government and the Parliament.

In terms of the Parliament, it brings together staff previously spread over multiple locations. There are two new levels annexed to the 1841 Parliamentary building which provides offices for Hansard, research and other joint services to both Houses of Parliament, offers contemporary Parliamentary committee rooms and accommodates the offices of Members of Parliament.

Separately, the Salamanca Building also accommodates the Ministerial office and various government agencies such as Revenue, Liquor and Gaming (on the publicly accessible ground floor from Salamanca Square), the Department of State Growth as the major tenant over four levels, and the Department of Education on levels seven and eight. There is one café and a plan to incorporate more retail, food and beverage services into the site.

The entry is opposite the lovely St David’s Park through a double-height portico distinguished by powerful angled concrete supporting columns which are replicated inside the surprisingly intimate, fully glazed lobby. The Salamanca Building is part of the Parliament Square development which will eventually see a public plaza defined by the Salamanca Building, Parliament House and a heritage hotel.

The Parliament of Tasmania was originally a customs house designed by James Lee Archer and built in 1840. Parliament shared the building with customs from 1841 until 1904 before taking over the entire building. So, there is a lot of history to this beautifully scaled, sandstone neo-Palladian building. And that’s only part of the cultural overlay which made designing this building, particularly the interiors, such a challenge.

Given the plethora of stakeholders – and bear in mind the hierarchical and traditionalist nature of the operation of Parliament, not to mention party politics and bureaucratic conservatism – it is easy to see why there isn’t a consistent interior design strategy beyond a general push towards open plan, restricting the number of enclosed offices and locating general work areas on the perimeter, thus ensuring plenty of natural light and general access to the views. The views are sensational – to the River Derwent then back across St David’s Park to Mount Wellington. But the architects resist the temptation to over-indulge, often using vertical slot windows to edit the views.

Notwithstanding various constraints, there are some striking and significant design initiatives that give this building a strong sense of unity and a lot of character. These begin with the way the architects have provided a very modern building which nevertheless respects the history and importance of Parliament. In subtle ways, the new building responds to the old building – by visual inclusion, by acknowledging its brick and sandstone textures and in the way it respects the historic building by not being in any way overbearing.

Salamanca Building workplace by fjmt

Then the architects have generated a conversation between the orthogonal nature of the new building’s form with curvilinear or organic elements throughout. This is especially evident in the elliptical meeting room pods with their Spotted Gum external battens and Spotted Gum and Tasmanian Oak internal battens for ceilings. Indeed, timber finishes greatly soften this otherwise concrete and glass building, as in the use of perforated veneers wall linings and the tonally restrained automated timber louvres.

There is a consistent strategy to connect the interiors to the Tasmanian context. The committee rooms, for example, each reference – through imagery and palette – a mountain range of Tasmania: Mt Wellington, Cradle Mountain and the Hazards. Similarly, the stakeholders were all given a choice of landscape reference through materials and palette: the turquoise and blues of the Freycinet, the rich, deep greens of the Tarkine rainforest, the multifarious colours of the Bay of Fires, or the soft sandstone of the Painted Cliffs at Maria Island.

Just as significantly, the generally high-quality furnishings favour not just Australian designers, but specifically Tasmanian designers. There are, for example, Cowrie chairs by expatriate Tasmanian, Brodie Neill. Meanwhile, Launceston-based designers, Simon Ancher and Matthew Prince, have produced three astonishingly beautiful, grand and elliptical boardroom tables from Hydrowood (Huon Pine, Blackwood, Myrtle and Tasmanian Oak) salvaged from Lake Pieman. Three of these tables are in the committee rooms while the fourth – its elliptical form replicating the elliptical meeting room itself – is on the level 5 Ministerial level.

In an important respect, this building will not become fully itself until the plaza is completed. This is because it is very much a contextual building. Already it connects seamlessly with Parliament House with its security lines remaining subtle and discreet. Likewise, its visual connection with the city, the water and the mountain is generous, if quietly edited. But the ground floor entry lobby will really come alive with the light and openness of the plaza and the contrasting heritage edge of the renovated hotel.

Photography by Adam Gibson.

This project was featured in issue #74 of Indesign magazine, the ‘Design Relish’ issue. See all the products, furniture and finishes that were specified in this project – Salamanca Building.

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