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Monumentality with a certain softness: Moreau Kusunoki and Genton on Powerhouse Parramatta

We met the architectural design team behind Powerhouse Parramatta as they gave a talk on the milestone project at Western Sydney University.

Monumentality with a certain softness: Moreau Kusunoki and Genton on Powerhouse Parramatta

(L-R): Nicolas Moreau, Hiroko Kusunoki and Steven Toia.

With roots spanning France, Japan and Australia, the architectural team that won the design competition for Powerhouse Parramatta in 2019 is certainly international. The Paris-based practice, Moreau Kusunoki, is Lead Designer, working with Genton as Local Architect. Hiroko Kusunoki and Nicolas Moreau recently joined Steven Toia of Genton at Western Sydney University’s Architecture school in Parramatta for a presentation on this significant new addition to the Powerhouse portfolio, which is currently under construction.

The talk covered a number of important concepts and features set to define the architecture at Powerhouse Parramatta. Starting with a wide view of the site as a whole, one of the first things to note about the design is its orientation. It takes its initial cues from two potentially opposing features – the city grid and the river – in the hope of connecting to both.

Renders courtesy of Powerhouse.

In terms of massing, the scheme features two relatively simple rectilinear blocks. Their placement creates generous outdoor space to the north-northeast, designed to make the river a central feature of the project. At the same time, however, the buildings themselves align with Parramatta’s city grid. One wonders whether the prestige of the museum might have been heightened by using the old trick of setting important civic buildings off at a slight angle to the rest of the urban grid, but the important thing for Moreau Kusunoki and Genton (MKG) is bridging these two defining features on what is a historically significant site.

“The dimensions of the rooms are the drivers,” explains Moreau, who describes how the sheer size of the required volumes meant that the options of where to place them “are not endless.” Having considered various other ideas – such as more verticality or even spiral forms – the team decided that an “urban” form was most appropriate.

Connecting to the city grid is perhaps best understood as a way of welcoming and drawing people from the urban centre into the museum, especially its open, river-focused space. “We wanted to let the river breathe, to allow it to have its natural processes,” says Toia. “To allow it to be a landscape and not a fortification.”

The placement of the buildings not only creates this outdoor area, but also a gateway – or “civic portal” – in the space created between them. Indeed, Kusunoki speaks about the importance of the Japanese concept of Ma in the project, roughly equivalent to the idea of in-between space. While the gateway hints at this, it’s really in the overall structural choices that its significance can be seen. MKG’s design is most striking for its exoskeleton, with the buildings’ primary structure fully expressed on the outside as Meccano- or lattice-like steel frames. Set to be painted white and doing the bulk of the structural work, this exoskeleton is proudly displayed as a dominant visual feature of the architecture.

Related: Discussions at the 2024 Architecture Conference

Where Ma comes in (or should that be out?) is through the walls of the main internal spaces being set back from this surrounding primary structure, which acts more like a porous perimeter. Interstitial space is then created in-between the structure and the more conventional building edge, a quality further intensified by the ability to open up some of the walls. In particular, the dramatic scale of the enormous ‘mega-door’ – which Moreau describes as almost like a guillotine – is set to create truly fluid indoor-outdoor space.

Another turn of phrase that comes up repeatedly is “liberating the ground,” while Moreau adds that the irregularity of the exoskeleton’s appearance – it features a “playful  grammar” of X-, V- and Z-shaped structural pieces – is about “the possibility of having a richness of vocabulary and avoiding repetition.”

Kusunoki concludes that “lightening the structure of the museum is very important, while, at the same time, you don’t want to lose the dynamic space and scale – but we like to soften them.” As such, the team is clear about the civic monumentality of this project but is hoping to deliver an architecture that embraces this without losing a sense of human dimensions.

Moreau Kusunoki


Powerhouse Parramatta

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