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“Instantly welcoming and culturally agnostic”: Darebin Intercultural Centre by Sibling Architecture

Darebin Intercultural Centre is a project bursting with colour and texture. At the core of this public work, however, Sibling Architecture has confronted questions of cultural inclusion and the colonial heritage of the built environment in ways that run much deeper than surface level.

“Instantly welcoming and culturally agnostic”: Darebin Intercultural Centre by Sibling Architecture

The immediately striking feature of this recently completed project in Melbourne is the sharp contrast between exterior and interior. To step inside the Darebin Intercultural Centre, recently shortlisted in the 2023 INDE.Awards, is to be immersed in a richly varied collage of colours and textures across floor, wall and ceiling. Little wonder that Sibling Architecture has already been recognised for this work with the Grand Prix Award at the 2023 Dulux Colour Awards.

Interspersed with the reds and yellows is a material palette including cork, vinyl, carpet, timber and mirrors, as well as some original floor tiling. These soft internal spaces stand as a whole in rather hard juxtaposition with the facade of the original building from 1895. With the exterior thus heritage listed, it stands to reason that Sibling’s approach to the project has placed a great emphasis on the thresholds between inside and outside.

“We had to be quite drastic in the way that we opened up the building,” says Nicholas Braun, co-founder at Sibling and project architect for Darebin. “It was compartmentalised into much smaller rooms and it was our big move to delete all of that, including some big structural changes that were required.”

The design philosophy behind this opening up is one of community consultation and cultural tolerance. The architects approached the project with an acute awareness of the colonial connotations of the original building with its classical language of tympana, pilasters and prominent columns by the entry points.

“For us, it was about creating spaces that are safe and welcoming for the diverse community that the centre needs to accommodate. We made a deliberate choice to be quite culturally agnostic,” explains Braun.

“We were dealing with an old heritage building that was quite closed off and colonial. When we went through our consultation with different community groups, including Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Traditional Owners, some of the feedback was that the spaces felt culturally unsafe,” he adds.

Related: NUX by Sibling Architecture from INDESIGN #89

The insertion of a language of curves in the interior is one way that Sibling addressed this, again marking a notable contrast with the orderly external facade. The doorway itself, expanded with a bright yellow frame into a generous oval threshold and opening not onto a formal reception but welcoming tables instead, is an example of this approach.

While the conceptual underpinnings are explicitly agnostic in terms of not preferencing one cultural group over another, the bold colours make it clear that, for Sibling, agnosticism does not mean a bland, empty neutrality. It’s a kind of tolerant and inclusive boldness, set within a wider architectural attitude to the heritage of the built environment that might be termed something like critical restoration.

The internal openness acts both symbolically, as culturally inclusive space, and functionally, as adaptable spaces for varying community needs. Internal thresholds make use of soft materials to create porous, adaptable spatial divisions. “There’s a specificity to the flexibility — the curtain creates another usable space, for example,” says Braun.

Stepping back to consider the project as a whole, the welcoming message is conveyed by the centre having been moved from the rear of the site to the prominent street front. Landscaping on the outside has created spaces for ceremony, with the whole design proceeding to the colourful climax of a decolonised interior.

Darebin Intercultural Centre is shortlisted in the Work Space category at the 2023 INDE.Awardsfind out more here.

Sibling Architecture

Peter Bennetts

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