Place-specific design is so very de rigueur. But beyond the obvious, how is place-driven design being strategically integrated across both macro and micro aspects of a mega development? This was Terry Snow’s objective for his best-in-class Willinga Park Equestrian Centre – and Cox Architecture has delivered.
January 11th, 2018
Property developer, Terry Snow, already had the DA for an equestrian centre on his sprawling 860-hectare property at Bawley Point on the NSW south coast. According to Chris Millman, Cox’s design director for the project, this ticked all the boxes. But then Snow, inspired by Hobart’s MoNA, realised it could be much more – not just an equestrian facility, but a destination. He had already established a sculpture park and native gardens, so he told the architects, “open your shoulders” and make something for the world stage, the very best and most comprehensive equestrian centre in Australia and capable of hosting international competitions – but with added value from the architecture, the landscaping and the built-in amenities.
In addition, it was to be a celebration of its place. The result is an extraordinary complex over 8,500 square-metres, which seems to grow out of its unique landscape. The architecture, its interiors and the expansive, hilly property seem to merge into one. Yet the architecture also remains distinct. Like the surrounding sculptures, the concrete, steel, copper and timber buildings with their soaring faceted roof structures and overhangs assert their own character, but in a constant dialogue with the land itself.
Given less than a week to prepare a proposal, Millman says that the architects’ “original response was one of total fear because we had never done an equestrian park before and the expectations were very high.” He adds that: “our initial response was that it had to be something of a scale which wasn’t going to get lost in the landscape, but which could be part of it.” This led them to reference land art, especially the work of Richard Serra and Andy Goldsworthy, generating the idea of the buildings as sculptural forms in the landscape – but forms, which were also informed by the landscape, while still fulfilling their functional requirements.
Millman explains that the architecture is all about how the buildings relate to the ground. They are literally grounded – almost the opposite, says Millman, of ‘touch the earth lightly’. Although they are clearly separate, the aim was to make it hard to tell where the building ended and where the landscape began. Each of the three main buildings has its own distinctive form, driven by its purpose. However, they also form a family, linked by a similar quality of expression, a common palette of materials and the linking in-situ concrete walls, some exceeding 100 metres in length and sometimes forming massive portals (like the entry gates) which you can drive through. These walls are continued internally, creating further cohesion to the complex and a seamless connection between the interiors and the outside landscape. The extensive use of timber – Blackbutt and unfinished marine ply (there were only a few finishes) – set up a conversation with the concrete and contributes to the overarching coherence of the buildings.
The complex offers facilities for all kinds of dressage (including three dressage arenas, one undercover), showjumping, three-day eventing, camp-drafting and vaulting, polocrosse, horse breeding, auctions and entertainment. In fact, it is still a work-in-progress because 160 extra adjustments (stables) will be added, along with accommodation and a small information pavilion. The key buildings are the Equestrian Centre (containing stables, hydrotherapy pool, dressage venues etc.), the Covered Arena (which can accommodate 1,000 spectators and offers VIP and media boxes for competition events) and the Reception Building where the imposing concrete walls offered the opportunity for a monumental and vibrant, specially commissioned, painting by Michael Johnson.
Design Architect, Ngroho Utomo, points out that light was a major consideration, especially in the covered arena with its massive 90 by 40-metre roof span. “There is a stark contrast,” he says, “between the light underneath the canopy and the light which is around it.” Hence, the architects introduced another source of light through the clerestory windows of this somewhat industrial building with its sawtooth profile. This mitigated the contrast and glare. It was important that the light be indirect since direct light reflecting off surfaces can disorient the horses when training or competing. So the openings are oriented to produce either a reflected light or a diffuse southern light.
Sally Hieatt designed the interiors, consulting to Terry Snow but working closely with Cox. She had worked with Snow for over 22 years and designed the interiors for his own house at Willinga Park six years prior. Given their lengthy collaboration, Hieatt says she didn’t need a detailed brief because she already knew what Snow liked. Nonetheless, knowing how much he liked colour, the designers went to Snow with a very understated palette of materials with an emphasis on quality furnishings, what Hieatt terms: “understated elegance”. “It’s a very architectural interior,” she says, “and there isn’t any obvious boundary as the light comes in from the outside.”
Connection with the outside is supported not just by the use of concrete, but by the Blackbutt-ceiling cladding, which extends from the inside out and a consistency of loose furnishings inside and out. Like the handling of external light, the interior lighting was crucial. Lighting consultant, LDP, was retained precisely because of its preference for subtle lighting. LDP’s approach to lighting, says Hieatt, “is that you don’t see it.” Hence, one rarely sees a light fitting and, if you do, it’s a feature or a lamp.
Place-responsive design is often discussed but rarely executed effectively, and as a result, we are left with superficial references to locality. The creative-thinking around place driven design for the Willinga Park Equestrian Centre is a stellar demonstration of ‘place’ done well for one primary reason – scale. Rather than a secondary ‘slap-on’ approach, the location and its cultural character have been considered and integrated thoroughly from the very beginning.
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