Penrith Civic Centre and Library, designed by Feiko Bouman, is an excellent example of the change away from the formal actions and seriousness of the Brutalists that had been the hallmark of public architecture of the late twentieth century.
The forms lose their rigidity and symmetry, the face is friendlier and the spaces are drammatic but welcoming. There is still the blockwork and concrete, but it is often politely painted and rendered. The foyer is generous and filled with light from ample upper level glazing, now bouncing off warmer surfaces. And the steelwork is painted in colours, but looser in its form to reach the same structural goal.
Through the latter half of the twentieth century, Penrith City council had operated between five separate buildings in the area. Under increasing strain, the growing region of Western Sydney was in dire need of a consolidated Council precinct, and in 1988 plans for such a facility to be established were realised.
The new Civic Centre and Library would be the largest civic construction effort undertaken by the council. Feiko Bouman was elected from twenty-two design proposals to lead the project. A Dutch Australian architect, Bouman is noted for a number of significant public works, notably in North Sydney, and particularly the Australian Stockmans Hall of Fame, a sublime series of corrugated arcs and bright red steel vaults described as the “Opera House of the Outback”. A comparable eclecticism is carried through the design of Penrith’s Civic Centre.
The precinct does not simply bring together public administration for the region, but culture, recreation, and retail. The site, near Penrith train station, is connected by a network of food and retail outlets to a Westfield shooping centre to the east. To the south east, the Nepean Community College and Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre face High St.
The Civic Centre and Penrith City Library was completed in 1994, and bookend the western end of the precinct that brings together much of the region’s community processes. The building’s contribution to the cityscape is deceptively passive, the Centre set deep within the block, shielded from Castlreagh Rd by a heavily greened carpark.
On approach, its personalities multiply as high blockwork planes descend into a network of curved glass awnings, circular windows and corrugated vaults, supported by vivid orange and blue structural steel. These strong colours carry through the Centre in articulated steel structure and handrail detailing, enlivening the structure predominantly composed of blockwork and concrete.
The welcoming quality of the Civic Centre is in part due to its focus on accessibility, the entrance’s broad curved opening a consequence of both ramped and stepped external entrances to the second level. Such steady curves run through the structure in a fluid network of public an administrative spaces.
Assisted by lifts in the foyer, these entrance wings provide access to a first floor Council Chambers, with a seating capacity of 120, and a function room that seats 320. The central administrative area and foyer is composed of a double height atrium, naturally lit under a glazed roof supported by the same orange detailed structural steelwork. Red tiles and rich timber cabinetry further warm the space otherwise composed of two-tone blockwork and off-white painted concrete.
Maximising the utility of such a well lit space, the offices that line this foyer step inwards into the foyer. The subsequent opening provides clerestory glazing that permits the same light to permeate these offices while remaining entirely distinct.
A major element of the facility is the 3,000sqm Central Library and 100 seat theatrette to the south-east. While comparatively pared-back, the same structural vocabulary runs through this wing of the Centre, curved orange steel beams supporting clerestory glazing that lights a large portion of the public Library.
The Penrith Civic Centre and Library resides comfortably between a modern architectural tradition of honest structural and material expression and a communal desire for formal expressionism in the public realm.
In a 1995 issue of Sydney Morning Herald, Elizabeth Farrelly spoke of the “bytes of surprise visual joy” those who worked in the Centre would lyricise over. Partly eccentric brutalism, partly thrifty structural expressionism, it performs - in every sense. Prepared by the Australian Architecture Association, AAA: researched, and written by Jackson Birrell. Photos courtesy of Birzulis Associates. Edited and additional photos by Tone Wheeler.
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