Gehry’s first Australian building: The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building

This article first appeared on Open Journal on March 10, 2017. Images by Andrew Worssam for UTS.

Often referred to as ‘the crumbled brown paper bag building’, renowned architect’s Frank Gehry’s first architectural contribution to Australia is a bold, audacious one. Opened in February 2015, the University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) Business School was named the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building after the Australian-Chinese businessman and philanthropist Dr Chau Chak Wing, who donated $20 million towards the $180m project, and whose son studied interior and spatial design at UTS.

Dr Chau Chak Wing Building Image by Andrew  Worssam .jpgTwo facades, two personalities

Gehry’s vision for the UTS Business School’s city campus – which covers an area of 18, 413m ² over 14 levels and houses teaching, research, social, learning and office spaces for approximately 1600 students and staff – was inspired by the concept of a tree-house, or rather a cluster of them.

“Each of the larger lower floors is divided into six floor segments. The building façade folds in between these elements bringing natural daylight deep into the centre of the floors,” Gehry said of the design, which he developed with two aspects that would each have its own distinct personality.

To the west, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building features a glass, mirror-like facade, with brick towers standing at the northwest and southwest corners. While to the east, some 320,000 custom-designed bricks, their pale brown colour a nod to Sydney’s sandstone heritage, were hand-laid and used to create a striking undulating facade, its surface dotted with windows.

“The idea of using brick was part of the community here. There is a brick culture [in Sydney],” said Gehry, at the building’s official opening and media launch in February 2015. “Creating a sense of movement to replace decoration is a primitive one actually. It’s from the fold, which goes back to studies by Michelangelo [Gehry has often cited the soft fabric-like folds in the artist’s work as an inspiration] and many artists over time, over the years. We were able to accomplish it with normal bricklaying techniques.”

Inside the building, the focus is on flexibility, ease of movement and collaboration. This is reflected in elements such as the striking stainless steel staircase that dominates the main lobby; two oval classrooms, made from 150 large laminated timber beams, designed to remove hierarchal barriers and encourage engagement; and large, dreamy cloud-like lighting in the lower floors and social spaces.

The building also features a 20,000-litre tank that harvests rainwater for use in toilets and landscaping on its roof, and 160 bicycle parking spots (and just 20 car spots) in its basement, and was awarded a five star Green Star Design rating from the Green Building Council of Australia.

Dr Chau Chak Wing Building 1 Image by Andrew  Worssam.jpg

A design for the future 

Gehry’s dramatic design was always destined to divide opinion, even now, two years since opening it generates passionate responses from those that love or loathe it. Either way, it is a building that he designed to be a landmark, to stand out and be noticed in the cityscape it has become a part of.

Gehry, when quizzed by a UTS journalism student at the building’s media launch about how he hoped the building would inspire students, responded by sharing a story: “I was at Harvard [and] asked to work on the expansion of the Harvard campus by the president. They had just built a business school there that had been built in the 19th century style by a contemporary architect, a friend of mine. It’s quite comfortable and everybody loves it. Even I love it. And the president said to me, ‘Frank, we’re going to build a new campus. Everyone loves the business school, why wouldn’t we build this new campus in the same style?’ I said: ‘Sir, you are the president of Harvard. You are preparing people for the future and if you want to tell them they have to live in the past, be my guest.’”

The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building has many spaces that are open to the public. Open from 8am to 10pm on weekdays and 8am to 6 pm on weekends, it is located at UTS Building 8, 14-28 Ultimo Road, Ultimo. Enter via Ultimo Road or Mary Ann Street.