Recently the venerable Frank Gehry opened his first building in Australia – the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building at the new School of business at the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS). It’s already been dubbed the brown paper bag building, due (probably accurately) to the undulating folds of brown brick that clad the exterior, which resemble the aforementioned lunch bag. As with all Gehry buildings, it’s quite polarising. There are those that cry genius, and those that just cry. 

At the opening of the building, Gehry addressed the media and said he wanted to build something "more human” than the "glass boxes”  that fill the Sydney skyline. I’m glad that a star-chitect like Gehry (I know he would hate me calling him that ) is willing to use his media power to make comments like this. Hopefully it goes some way to encouraging urban planners and those sculpting our cities, to pause and examine our built environment. However, I’m not completely sure this building of Franks is the best way to start this conversation. 

He describes it as being "more human”, but what qualifies the building to have achieve such lofty ideals. I’ve no doubt he sincerely believes his buildings are more human, but is he just buying his own BS? I question whether a building that is so controversial and so visually jarring can be considered more human. If some people praise its boldness, whilst many are confused and put-off by its extreme aesthetic, does that not make it less human? Acceptance of a building, by the community it sits amongst, is surly a key element in considering the human element of a building. 

I would describe a human building as something that effortlessly blends into our environment, and creates a space that quietly encourages our thoughts and actions. This is not to say however, that my interpretation of a human building should be completely void of architectural merit or emotion. Some examples I might use to prove tis point are the Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor or our own Bondi Lifesaving Clubhouse by Durlach Bloack Jaggers Architects. These buildings make peace with where the sit, and then allow humans to go about their lives, unaware of the buildings influence. The UTS building might influence those inside it with it's softer and more conventional interiors, but for those outside it, it's a very vocal building that demands you pay it attention.

Having said all this, you’d be forgiven for thinking I don’t like the Gehry building. In actual fact, I do. Not for the building itself, but for what it represents and encourages. I agree with Frank - there are too many glass boxes being built. The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building breaks up the architectural minotany of our modern skylines, and has started a conversation. That conversation will hopefully bring about more thoughtful architecture in the future, and encourage the community to think more about their built environment. Maybe this discussion element is what Frank meant by human. Maybe the human element of the building is not the bricks and mortar itself, or it's aesthetic, but how it draws people to it and creates discussion. Thought and discussion are undeniable human element, so maybe Frank was right after all. Maybe.  

  1. Further thought — The simple fact that Peter Zumthors official website is a Tumblr, speaks volumes about the way he perceives his work and how he connects his buildings to life.  
  2. Further ReadingGehry Partners bends UTS building out of shape by Laura Harding of The Saturday Paper