The University of Technology Sydney has entered an interesting phase as it nears its 29th birthday, with a number of renovations taking place within its iconic brutalist Tower. Gardner Wetherill Associates were assigned the challenge of taming the ‘brutal’ in ‘brutalism’.

As an institution, the University of Technology of Sydney has only been its current iteration since 1988, having previously existed as the Sydney Mechanic’s School of Art. Its iconic brutalist tower has been loudly criticised by architecture critics and architects alike, including Frank Gehry who has recently undertaken a project on UTS’s behalf, as a monumental eyesore due to its trademark brutalist aesthetic. At 23 storeys, the UTS Tower is strikingly conspicuous in Sydney’s skyline.

For those who call UTS their temporary home, rumour has it that the tower’s cold exterior is matched by an interior originally designed to discourage student gatherings in order to restrict student protests, as the tower was devised in the wake of the 1968 Paris student riots. Recent changes in education design, then, have left the UTS tower behind the times, as academics, researchers and students alike seek facilities that encourage open conversation and collaboration. Mindful of this, UTS enlisted Gardner Wetherill Associates to oversee a complete refurbishment of levels 20 and 21 of the tower with an eye towards the future of the institution, with Jones Nicholson overseeing electrical engineering.

Seeking to contrast the ever-present concrete without obscuring it, Gardner Wetherill adopted a heavy use of natural finishes, cosy carpet, and subtle lighting to add a warmer character to both floors. On the 20th floor, the natural toned timbers add a note of refinement, with the 21st floor adopting a slightly more rustic character. Both floors are also peppered with the environmentally friendly TRILUX Ambiella and Amatris LED lights, adding to the warmth of the fit out.

Above, a clever combination of Light Culture’s Sideways Sally 20 and Energyline 75 lighting beams are recessed into the ceiling, creating clear lighting that is practical and energy efficient, as well as giving the ceilings an elegant aesthetic. The advantage of using these lighting strips is “a very wide and uniform distribution of the light for an evenly lit and bright space.”

With one of the core design objectives for the project being to ‘provide a workspace that is bright, open, transparent and dynamic’, Gardner Wetherill is emphatic that, “Lighting has to complement the area it is installed, whether it is fading in the background, being subtle or being a feature piece.”

“Education from a design perspective means providing both incidental and flexible architecture that supports and encourages a culture of intensive research and knowledge transfer,” says project architect Marc Oberhauser who was tasked with helming the project, “The architecture needs to support multiple uses of space and to, as much as possible, be future proof to accommodate changing teaching pedagogies. Spaces and forms must be readily changeable to enable personalised environments for individuals and smaller or larger groups alike.”

Beginning at the central core of both floors, the Gardner Wetherill team started by gathering rooms to the center and placing open plan spaces around the perimeter. For Gardner Wetherill, the biggest challenge was, “converting the tower structure and its brutalism with lots of exposed concrete into a welcoming, contemporary, prestigious, flexible and innovative environment in an open plan format.” “Inside [the tower] there is a lot of beautiful exposed concrete, and this was something that we needed to maintain,” continues Oberhauser, “What [UTS] wanted to achieve was a sense of uniformity throughout the levels. They needed to still differ and accommodate different usages too.”

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