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The City of Boroondara’s investment to redesign their nineteenth century civic offices and a bland 1970s black-box theatre has paid off – they are now hard to miss. The redesign, completed by Nicholas and Alexander Architects, are now home to a vibrant new workplace and community library.

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Nicholas Daviotis takes Peter Hyatt of Hyatt & Associates on a tour to explain how he helped his client realize a more prismatic, technicolour world – a rather unexpected, atypical result for most municipal councils.

What were some of the project objectives?

ND: The existing theatre was an austere black box. In the conversion we explored what this could become. Could it provide really generous connections and create a wonderful library? In that sort of space you try to embrace light and create vitality to draw people into what is essentially a public lounge-room.

What message do you hope the project sends to ratepayers, visitors and passers-by?

ND: Hopefully it reveals a certain aspiration for the community of Boroondara and affirms a strong sense of place and identity.

What is its single biggest achievement?

ND: The creation of a great place the community can call its own. It’s not a display of council power or wealth.

How difficult is it to create a convincing relationship by grafting on new work without overwhelming the old building?

ND: We basically added layers. We are respectful of the old and those differences are made very clear. There’s a homage, valuing and counterpoint of its history rather than fudging.

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Isn’t there a loss of relevance about libraries? Aren’t they heading the way of the mega-shopping centre eroded by the on-line world?

ND: People still love to gather and meet socially. A library is also this conduit of knowledge and recognition of the numerous forms of knowledge. Books are specific and contain a depth of knowledge and opinion whereas the Web is a broad, sweeping information base. The library is the ‘real world’ and recognises the joys of holding a book and making conversation. There is also the pleasure of a live presentation by a notable speaker for instance, the pleasure of reading and sharing with children and as a portal to cyber space. It’s a very multi-media experience.

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Was there any conflict of your ‘house style’ versus client fingerprints?

ND: It’s very symbiotic. One relies on the other. They come together here and don’t stand apart.

Isn’t there an often overly simplified architecture as an expression of inside versus outside? What are some of the other tasks you set yourself?

ND: The municipal function contains all of the administrative and civic elements. It operates within a democratic context with transparency and good governance to fulfill community aspirations. We tried to express this context by improving links between public spaces and ‘staff only’ administrative spaces.

With transparency?

ND: Yes. Openness permeates much of the building and reflects council as inclusive of community rather than exclusive. It’s not just a building you absorb in one breath, or a single visit. It has various architectural layers. The layering reflects the complexity of this type of project. It relates on various levels and isn’t simply some abstract form.

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You have to go beyond elegance don’t you?

ND: There’s an ephemeral art to create buildings that touch and effect people for the better. As architects it’s wonderful that we can have that effect. That’s when you’re successful, when people refer to the architecture in some way. It doesn’t have to be ‘in your face’ but if it touches the visitor and user as you describe, then that’s a pretty successful result.

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To download a PDF of this article as a case study click here.

 Photography by Peter Hyatt.

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