The University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) celebrated the ‘tools down’ stage of its new business school and hi-tech learning hub this week.

Bounded by Ultimo Road, Mary Ann Street and Omnibus Lane in Sydney, the now completed Dr Chau Chak Wing building is designed by Frank Gehry, and to date is the only project by the acclaimed architect in Australia.

One of its most prominent features is, as with all Gehry projects, its facade, which comprises an undulating brick profile that responds to the city’s sandstone heritage, and which required a unique innovation by the engineers .

However, the team is now asking the industry and public to look past the facade, and into the spaces and types of environments the building offers.

“It’s not all about the building. It is about what happens in the building,” said Patrick Woods, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Resources).

The importance of what goes on within is reflected in the design process, with the building conceived from the inside out. Gehry’s team began by building a range of models for the faculty team to comment on and approve, and only when UTS was happy with the internal layout and its associated learning experiences was the external skin designed and added on.

Some of the spaces within the 14 storey building (level 13 is a plant room, and 14 the roof) include two oval classrooms constructed from large laminated timber beams that have capacities for almost 60 people each. These areas deviate from traditional front-facing presentation style areas, and is expected to encourage dialogue between students and teachers.

A 240-seat auditorium is the largest single space within the building, and will be used for public lectures and other events. It is complemented by smaller theatres, including a collaborative theatre that seats 120, as the university recognised that students should come on campus not to sit passively in a lecture, but to engage and work actively with each other.

Other internal features include a sculptural stainless steel staircase in the entrance lobby, curvaceous ply perimeter seating in the student commons and cloud-shaped ceiling lighting in the building’s public areas.

Australia’s first true 3D-documented building

Although the building is famed for its designer, the technology that went into the construction could be a game changer for the local industry. With just one fully vertical column in the whole building, the project had to overcome a series of structural and engineering challenges before it could be built.

One of the key pieces of the puzzle was the use of Digital Project, a 3D design tool developed by Gehry Technologies which delivers geometrically accurate and parametrically linked models, allowing complex curves and geometries to be detailed.

Rivalling traditional 3D modelling software such as Revit and ArchiCAD, Digital Project allows a building’s dimensional accuracy to be taken from the 3D model directly, instead of having to convert models back to 2D.

This meant that the building could essentially be built as the digital realm and model specified.

“When Lend Lease tendered this [project], they thought the structure would take a lot longer to be constructed, seeing that it was so complex,” said Brian Moore, executive project manager for UTS.

“But with Digital Project, Lend Lease overshot the formwork and basically put waypoints around. The edge of the form was made out of steel, and all they had to do was number the pieces of steel, line up the waypoints, connect it all, and just pour the concrete.”

Moore adds that the substrate is what gives accuracy to the brick facade, since the brickwork is built just 75mm off the substrate. As a result, in every instance the internal wall is identical to the external wall - the curves seen on the outside are also visible inside.

“There’s been no other true 3D documented building in Australia. Although a lot of other architects would absolutely deny that, it’s never been done before here,” he says.

So far, the only two practices in the world to use Digital Project are Gehry Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects. The CAD software was used to design Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and his Walt Disney Concert Hall, and has also been employed to gain insights into the completion of Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia. 

Over the coming weeks, UTS will finish installing AV/IT equipment and furniture before UTS Business School staff and research students relocate into the building, which will officially be opened in February 2015. 

Photography by Andrew Worssam