Surprisingly (to me) the Perth Arena has just picked up three major design Awards, one state and two national. Now I’ve been to the Arena a few times, and yes it seems to do some of its functions well, but I surprised it has picked up these awards. (And first up, the critique that follows is my opinion. If you don’t want to read what I think about the Arena, maybe stop reading now. I’m happy for you to agree/ disagree in the comments tho!) And yes it is great to see some WA representation at the national awards, so I know I shouldn’t be critical…
Firstly, the Design Institute of Australia (WA Chapter) awarded the building based on its Interior Design. It won the ‘Best in State’ award, plus the Public/Institutional Award of Merit and the Hospitality Award of Merit. In terms of Interior Design , and especially the hospitality elements, I find this difficult. I’m not sure how many of you have looked at the placement of the food outlets on the east and south sides, from the outside. The placement of these seems an afterthought, and so from the outside, through those large feature windows, you see packing boxes and the back of fridges and it just looks really quite messy. All that ‘back of house’ stuff that yes is important, but doesn’t need to be on display. Also when you’re near these outlets, there are extension cords snaking all over the place, cutting visitors off from approaching the large windows and looking over the streetscape below. Really? You couldn’t install some electric skirting duct? To me, visiting such a centre to see a show or a band, is all about magic and mystery. When you’re watching Tim Minchin fly over the stage in JCSS, you don’t want to think about the wires or the crew directing him, you just want to feel you can see the impossible. For the same reason, you don’t want to see extension cords and the back of fridges. You want to keep some mystery. And you might think that this is such a minor issue, but it gets you to start looking at the nitty gritty detail, rather than the overall scheme. You look down at the extension cord and then follow that back to a pile of boxes. And the edge of the bar counter which has a different shaped ‘add-on’ panel. And the lighting’s not quite centred, and the plywood panels are not aging well… Anyway. Also, considering it is intended to be used by the public, it would be great if there were places to meet, catch up, and socialise, before and after a show. But the few bars in the place are not inviting or welcoming, and don’t take advantage of that wonderful view. Not very hospitable, for a hospitality award winner.
And in terms of design, should we talk acoustics? I haven’t been to a music concert in here yet, but I haven’t heard good reviews of the sound reverberation. I have been to one basketball game where the commentating was so loud and the bass so high that you could only hear muffled shrieks for two hours. Fun. The sound for Jesus Christ SuperStar though was quite good, so maybe it is just better suited for certain types of performances. Or they are just getting the hang of things.
To me, the interior design has been designed to move people through quickly and in bulk, and doesn’t consider the other functions of a great public space, like meeting, and sharing experiences. I went to the opening during Open House Perth last year and saw some nice function rooms upstairs, but have never seen these spaces again, as they are obviously not open to the public (or to the ‘general public’ anyway!) So perhaps it functions as intended, to get people in and out quickly, but when you consider how much more good interior design can add to the experience of a magical night out (think of the drama and glamour of visiting His Majesty’s for example) I think as an Interior Design concept, it could have done more to inspire and delight. And I think there are other interior design projects undertaken in the last year that could have been considered best in state, but maybe weren’t as high profile.
The Arena also won the Sir Zelman Cowen Award (Public Architecture) and the Emil Sondersten Award (Interior Design) last night in the National AIA Awards. The jury citations are here and here.I think they looked at a different building. Or they only looked at photos and the architect’s statement and not actually how it works, on a full night. So many of the comments are based on the Infinity Puzzle which actually doesn’t mean anything to the users and visitors who interact with the building. As a ‘public building’ it doesn’t really relate to the public, at a comfortable scale, at all. People trudge from the train station in single file, try not to get killed crossing the very busy intersection out the front (overpass anyone??) and all hurry through the one unsheltered entrance to a cavernous dark foyer, to quickly find their seat, as there’s nowhere to hang out elsewhere (see above), watch their show, and hurry out the door again as the staff turn the lights off behind them. This is the public’s appreciation of the space. The best public building in all of Australia? Look at how Brookfield Place invites and envelopes the public. Or the new FJMT building at Darling Harbour. (OK, so both of these projects won in the Commercial category, but I believe they speak more about the interaction of the public and architecture.) I think it may eventually have a good public presence, once the City Link is completed, but for the moment, the public get a very sheltered experience of the space on a standard outing. As a performance venue, Perth Arena is a wonderful addition to Perth, as we are now able to get shows that we wouldn’t have been able to just a few years ago. And it might be a lot different once it can interact with the Perth Link. But for the moment I don’t think I could say it’s the best interior design in WA, nor the best public building in all of Australia… Thoughts?