Smart Design Studio - Sydney Architects

Working with Heritage A Review by Gillian Serisier

There is something of the idealist in William Smart’s view of architecture, that holds form and structure as uniquely specific to site. His, is not, a hands-off, burnt earth approach, but rather an exact and exacting relationship born of the site’s prevailing properties, whether subtle or dominant. This is particularly true of restoration projects, and heritage considerations, where Smart allows the existing form’s strengths determine intervention. To some degree this is an extension of Louis Kahn’s argument for pursuing outcome as a natural result of understanding material quality: “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ In the same way, Smart will immersively engage with the site, and its existing architectural merits, until all aspects are appreciated and understood, or in Kahn speak, he asks the architecture what it wants, before forming a cognitive response.
Within this methodology, light is key to Smart’s thinking, and an aspect often at odds with heritage properties. The current Smart Design Studio and residence in Surry Hills, for example, preside within a grand Victorian corner terrace and immediate neighbour. Typical to this era and style of architecture, a lack of windows compounded by a profusion of small rooms (it had been most recently used as a boarding house) were challenges to be met, while soaring lines, high ceilings, beautiful materiality and large overall volumes presented as positives. As did the long, north-facing sidewall, which was to become the main internal wall of the studio.

 There is something of the idealist in William Smart’s view of architecture that holds form and structure as uniquely specific to site.

We wanted our building to have a presence where people could see in. In this case, we wanted the local community to know what we do and to be lively and engaged with the street.

It is here that Smart allowed the building’s needs be addressed through the insertion of four double story windows that read as ribbons of light on the inside, and a natural addition from without. “We wanted our building to have a presence where people could see in. In this case, we wanted the local community to know what we do, and to be lively and engaged with the street. I wanted to build some scale to the building with the double height, which is unusual for Sydney, but  take it up to the scale of the church [opposite] and really say to the world this is not another residential project” says Smart. Importantly the new architecture exists as a significant design in it’s own right. Softening the effect, from both an internal and external aspect, is a planted line of street trees whereby each tree is directly between each window. And while the existing windows have been replaced, their historic presence has been acknowledged with a series of floating glass plates marking their previous locations.

What we do is of significance itself: our intervention becomes part of the building’s history.

Within the same building, and again taking his cue from the existing structure, Smart has inserted a pavilion style residency of glass, marble and steel into the top of the building. Effectively the high line of the existing walls allows the apartment to be hidden from street view, while the location atop the building permits an abundance of light to penetrate from east to north and west as the day progresses. Comprising a solid central structure housing bathrooms and kitchen, this core is surrounded by an open living space connected to a bedroom via an open corridor, all of which is benefited by a surrounding expanse of operable glazing. In keeping with Smart’s desire to keep the insertion hidden the apartment is set back at the main and side street sides from the façade. Taking advantage of the ensuing gap the main bedroom’s glazing comprises a folding glass door that opens onto a portion of the building’s rooftop, refinished as a courtyard contained by the building’s upper facade. On the northern side a recessed expanse of planting visually recedes the outer edge. The airy and bright aspect of the whole is compounded by Smart’s signatured minimal use of materials as cabinetry and built elements to reduce line, while providing sufficient storage to eliminate clutter. It is in fact a beautiful addition that is made more so by its surprisingly light presence. Lightness of touch is similarly evident in an 1860’s colonial style residential project in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Effectively, Smart has built a second house into the first, where the transition is blurred rather than marked. The bathroom of the original house for example, has been updated with architraves in keeping with the original house, while a stark floor-to-ceiling mirror is evocative of the new addition. As Smart explains, he is not a stickler for the rule that dictates that old and new be clearly defined entities, but rather that the project itself determine what is required as a standalone solution: “What we do is of significance itself: our intervention becomes part of the building’s history.”  Making this point particularly well the rooms transition from the full width original front rooms, to the smallish central rooms and existent staircase to the magnificent double volume addition of full height glazing and concrete mezzanine. Highly contemporary, yet completely at home in the unfolding of the house, the vast expanse of glass speaks volumes for contemporary technical expertise, while the transition itself references the space within the residential. Conversely the ceilings of the original portion have been divested of mouldings with solid lines of muted colour taking their place to provide a dialogue with the new. Moreover, the atrium nature of the addition visually and metaphorically frames the existing house to one side and pool and garden to the other while a monumental wall of concrete anchors the whole.

Smart is in fact well versed in the duality of monumental and residential with the home of Judith Neilson treading this fine line with ease. Seldom does a warehouse become a home to one, but in Sydney’s Chippendale, the former Simona Fashion headquarters is taking shape as a residential space overlooking Chippendale Green and the Jean Nouvel’s Central Park buildings (with interiors by Smart Design Studio and Koichi Takada Architects). The beauty of the building’s original brick work is the abiding manifestation of the site’s needs. Rather than pin the new on the old, the old is existent as an artefact, a thing of beauty rather than a foundational element and Smarts response is akin to reassembling a grecian vase whereby the old and new inhabit the same space as compliments.  As such, the new structure is ostensibly built within the two end sections of the old, while aesthetic elements have been revisited as loose laid brick floors in geometric patterns. Where the SDS studio required walls to be spare, the scope of this site required walls to re-establish a connection with the human. As such, while the lower floor houses a dining room for 60 it is within a colonnaded hall that belies the spatial whole into a well proportioned and elegant line. Similarly the upper story living areas and bedrooms are of a moderate size with framed, rather than expansive, views. Walkways and other separating devices further break the space into manageable proportions, while a magnificent staircase provides connectivity throughout and walls have been carefully placed to exhibit a dynamic collection of fine a

Rather than pin the new on the old, the old is existent as an artefact, a thing of beauty rather than a foundational element and Smarts response is akin to reassembling a Grecian vase whereby the old and new inhabit the same space as compliments.

Smart’s interventions are very clever solutions that just happen to be visually idiosyncratic having been drawn from asking the building what it wants to be.

Indeed, it is this particular aspect that echoes Smart’s previous Heritage intervention for Neilson: White Rabbit Gallery. For White Rabbit, a former knitting factory also in Chippendale, the entire external volume has been retained.  And rather wonderfully so with one entire wall re-supported with massive steel girders as a floating volume of grand proportions to provide an atrium exhibition space that is ascended via a grand internally set staircase. With a landing at mid ascent, to grant access to a suite of galleries, the staircase is further made impressive by a solid railing of black steel, which in true Smart form, can be unlocked and moved outwards to allow access for very large artworks. Light was again the key need of the building per se, while a combination of diffused light, visual permeability and an occasional lack of light were required for the new occupancy as an art gallery.  Smart has addressed this with an impressively clever solution. Using the original architectural lines of the building Smart has created windows as a repeating motif, whether required as a window per se or not. As such, a recess exists behind each upper window to continue the visual presence of dimensional depth while allowing galleries used for exhibiting film and archiving to remain dark. Moreover, where the window size differs, Smart has created the illusion of uniformity through irregular frames within the aperture. Conversely on the lower floor where a view into the gallery is encouraged a glazed wall facilitates needs while the original window nooks have been fitted with a horizontal bank of white fluorescent tubes. This is one of those lovely William Smart secret moments that takes a bit of looking to notice and is generally followed by a cluck of pleased surprise! Essentially what is seen from without and within is a soft white luminous stripe. Aesthetically the bulbs have a particular quality that works well with the white painted bricks on the inside and provides a contrast externally, but it is more than this. The slight gap between the bulbs allows only an obliquely viewed experience of the interior while drawing the viewer to the threshold and effectively inviting them into the gallery. In reverse, the interior continues an engagement with the street, while the whole continues an aesthetic dialogue with the surrounding architecture of both new and old.

Few are as able to insert nuanced quirk and wit into their projects with the acumen Smart delivers. His redevelopment of a tumbledown building in Surry Hills makes this point with its beautiful variation of scale and geometry that works with the building’s innate grid to read as a continuum. Effectively Smart recognised that the building’s triangularity, skewed by a two way slope and overlapping fit with its neighbour required an illusion to give the effect of balance. As such, each angled window is slightly different to its neighbour with external height overriding actual interior volumes. This works in two ways, on the one hand, viewed immediately it disallows the eye to settle and shifts the eye horizontally in a straight line, rather than vertically or in line with the downward slope of the side street or upward slope of the front. Conversely, when viewed at a distance it shortens the whole while focusing the eye on the central band of patterns that hold the façade.  All of which provides a distraction from the double floor of apartments, which have been inserted into the upper portion, with the top floor recessed behind the original façade. The completely hidden portion at the rear of the building is another charming architectural manoeuvre that will have people wondering at dimensio

The redevelopment of a tumbledown building in Surry Hills makes this point with its beautiful variation of scale and geometry that works with the building’s innate grid to read as a continuum.

Smart’s obsession for these quirks of detail and proclivity for hidden moments stems from his childhood discovery that the courthouse of his hometown had an arch that was round on one side and square on the other. A fact that few had noticed and even fewer had understood as a design detail that “made the building receive people nicely”. It is this attention to detail that marks every project under his care from bespoke Fire Hydrant signs to secret rooms and hidden doors. What gives these foibles longevity however is, like the arch, the fact of their effectiveness. These are rarely follies. Rather, Smart’s interventions are very clever solutions that just happen to be visually idiosyncratic having been drawn from asking the building what it wants to be. The result is a curious but always effective solution expertly inserted into excessively fine and considered architecture, that transitions old to new while denying neither heritage or the f

Smart’s obsession for these quirks of detail and proclivity for hidden moments stems from his childhood discovery that the courthouse of his hometown had an arch that was round on one side and square on the other.

It is this attention to detail that marks every project under his care from bespoke Fire Hydrant signs to secret rooms and hidden doors.

Conversations Archive