Concept to completion: Does less mean more for Cathedral Square?

When you first arrive at Cathedral Square, in the heart of the city in Perth, you are not overwhelmed with a striking, in your face, style of architecture like that of Perth Arena, or the monumental altering of the landscape that is so distinct in Elizabeth Quay. What is most apparent is a large amount of open space, the lack of built form where space is at a premium, and the comparatively large amount of space made available to the public from these voids (figure 1 and 2).

Figure 1 Andrew Caneppele, “Cathedral Square viewed from its entrance at Hay St,” 2018, JPEG.

Figure 2 Andrew Caneppele, “City of Perth Library viewed from the bottom of the plaza,” 2018, JPEG.

Figure 3 Andrew Caneppele. “Cathedral Square plaza,” 2018, JPEG.

The Square comprises of the City of Perth Library and the large grassed and paved plaza located in between the library and St Georges Cathedral (figure 4).[1] Cathedral Square is a contemporary addition to a precinct that is dotted with many heritage buildings. What is interesting is its restrained size of the library compared to the area of the site that it could have occupied (figure 4).

 

Figure 4 “Cathedral Square Precinct Map,” PDF, accessed April 12, 2018,

https://www.perth.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/16-025%20City%20of%20Perth%20Library%20commemorative%20book%20-%2006%20-%20WEB.pdf

When considered this design choice seems counterproductive; how did such a restrained design, with such a small footprint and floor area, win the design competition? The answer to this starts to become apparent when you consider that the neighbouring development was being undertaken by the same firm, Kerry Hill Architects.[2] What this gave the architects the ability to exercise their design thinking and develop the whole precinct according to their desired concepts. This allowed them to create a stronger design proposal for Cathedral Square that was more easily justified when considered within the whole scheme, that they had already developed.

“KHA’s concept for the site of the partially demolished office building was to insert a circular form that opens up views to the Titles Building while creating an object building.”[3]

The curved sides of the building allow views to the heritage buildings in the area, which were previously obscured by the Old Law Chambers and the Playhouse Theatre. Now the light-filled library and the open nature of the plaza, afforded by the circular design of the building, attract people to the precinct who previously wouldn’t have entered, because of its dark, closed-off feel. It’s a new dimension to an old, familiar location.[4]

While talking to a City of Perth librarian customer service liaison officer they passed on observations that they had perceived.

How successful do you think the plaza has been?

“People mostly use the plaza as a thoroughfare. You do also get a few people coming in to sit on the lawn and that. The events run on the weekends, which brings in the most people, have been more successful recently. Other than that, it isn’t that heavily used.”

Have there been any drawbacks to having a circular library with a relatively small floor area?

“The collection size has definitely decreased. We don’t take book donations anymore, we just don’t have anywhere to put them. We also have a lot quicker rotation to get the new books in and therefore can’t keep other books on the shelves as long.”

What do you think are the best aspects of Cathedral Square, how has your perception of what a library is changed from working here?

“The City of Perth library doesn’t have the typical uses that you associate with a library. The ground floor serves as a meeting place where you can bring your food and coffee in. Part of the front area is a meeting area.The other big thing is how much light is let into the spaces now. I used to walk through to get to a bus stop when the old building was here. The old connection was narrow and dark. You take it for granted looking at it now, but it is a massive improvement.”[5]

Figure 5 Andrew Caneppele, “Cathedral Square plaza 2,” 2018, JPEG.

Public spaces can be a fickle thing. Even with the best design ideas, their success can often be determined with how well they integrate and serve the urban fabric around them. The ability of the space to be adapted to varying requirements over time can be as a measure of its success. Cathedral Square is complicated in this regard.

The main thoroughfare has been successful as it is better lit, has long sightlines and passive observation for those who use it compared with what was previously there.

The remaining public spaces within the square must be considered more carefully as to whether they are successful. Was the expansive grassed area (figure 5) the best choice for a space that only sees intermittent use by the occasional event? Comparatively, there are quite a few grassed public spaces located nearby in the Supreme Court Gardens so was there a need for another? This then becomes a question of whether having this space as a void helped to create a better sense of place for the heritage buildings adjacent to the plaza. The grassed space feels like there is something missing. However, what this could be is the question, anything too large could compromise the design concept that KHA’s developed.

 

References

[1] “City of Perth Library, Western Australia,” 1001 Libraries to see before you die blog, August 17, 2014, https://1001libraries.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/city-of-perth-library-western-australia-australia/comment-page-1/.

[2]  Philip Vivian, “Civic pride: Cathedral Square,” ARCHITECTUREAU blog, October 10, 2016,  https://architectureau.com/articles/cathedral-square/#img=0.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “City of Perth Library,” Cathedral Square blog, January 12, 2016, https://www.cathedralsquare.com.au/city-perth-library/.

[5] City of Perth Librarian customer service officer, in discussion with author April 18, 2018.

Andrew Caneppele

UWA architecture student studying for a Master of Architecture in Perth, Western Australia.