East Sydney Early Learning Centre
A rigorous and unique design approach has transformed a 1920s industrial site into a lively, spirited new community and childcare facility filled with potential to support imaginative play and learning.
Af Elliott Webb
The brief, proposed by the City of Sydney, set aside a four-story masonry building to host the relocation of an existing childcare service into the densely knit urban setting of Darlinghurst. As part of the council’s development agenda, a focus on an integrated renovation of heritage fabric, urban infrastructure, and civic program was desired. The council’s procurement process encouraged fresh contributions and speculations from both established and emerging practices. Within this invited competition, Sydney based firm Andrew Burges Architects secured the task for the East Sydney Early Learning Centre. A small firm, whose practice had mostly thrived within the territory of polished residential projects, now extended their depth and approach into the context of an educational program with an intricate urban setting.
The site displayed three key preexisting elements: the building, an industrial skeleton ripe for re-use and restoration, the operational John Birt Memorial Playground which the site already had principal proximity to, and the laneway in between. The closure of the existing laneway (Berwick Lane) was considered; following urban analyses and community consultations, the scheme was reworked to maintain public access. A question still remained: how to combine architecture and landscape across a public passage to assemble the preexisting elements, and unite the facility with its urban fabric?
Andrew Burges Architects’ original design for the building was catalyzed from explorative drawings; precise large-scale urban mappings were undertaken alongside intimate and abstract collage-like diagrams of “play space”. This method sought to discover and reveal local patterns within Sydney’s urban environment, searching for qualities to support and then re-cast elsewhere. The maps hoped to invest the childcare and community center with an urban experience, whilst the diagrams brightened and exaggerated this ambition.
The existing building was stripped down to its essential masonry shell and rhythmically punctuated openings; capped by a single pitched roof, it presented a familiar utilitarian form ready for a drastically recast interior. An overhead pathway across the lane between the building and playground united the other two elements — a clever move endorsed by the city council due to a thorough understanding of Sydney’s pedestrian framework. It neatly resolves the community spaces hosted at street level, activating the ground-floor plane and laneway and allowing the childcare facility to float across the upper three levels, with independent access and an armature extending its facilities to the public playground. With the site’s key elements unified through a rigorous investigation of how the city is occupied, the program and interior of the childcare center become a hyperbolic exploration of what urban life can offer.
Inside a new order was conceived; a system of individualized spaces shaped by their use and mediated loosely by a secondary system of fluid and unique circulation paths and greenery. These internal spaces were resolved as small, medium and large “houses” with house-like conventions: angled roof, doorway, and windows. The secondary network of circulation paths is generous and playful in its scale. By gently rotating the internal spaces against the rectilinear exterior, the circulation/transitional spaces become diverse and fluid.
The building’s interior and exterior, as well as the connecting ramp, appear as a collage-like rendition of the ‘city’, where abstract and familiar urban patterns are intertwined. The building prioritizes a field-like organization in its interior whilst collecting a series of urban figures: a house, a hall, a plaza, a street, a tower, a garden, and an amphitheater. This allows the architectural form to be both invested with meaning as well as reduced by its field-like arrangement. Material details collect this interplay between field and figures; setting up a background palette of timber, concrete and white surfaces, new architectural motifs are then introduced sporadically. Horizontal weatherboard cladding and timber decks add a vernacular reference, while playfully designed, bright yellow sprinkler pipes adorn the ceiling, referencing infrastructural and industrial elements. The façade is left mostly untouched from the exterior, where within the masonry portals, framed glass sits recessed to maintain its utilitarian character with only slight differentiation. The upper floor is partly cut away, revealing a walled garden. Openings in the exterior are left unglazed. Instead, a netted enclosure offers grand aerial views of Darlinghurst and Sydney’s urban fabric, a collage of an urban agglomeration.
This rigorous and refined approach to design mimics and expands the city in its spaces for play, transforming a 1920s building and its surrounding infrastructure into a lively, spirited new community and childcare facility. Through identifying moments of Sydney’s urban condition and its potential to support imaginative play and learning, the new facility was conceived as a miniature city, exaggerating the ambition of the architects’ early mappings and adapting them to the site’s tight programmatic requirements. The East Sydney Early Learning Center was truly ambitious in its endeavors and successfully refined an environment for children to once again live out uninhibited and creative interactions with the urban terrain.