The State Theatre Centre (STC), designed by Kerry Hill Architects, sits elegantly on the edge of one of Perth’s least attractive urban environments. Once the site of the Governor Broome Hotel but more recently a car park, the STC is located on a small site that was selected for the transformative potential a new building on the periphery of the maligned Cultural Centre might offer. It wasn’t always this way: James Street, which bisects the cultural “precinct,” was once an impressive, gently sloping nineteenth-century street lined with restrained but solid gold-rush-era buildings including police barracks, the Perth Boys’ and Girls’ School (now the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts), a museum and a library. It had been a significant site in the colonial city as the location for the river settlement’s first gaol.
However, in the late 1970s the area was paved, stepped and pedestrianized. These “improvements” were accompanied by the insertion of a new library and art gallery, which ignored the historical datum of the street and instead pursued an exploration of their own internalized Kahnian geometry. Almost immediately the Cultural Centre seemed condemned to perpetual redesign. To the west the precinct is bound by Northbridge, a monocultural entertainment zone, empty by day and, by night, the subject of journalistic sensationalism. However, a small glimmer of Northbridge’s urban potential can be seen in the series of independent shops, the mix of Asian grocers and restaurants (and Lyons’ hulking new TAFE) along William Street north to the inner-city suburbs of Highgate and Mount Lawley. A busy Roe Street and soon-to-be sunk railway sit to the south of the STC, part of a redevelopment area which is anchored at its far west end by the Perth Arena designed by ARM and Cameron Chisholm and Nicol with American firm RTKL, still under construction.
The unanimous winner of a two-stage competition, instigated by the Department of Culture and the Arts and run by the Urban Design Centre’s inaugural director Ruth Durack, the Kerry Hill Architects scheme is remarkable for the deft move of stacking the brief’s two largest programmatic elements – the 575-seat proscenium arch theatre and a smaller, flexible “black box” studio theatre – on top of one another. This liberated the ground plane of the tight and difficult site and effectively allowed for the provision of two extra theatre spaces – the open-air main courtyard and the rehearsal room for the black box. The scheme’s formal strategy articulates the individual programmatic elements as a series of rectilinear volumes clad in a palette of materials that are robust, refined, glamorous and pragmatic. None of the geometry is “pure”; instead its elements are incomplete, overlapped or notched into one another, creating a density to the architectural composition.
The qualities of permeability, screening and transparency that are achieved at an urban scale continue as you progress into the building. As on the exterior of the building, materiality is exploited to articulate the functional separation between elements. The floor surface that draws you in to the main public concourse is of brown-purple brick, suggesting these spaces could be understood as simply enclosed outdoor space, a continuation of the pavement that runs to the street edge. These urban qualities are further enhanced by the visual nature of the organization of the space, which is more aligned to urban way finding than building circulation. Once on the concourse, the visitor is offered the clear choice of two directions: a view down into the foyer and bar of the basement studio theatre invites the visitor to descend, while the highly reflective surface of the bronze-clad stair draws the visitor up to the main theatre.
The floor material continues as you step down to the studio theatre, the more flexible and experimental space clad in black-stained timber, deliberately robust and industrial in its articulation and materiality. Here brick is also a wall surface, this time as stack bond set between articulated steel columns, to emphasize its role as a cladding rather than structural material. The basement level is surprisingly light despite the potential of the brick to be oppressive. Daylight washes in from the south facade and is reflected off the bronze staircase and drawn down the curved ceiling plane.