A Brick Uluru for the Australian Embassy Complex in Bangkok
BVN Architecture transforms the humble Australian brick into an act of diplomacy.
In his book Deep Veils, Singapore-based architect Erik L’Heureux describes the tension between equatorial climates and modernist proclivities to use glass facades and air conditioned, open planned offices. The glass-clad, open office represents progress in developing urban contexts, but too often clashes with attempts to mitigate the humid, hot, tropical climate. L’Heureux writes if the architecture of the ‘temperate is the pushing of the interior as close to the exterior envelope as possible, then tropical architecture is the reverse. It pulls the interior deep within, creating a depth such that shade is paramount, the sun is hidden from view, and breezes are amplified rather than blocked. What results is a deep envelope, a deep veil where shadow, concealment, and veiling are prioritised over transparency, revelation, and honesty’ (L’Heureux, 2015).
Layered on top of environmental considerations, an architecture of diplomacy makes the aspects of concealment and veiling, versus revelation and ‘honest’ transparency, particularly compelling. In the new Australian Embassy Complex in Bangkok, we are presented with the combination of these possibilities, which are presumably driven not only by the climate, but also by politics and ideology. It is the task of the embassy to broadcast an image of the nation in its host context.
Brick features most prominently in the Australian Embassy Complex as the vehicle to carry out this task. The architects, BVN in collaboration with landscape architect, The Beaumont Partnership, describe a desire to combine the ‘modern’ sensibilities of both Australia and Thailand in this new complex.
Using the analogy of Australian desert geomorphology, BVN presents the main chancery building as a mini-Uluru, set in a lagoon that refers to Thai khlongs (canals and smaller rivers) and is surrounded by lower scale, dark brick-clad service buildings. Here, the humble Australian brick is elevated to the role of diplomat itself, casting and projecting to viewers of the embassy an image of a red clay continent – one whose history is intimately connected to the earliest stages of colonisation and brick manufacture – as well as to signify the pre-European, Indigenous and geological history that once saw Australia as a landform connected with Asia.
The architect’s choice of veneer brick over an in-situ concrete structure is the perfect envelope – and tropical veil – for the project. The flowing, curvilinear form of the enclosure is readily achieved through the aggregation of the unitised brick but it is this curvaceousness and also the overall scale of the volume that suppresses the brick’s legibility. The determined manner in which the brick is enfolded to create the deep window openings, combined with a surface absent of crisp edges in plan, results in a homogenous and almost plastic, immaterial quality, where the form dominates. This is both a brick building and a geological form of mute red clay.
Australian Embassy’s deep brick facade reveals substantial depth. This is a building that is actively shading its glazed openings – and this results in a visual robustness that borders on feeling fortress-like. The walls are more than 1200 millimeters deep. The project successfully emanates an air of Australian casualness while conveying the substantial weight of geological time. What the facade does not do is tell us about the contents within. The result is less veil and more mask, which conceals identity and function. Seen in the round, the envelope’s porosity varies across the extent of the project and this mask-like quality intensifies. BVN’s use of brick is excellent adaptation of the deep veil that is successful technically, politically and climatically.
This text is an edited version of a review written by Chris Knapp, to be published in the forthcoming Brickworks’ Folio 3.
Photography by John Gollings.