Big ‘shed’ structure a space for transferring knowledge

At the time of its opening last year, Fremantle architects Officer Woods’ $8 million East Pilbara Arts Centre and Martumili gallery in Newman attracted generous praise.

Aboriginal Art Centre Hub WA chief executive Christine Scroggin said she expected the gallery to help transform Newman. “It’s unlike any arts facility I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It will help Newman to be a destination on the arts scene.”

“Mob from communities all round can all come here to use the new centre and more people gonna be able to see our painting, whitefella mob too, buying more paintings too,” Martumili artist Judith Sampson said.

“The feedback has been fantastic,” agrees Jennie Officer as she and fellow architect Trent Woods sit in their Pakenham Street office.

“But the best feedback was last weekend when we had a number of people from the region who’d travelled down for the Revealed Aboriginal Art Market.”

Nominated for the Public Architecture category in this year’s WA Architecture Awards and built by Pindan Construction and Alfalfa Landscape, the centre had a number of key stakeholders and investors from the outset — Martumili Artists, BHP Billiton, the East Pilbara Shire, the Pilbara Development Commission and Lotterywest.

But the ultimate success of the large-span shed-like structure featuring a flexible exhibition and events area, work spaces and offices depended on its ability to act as a focal point for the extended community and a catalyst for change.

Which is exactly what seems to be happening. “What these people were saying,” continues Officer, “is that in the last few months more and more young people were coming to the centre and getting involved, sitting with elders as they paint, singing songs and just engaging with the space. And that was really the prime driver, the impetus, for the whole project.”

She says there was concern among the Martu living in the Parnpajinya (Newman), Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Irrungadji and Warralong communities that the artists who held the most cultural authority were getting older, and that there was this burning desire to transfer their knowledge and culture to the younger generations.

“Now that’s happening,” Officer says. “The old facilities were just two transportables with a tiny deck."

"This new building is spacious, welcoming and accommodating.”
Jennie Officer, Architect, Officer and Woods Architects

Woods says there has also been a huge response from the broader community. “There are weekend markets and various corporate and cultural events held in the larger space now,” he says. “So much so that we’ve had to extend the carpark and add more toilets and gates.”

Established in 2007, Officer Woods has a reputation for crisp, imaginative design regardless of budget, mainly in the residential field. In 2015, it won the WA Architecture Awards’ Residential Architecture — Houses (Alterations and Additions).

Incredibly, the East Pilbara Arts Centre was its first large public commission, the result of winning a 2011 University of WA competition.

“We do a real mix of projects,” Officer says. “But we’re always trying to eke more out of whatever resources we have, whether we’re doing a house addition or an art gallery. This was our first public building, so it’s an important one for us.”

Woods says the submission — one of 19 — tried to anticipate future art practice and community events by incorporating a “void space” which wasn’t part of the original brief. “There were two disparate parts to the project — a gallery proper and a residence,” he says. “We sited those at either end of the long linear block, and covered them in a utilitarian building.”

Officer says the building had to respond to the local climate. “It’s like an onion,” she says.

“We use thermal decoupling of the tighter, conditioned spaces from the outside. So you have multiple layers protecting those.”

The centre is adjacent to the shire offices. Woods says they understood the gravity of such a civic gesture, and had to respond accordingly.

“We needed to make a large statement, but we didn’t have a huge amount of money,” he says. “Hence the big, stripped-back shed. A lot of people in the communities paint and work in sheds. So it’s a building type that’s known and understood and therefore inviting and not alienating.”

Finally, there was the question of colour. “For the exterior painting, we used the colours associated with the six language groups of the Martu,” Officer says. “But it had to mean something else too, not just painted stripes on a building. So it’s actually a barcode which spells out ‘This is a big thing’.”

The exhibition of entries for the 2017 WA Architecture Awards is on June 19-30 at Allendale Square. In coming weeks, Agenda will be talking to more architects behind some of the projects.

Source: The Weekend West

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