In early 2013 I had the pleasure of spending time with my friend Dr Bruce Judd, Professor of architecture UNSW. Our journey from Merroo to Sydney airport lead us past Rouse Hill, in particular the new Town Centre commissioned by the NSW State Government and built from tender by Lend Lease and GPT Group (Developers).
We spent an hour or so walking the grounds where I got taste of current urban design thinking. While this model of urban design is not new in other parts of the world, for Sydney it is a real step forward as an example of how master planning can work in a cohesive symbiotic whole, street to public amenity and amenity to densified habitation. The spaces at ground level work off what is known as a ‘Mains Street Model’.
In direct statements of explanation taken from exerts of the ‘Paper for Town Centres Conference 2006’ authors and architects, Keith Cottier and Jenny Rudolph described the vision for the Rouse Hill complex, it is as follows: -
‘In towns and cities, public space has always served as meeting places, market place and traffic way. The enjoyable towns and cities have been those that found a comfortable balance between these three demands without forfeiting their links with the natural world.
In the town centre at Rouse Hill, we will achieve this balance, we will create this harmony. Life will return to the streets and lanes. The comings and goings of the pedestrians will dominate that life,yet they will always feel connected to the unique Australian landscape. Interest in the town centre as meeting place will be renewed, the centre will become an attraction, people will stop and stay a while, participate, take pride in its look, its structure and its innovations. It will become their second home’.
1. Linkage from the town to its Surroundings.
It was critical to provide physical linkages from the town centre and to the town centre for pedestrians, motorist and cycles. However it was also critical to obtain and retain visual linkages whether through landscaping, open space corridors or architectural form. Through the detailed design the architects were able to enhance its integration and linkages with the surrounding precincts.
2. Appropriate Spaces for the different users.
It was recognised that there needed to be different types of places and spaces for shoppers, children, residents, and workers in the town centre. The detailed design enabled each of the quadrant loops to provide various opportunities for the creating of different spaces, as well as create better connections between buildings and places. The shape, use and feel of the spaces also took into consideration the retail offers being made, and how the indoor outdoor spaces could support each other. Hence the detailed design process resulting in additional spaces and places being created in the town centre.
3. Weather Protection
The design of the town centre buildings and spaces had to take cogniscance of the sun, wind, rain and the comfort of the community and shoppers using the streets and pedestrian walkways. The climatic extremes of western Sydney added to the challenge. The detailed plan carefully considered different weather protection devices for different use of spaces and linkage pathways, and the surrounding use of the buildings. Different types and height of weather protection devices were designed to assist in creating diversity in the town centre design.
4. The Car Park.
A key principle of the town centre is to accommodate predominantly underground car parking so that there is minimal impact on the public realm and the creation of more pedestrian friendly areas. The provision of underground parking was obviously a large commercial investment by the Developer, but benefited the design and practical functioning of the town centre. Being a relatively large basement car park, accommodating around 2800 cars, the design of the car park needed to ensure a sense of arrival and orientation for visitors. The detailed design accommodated easy ‘way finding’ for visitors within the basement also accommodated the design and location of services as well as ensure overland flow. The detailed design therefore modified the masterplan basement design and created an improved layout.
5. Diversity of Experience.
The town centre needed to accommodate a balance of order and diversity, to ensure a pleasant experience when moving through the town centre. The architects created diversity in the architecture by designing different horizontal and vertical elements in the buildings or different roof forms. Creating diversity in architecture was essential so the centre looked like a town that had developed organically over time; primarily as a substantial part would be developed at day one and would be managed and owned by the GPT Group.
A single robust paving material running throughout the pedestrian areas was also designed to create a strong town identity. Whilst the sense of order this achieved is a prerequisite of all good towns, it was also important to achieve a level of diversity. The necessary balance between the two attributes was achieved in form, material and colour, with each quadrant having its own strong identity, and the journey around the pedestrian loop involving a great variety of spatial experiences.
6. Civic Quality
The design of the town centre needed to ensure a civic quality and presence particularly as the civic library and community building are to be built at the heart of the town centre. The design of library/community building will reflect the civic character and use of the building, but also respond to the adjacent civic town square space. The learning space will be accommodated in a building, with a spectacular roof form, across from Town Square, so to enhance the civic quality of the town centre.
7. Pedestrian Amenity
The design considered that pedestrians needed cover and shade, but also needed to feel the openness and see the sky so to feel the weather. Pedestrians will distinguish the different places and the spaces through a variety of weather protection devices, floor finishes, building materials or vegetation provided to create a good pedestrian amenity.
As the retail and detailed design evolved, greater permeability in block plan design resulted. The architects considered the following to increase the permeability: -
- Alternate pedestrian routes and links on the ground level and the first floor of the buildings, and;
- Retail ‘control’ to understand the type, size and location of shops.
9. A Fine Grain
A finer grain from the original block plan resulted in the finesse in the public realm. The design of the ground floor retail façade on Main Street will also contribute to the fine grain. Although the town centre is based on four major quadrants, the sense of ‘township’ was derived through the finer grain of public places, and building forms that broke the larger quadrants into more intimate spaces.
10. Design with ESD in mind.
ESD is a key input to the design of the town centre. The detailed design allowed the architects to achieve a balance between ESD outputs (central plant and chilled water), design of buildings (how the sun related to shop front), spaces (consider wind tunnelling) and landscaping (types of trees and softening of spaces). The interconnected nature of many of these inputs to the design process resulted in multiple iterations of the design for certain parts of the town centre before a final resolution was achieved.
The result was that the ESD principles were not a series of ‘add-ons’ or overlays to the buildings, but were embedded in the design of the building forms from the outset. The building forms, whilst assisting to maximize a feeling of openness within the public realm, were also used to control solar penetration and reduce the shop front heat loads. The design meant that energy loadings have been minimized though the process. At the same time, the building form and ESD principles were used to ensure pedestrian amenity that responds to the Rouse Hill climate.
It was acknowledged that the town centre would be developed in stages due to the market conditions, regional population and extent of the centre. The architects therefore developed a series of design and landscaping treatments for those sites that would be built out in the future, but will provide amenity at day 1. The design treatment provides a more aesthetic outcome as well as flexibility for the town to grow naturally enhancing authenticity.
From the outset, the new Rouse Hill has been much more than a bold, exciting concept for a new regional centre in Sydney’s north-west. The focus has been on having a commercially viable Town Centre at the heart of the project with new benchmark design, ESD and social sustainable outcomes. The New Rouse Hill has set some significant precedents for the level of cooperation between the public and private partners, and ground breaking achievements in design.
The Rouse Hill town centre concept of turning the modern shopping centre inside out and building on the traditional ‘Main Street’ town centre model had risks and challenges. In undertaking the detailed design of the new town centre, the developer, government and the architects looked at the practical use of the land, the commercial realities of the project, as well as designing the buildings, spaces, places and achieving ESD outcomes all at once from the outset.
(The New Rouse Hill – Paper for Town Centres Conference 2006)
The reason for including the above information in this text is primarily for the purpose of explaining in brief the complex dynamics of a built environment that really works at an urban level as the design architects intended it.
Having experienced the success of the town centre personally, and at the same time having Dr Judd explain its relevance through his eyes, I want to propose a question: -
Can the principles of volume, spatial configuration, aesthetics and urban design used in this highly effective Rouse Hill development be miniaturized to a residential scale and still be relevant?
In concept, the following design is an attempt to look at how this might be conveyed in the family home. The internal environment takes on a village like quality that emulates an urban design experience.