To enter the health profession has always been a bold decision. But today, more than ever, the field presents unprecedented challenges. Even though the Susan Wakil Health Building at the University of Sydney was designed before the pandemic, the team behind it had the prescience to understand that a building such as this should embrace wellness and interdisciplinary communication in its very design.
The 21,500-metre-square, eight-storey edifice brings together various entities of the faculty of health and medicine – the schools of nursing and midwifery and health sciences, as well as the clinical school – in a central hub situated close to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the Charles Perkins Centre. In so doing, “it represents a key strategic step in the University’s response to the current challenges and opportunities facing the health sector,” reads the official press release.
Before one steps inside, it’s important to take in the landscape design that positions the building on raised ground. Adhering to the university’s Wingara Mura design principles, Arcadia Landscape Architecture designed the environs, called Gadigal Ground, “as an interpretation of healing, stirring the body, mind and soul.” The Gadigal people, who are indigenous to Gadi, on Eora country, the current location of Sydney, approach healing by engaging all the human senses.
The firm drew from this inspiration to devise a network of pedestrian pathways from all corners of the campus. Shaded gardens, planters, terraces, ledges and paths shaped by alcove sandstone give the landscape a carefully curated yet organic feel. A stepped waterfall linking the upper garden to the lower one provides a peaceful and poetic moment. The sensitivity displayed to the land is also at the heart of Yooroang Garang, a dedicated space inside the building for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to connect and work, and which was “conceived as an extension of the landscape.”
The idea of connected networks is further iterated inside the building, designed by local firm Billard Leece Partnership together with New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Just through the entrance, a triple-height atrium called the “cleave” is the nexus from which all spaces flow; these include a 350-seat theatre as well as simulated learning and research facilities equipped with high-tech tools like computerized mannequins and a purpose-built climate chamber. A variety of informal collaborative zones, including a handsome amphitheatre stair – that prerequisite of many a contemporary work/learn interior – connect indoors and out.
The architecture telegraphs this multiplicity of learning spaces – an articulation of the building’s inter-professional program that brings together medicine, nursing and allied health students – in a compelling collision of volumes. The upper floating mass is wrapped in a high-performance shading screen – a metal louvre system that feels as delicate as a tailored textile – while the ground floor is enclosed in a simple glass curtain. Finally, the podium is adorned in horizontal ceramic panels and aluminum screens.
In scope and execution, the building recalls another recent school designed by DS+R: the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center at the Columbia University Medical Center. That project also presented a paradigm-shifting architectural form as a response to an ambition to move the needle on healthcare education. This endeavour, the firm’s first completed work in Australia, comes at a time when new ideas are especially needed. Students began classes at the Susan Wakil Health Building this month – it will be exciting to chart their course.
The Susan Wakil Health Building brings together students specializing in various areas of the healing profession in one dynamic setting, designed by Billard Leece Partnership and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.