City North Substation

By Andrew Pell

Corner of Sussex Street & Erskine Street Sydney

By: Architects Johannsen + Associates and Kann Finch Group

City North Zone Substation, photography by MichaelNicholson. Copyright, all rights reserved.

How does the project respond to its context, contribute to the public domain for example street or neighbourhood?

On this highly visible site there was an opportunity for a contemporary and enduring design that could interpret the building’s function with references to the sources and impact of energy supply. A further opportunity was the potential for an outdoor gallery that could activate the pedestrian environment at ground level and contribute to the cultural layers of the city.

On both street frontages provision has been made for display of static and digital art. Grid Gallery has recently opened as part of Sydney's VIVID light festival and is Sydney's first public and media-based gallery space dedicated solely to the exhibition of digital art. This project is a unique physical and virtual exhibition space with a website gallery that also allows artists to submit proposals.

What problems did you have to solve?

With the substation envelope presenting a considerable bulk and visible presence in this location, it was considered necessary to break down the façade with a hierarchy of forms, materials, layers and details that would be both robust and appropriate in this context, while providing a suitable palette for the intended design concept.

Utilising a façade modulation and matrix configured around the functional elements of the substation, a ‘Mondrian’ inspired aesthetic was the source of an architectural expression for a dynamic and flexible design envelope that could be site responsive, portray a sense of the building’s function and convey an impression of the transformation of energy within and the transmission of power beyond.

”A Mondrian abstract is the most compact imaginable pictorial harmony.... At the same time it stretches far beyond its borders so that it seems a fragment of a larger cosmos” 

David Sylvester, About Modern Art: Critical Essays, 1948 – 1997

What was the contribution of others, including engineers, landscape architects, artists, builders and other specialists to the outcome?

The project is a success due to the working relationship with the building’s principal architect Kann Finch. The principal architect coordinated the technical aspects of the buildings function, driven by the client’s electrical design, with Architects Johannsen’s ‘Mondrian’ facade overlay design concept.  Careful design collaboration was needed to breakup the facade overlay with the placement of the ventilation louvre elements within the grid to provide the required internal ventilation. There was also liaison with EnergyAustralia's designers, the facade engineer, landscape architect and builder to develop the ‘Grid Gallery’ space at street level.

How would you describe the value of design in relation to the cost of the project?

The project was the subject of an alternative design competition process for the façade overlay to achieve a result that would respond to the site’s context, provide for a durable and low maintenance development, and improve the urban domain of this precinct of Sydney with an abstract communication of the substation’s operation.

What are some important sustainability aspects of the project?

A key objective was the achievement of an optimum environment for equipment operation and staff functions with minimum energy consumption. Passive design principles were adopted wherever possible including the use of natural ventilation with louvres and vents in strategic locations.

What do you consider to be the benefits of the project for the client, users and the community?

The design seeks to maintain the client’s corporate objective that the substation does not seek or compete for attention, but is however consistent with the intention to provide a substation expressive of its function on a prime CBD site. The outcome is both contemporary and enduring in providing a visual transition between the varying forms, scales and colours of the surrounding CBD, residential and entertainment zones.

Other general comments

The Mondrian aesthetic has been employed to express the idea of an energy source continually transmitting outwards through a distribution grid that frames a range of vents, glazing and illuminated panels. This provides an abstract reference to the transmission of energy to the Sydney grid flowing into and out of City North Substation.