Photo by Bagus Tri Laksono and John Gollings
Paul Grigson says that embassies, as offices, frequently don’t do a good job in their core mission: representing a country. “They too often don’t sit in their environment well and they don’t portray their country as it is,” Grigson says. “But I think this building does. The building itself is a piece of art.”
Sensitive to local and international surroundings, the embassy was given an interior by the Australian firm Denton Corker Marshall that was rich in indigenous themes. It also uses low-resource and innovative green technologies. The landscape project was led by Indonesian architect Budiman Hendropurnomo from the firm’s branch in Jakarta.
Among the firm’s projects are the Melbourne Museum, Anzac Hall at the Australian War Memorial, the Stonehenge Exhibition and Visitor Centre in the UK and the Australian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale.
Denton Corker Marshall also built Australia’s embassies in Beijing and Tokyo, although the Jakarta site, which was under construction for three years until its opening in 2016, is the largest overseas diplomatic building owned by the government.
The compound comprises Chancery, Executive Residence for the Chief of Mission, 33 Staff Residences, as well as, medical and recreational facilities.
Spanning 20,000 sqm and standing five storeys tall, the Chancery is a single structure that appears to be five buildings. Its facade comprises debossed metal panels made from aluminum, brass, copper, steel and zinc. All the metals were mined in Australia, all will change color as they age. The five-in-one design draws inspiration from iconic rock faces of the Australian landscape such as Uluru and Kata Tjuta. The design also ensures that the Chancery does not look like a monolith dropped into South Jakarta: The embassy looks like a series of cheerfully colored towers.
In an email, Denton Corker Marshall said that its aim was to build an open and friendly building. “The interior spaces in the Chancery and residences are bright and airy, achieved through the extensive use of white walls, pale floors and ceiling finishes.
At an interview in the embassy, Grigson agreed. “The architects who built this were very keen to have a clean modern aesthetic, with some exceptions,” he said, pointing at a huge photo of Sydney behind him. “We tried to maintain this by not covering the walls too much.”
Passing through security into the Chancery, vistors are greeted by a spacious foyer with several paintings, including, to the right, a hemp canvas by Grant Hill titled “Scenes from an Australian Garden”. The canvas bends to fill two walls of the foyer. On the left, an aboriginal piece titled “Guruwana Story” by Namiyal Bopirri sets the tone for the the indigenous theme governing the Australian art on display in the rest of the Chancery.
“While we don’t have a lot of art, we have striking art,” Grigson says. “It’s tough to beat a striking indigenous piece of art.”
The Chancery hosts around 500 employees of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as well as 13 other departments and agencies. While the first floor is given over to public spaces such as a cafeteria, meeting rooms and the Purnululu Theatre, which hosts films screenings and seminars; floors two through five comprise office space.
Ease of public access, especially for the theatre, was an important concern, Grigson said, adding that the crowds who go to the Purnululu Theatre have to pass through only one security check. Likening the environment to a college campus, Grigson notes that the Chancery hosts around 270 events a year and can attract upwards of 1,000 people a week.
The hallway going to the theatre displays work that Grigson chose from a selection provided by Artbank, a leasing program for contemporary art that supports artists across Australia.
The theme is evident on the way to the Purnululu Theatre, where one sees four bark paintings by artists from West Arnhem Land that use traditional “X-ray techniques” to depict the insides of animals. There’s a catfish piece by Thompson Narrangurlgi Yulidjirri, as well as three barramundi pieces depicting the importance of the fish to Aboriginal people by David Milaybuma, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek and George Djaykurrnga.
Before guests enter the theatre, Grigson intentionally paused the Aboriginal theme with three small watercolor paintings portraying the grandeur of the Tasmanian wilds by David Chapman.
The spacious stadium-style Purnululu Theatre, which takes its name from the national park in Western Australia, is completely done in Tasmanian oak timber. Images of the park’s Bungle Bungle Mountains are depicted pontilist style, via stipples carved from the gorgeous wooden soundproofing panels that encircle the room.
That pontilist technique was also used in the Chancery canteen, albeit to depict another Australian landmark–The Twelve Apostles, the limestone stacks by the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.
From the theatre on the way to meeting rooms hang photos portraying Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. The photos were scattered around the previous embassy office, Grigson said. He speaks with pride of assembling the images into a single collection, where the photos have a greater impact for guests.
Although passionate about design, Grigson says his favorite feature of the embassy is not a painting, but what he calls “The Pillow”, a canopy reflecting Australian engineering craftsmanship. It hangs over the open-air atrium at the center of the Chancery.
Coupled with a rotor in the atrium, The Pillow uses winds and breezes to keep the space about four degrees cooler than the ambient temperature–without air conditioning. “During a rain storm, you sit underneath dry, but it rains around you,” Grigson says. “I also like the idea that it’s bringing the outside in.”
The cooling system is just one of the building’s environmentally sustainable design (ESD) initiatives. Others include the facade design, which creates a large thermal mass; efficient lighting systems governed by motion detectors, low-energy zoned air-conditioning systems, solar-powered hot water heating, a water recycling system, using photovoltaic cells to harvest daylight and a rainwater collection powering the embassy’s toilets and landscape irrigation system.
“ESD is integral to our design process,” the firm said. “We worked closely with the project consultant team to ensure we understood new and emerging ESD technologies and how to deploy them effectively.”
Outside the Chancery, Denton Corker Marshall provided for extensive landscaping that includes a host of indigenous Australian trees, such as eucalyptus and wattles. (There’s even a sapling nursery on site). There are also pergola plantings for shade and visual shelter. Four mature banyan trees were replanted during the construction process – a feat recognised by MURI, or the Indonesian version of the Guinness Book of Records.
A Memorial Garden honours Australian journalists, soldiers, sailors and diplomats who died in the line of duty.
“The banyan tree relocation and memorial park paid homage to Indonesian tradition and Australian-Indonesian history,” Grigson said. The park is surrounded by frangipani trees, typically usually used in religious ceremonies and cemeteries in Indonesia.
“Australia is a very contemporary, very diverse place, with a significant art and engineering design,” Grigson says. “The building itself is a dynamic piece of art–and people are very taken by that.”