Located in New Acton, a diverse new precinct in Canberra, Nishi Commercial is a major new development housing government departments, private offices, a cinema and cafes. The lobby, designed by March Studio, projects a unique identity through thousands of lengths of repurposed timber, blurring boundaries while directing views and movement. A grand stair - the stage for performances as much as idle procrastination - leads up to the HotelHotel lobby and bar. In the stair the timber is heavy, grounded, a stacked agglomeration. Freed to scatter up the walls and across the ceiling, the suspended timber filters exterior light and views into and from internal spaces. Spidery, pixellated shadows are cast on the floor and bare walls.

MarchStudio HotelHotel Sec

The stair links Nishi Commercial to Nishi Residential, a multi-storey apartment building housing 2 floors of hotel rooms wrapped around a central courtyard and light well. The ground floor contains Hotel Hotel’s lobby, reception, concierge and bar, as well as retail and hospitality tenancies. On the ground floor of the boutique hotel, March Studio was engaged to create spaces which encouraged residents, guests and visitors to linger in what would otherwise be known as transient space.

The walls in the hotel lobby - and the seating, the benches and the counters - are an attempt to bring the handmade into the rigorous, polished building around it. Materials - custom gluelam timber, precast concrete beams - are allowed to sit, unadorned, overlapping and stacked in a simple manner, their joints overrunning and poking out. The singular system - the same for both materials - is stretched where needed, opened where useful and broken where forced.

A large space is enveloped in this manner and then diffused, variegated by operations within these rules, to allow for spaces that have their own character. Doors that are part opening, part display, continue this language in apparently weightless steel. This steel is picked up to lighten the bar, where stacked concrete props up sleek steel, which weaves into and halts the flow of suspended timber bursting up the stairs from the commercial lobby. Above the seating in front of the bar, large holes have been punched into the concrete slab capping the space. These portholes allow glimpses into the courtyard above and natural light to enter the space.

The main entrance to Nishi Residential, opposite the linking stair, was also part of March Studio’s brief. Outside is a canopy which shrugs off its weight with flowing timber recalling the Commercial Lobby. The entrance airlock is lined on two walls and ceiling with what could be steel punchcards for an ancient mainframe. Filling the gaps punched in these steel sandwich panels are amber marbles; thick glass that filters the light and warms the space. The directionality of the commercial lobby is mirrored here, in the lines of punched holes on wall and ceiling, which scatter across the rear wall and flow into the stacked timber of the HotelHotel library.

Complex Found Spaces

The Ground Floor of the Nishi Residential Tower is a complex space. In the interior spaces left over from tenancy carve-up, we found a zone of several entrances and multiple destinations. Within this space a clarity of programme and circulation was required, balanced against a desire for mixing and opportunistic encounters.

We tested many solutions to the division of space and allocation of programme. The geometric challenge of the found space – an intersection of five routes – restricted the opportunity to manipulate the existing programmatic distribution. In the end we are proposing small adjustments – exposing more of the ‘back-of-house’ administrative functions of the hotel reception to the public space; giving the concierge a more permanent presence; realigning the airlock and entry sequence to draw people into the guts of the space and deliver hotel guests to the available functions; and, against all warnings, making the bar central to the space.

Grand Unifying Theories

Our mission, then, in such a space, became to unify the disparate elements of programme, function and geometry. This was pursued through a number of strategies, the dominant of which is clearly the articulation of a single ceiling surface which wraps and envelops the space, stitching together the various fragmentary moments occurring within. The unifying ceiling treatment attempts to deal with three problematic qualities identified in the original scheme: the generally low floor-to-ceiling heights, averaging under 3000mm; the dire lack of natural light available; and the potential for poor acoustics from an oversupply of hard surfaces.

Our response to the first issue was, as always, to amplify the perceived problem. By making the ceiling even lower in places, we develop a hierarchy of spaces to allow for a variety of activities. The experience of the central void over the bar becomes heightened in response to the general compression; this space becomes the fulcrum of the entire floor and is 

given due prominence through light and height. Other spaces become intimate settings; conversation pits in reverse.
The second problem prompted a reflection on Nishi’s ecological design aspirations. Could the ground floor sustain life? Could this in fact be a living, breathing (well respiring, at least) building? We suggest the ceiling could be a substrate for an internalised jungle. Grow lights positioned strategically within the ceiling waffle grid will encourage suitable plants to grow up towards them, enveloping the structure and linking floor to ceiling.

The last issue, of acoustics, was simple. Cover some of those hard surfaces with soft plywood and living plant tissue.

Turning everything inside out
We like the unexpected. Things like being on the inside of something but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. Or being reminded of wooden toys in a lobby, or maybe it was a science exhibit. Of finding a garden inside a building, or maybe a building that actually is a garden.

When confronted with such an interiorised space as the ground floor of the Nishi building, our methods tend to lean towards inverting the perceived condition. So rather than trying to hide the fact that you are at the base of a large building and have a low façade to floor area ratio, we do two things: we celebrate the inside as a place of wonder and strangeness, and we seek to turn the inside out.
This idea is made literal in the geometry of the vortex above the bar, where it seems the surface of the bar is everting – actually being pulled inside out – drawing the eye and the drama up into the void between the towers.

Connection is made
So, having unified the various elements of the space, having surprised and delighted by revealing that in the centre of the secret garden, in the belly of the whale, there is a bar that seems to be open air, we turned to ways of densifying and bringing together the inhabitants.

We made signage with a clear family resemblance visible from across the room, and into the next. The ceiling surface was encouraged to guide transients through the space, slipping up or down to indicate circulation and resting spaces. The hotel reception was designed to be a part of the general space while commanding a clear view of the entry and the lobby zones.