The Nan Tien Education and Cultural Centre in Wollongong, Australia, is a tertiary facility and multicultural art gallery and is Australia’s first tertiary institute based on Buddhist values. The new structure is located opposite the Nan Tien Temple, the biggest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. It is erected on the site of a landfill that the Nan Tien Institute acquired from the municipality. The project was envisioned as a venue for community interaction, education, and cultural exchange, with an initial capacity of 300 students growing to an expected 3000 for undergraduate and postgraduate educational programs in humanities, economics and business studies, social sciences, religious studies, and Asian studies. This institute majorly emphasizes one of the humanistic Buddhist teachings of Fo Guang Shan, which believes that a fresh and therapeutic experience can be formed out of a place that was once disused and degenerated. And out of this belief itself, the concept is derived. The lotus flower served as a conceptual basis for the architecture; a pristine, exquisite bloom that emerges from the sludge. The concept was also used for the planning of the building. The facility, the institute’s first, is built as a mini campus, providing students with a collegiate learning environment.
The building set a remarkable example with its fine planning and placement of spaces. The structure is made up of four sculptured blade walls, each holding the building’s services, storage, thresholds, and thermal mass, which is made up of 169 individual precast concrete panels weighing 14 tonnes apiece. Its key features were these cruciform walls. These walls extend beyond the facade to form four seemingly freestanding wings, which give the building its signature lotus shape. These bending blade walls and wide atrium area divide the library, academic administration, café, and gallery into ‘pods’. The viewpoint and direction of the scooped apertures are determined by view lines, which link internal spaces to the western references of Mount Kembla, Mount Keira, and the Nan Tien Temple. The breakout spaces, which combine indoor and outdoor learning environments, serve as an extension of the classroom and a place for social interaction.
The dynamic bridges that connect each pod encourage interaction and movement across the institute’s interiors. A functional rooftop garden will produce delicious fruits and plants while serving as a peaceful spot to meditate. Natural ventilation is encouraged wherever possible, including moveable windows in classrooms and louvered facades to decrease heat loads. Similarly, natural light is brought into the atrium, allowing it to filter into the classrooms. Active pedestrian bridges connect the pods, transforming travel around the building into a journey of moments, destinations, and thresholds. The spaces between the pods are purposefully oriented towards major components of the site: the temple and pagoda, the entry courtyard, the mountain peaks, and the eventual Nan Tien Plaza. Looking at all the features and the building’s position and larger context, the design encourages connectivity with the institute‘s surroundings.
Even the materials are used very wisely by taking into consideration the site needs and their context. The use of concrete is done as a programmatic device that organizes the building into four distinct ‘pods’, and are separated by a grand triple-height atrium void.
Concrete as a material was used because it acted as modest roots and a direct connection to the ground, which supports the Buddhist concept of providing a neutral atmosphere free of consumerism and excess. The concrete walls also served as a blank canvas, emphasizing the residents’ movement and recording the spirituality of light as it changes colour throughout the day. To create the board-form finish, individual curved steel moulds were built with a timber lining inlay, allowing an impression of the timber to be cast into the details of the finished pod façade. Precast panels from South Australia were delivered to the site in pairs. The design team picked precast as the ideal material since it allowed them to ensure the quality and control of the finish, as well as the speed and affordability. Because of its versatility and long-lasting character, precast concrete was used, and it was created in a regulated industrial setting with minimum waste. The thermal mass of precast concrete decreases the dependency on mechanical systems and promotes user comfort. The north-east and the west facades are cladded with terracotta tiles and screens that link back to the top of the Nan Tien Temple and Pagoda. The display’s undulating wave design generates a sensation of movement while also providing environmental shade to the interiors.
The programmed devices used help in hiding and disclosing information as needed. Informal learning areas are hidden in the inner curve of the walls, marked out by color-coded area rugs and lockers embedded into the thicker walls, with plenty of space for soft furnishings on each level. Lecture halls and offices are separated and oriented away from the atrium. Framed views are carved into the louvered front, linking the inside to the temple and many natural sights in the surrounding area. The fenestration is fashioned to replicate the casual, whimsical, and organic shapes of the building patterns on the outside, while the sky is displayed on the inside in slithers that run in harmony with the form of the blade walls. The contrast between the curved ceiling and the skylight is very remarkable. Windows and connecting bridges are punched into the blade walls, with the contrast between the natural shape of the puncture and the perforated black rectilinear bridge articulating the design. This change preserves the central atrium’s integrity and has quite a significant influence on building circulation.
Overall, this is a place where young people are learning and where the East and the West meet during a cultural exchange. It is a location where people of all races and religions may embrace harmony. Woods Bagot has extraordinarily achieved the connectivity between Buddhist beliefs and the modern world. This structure, hence, acts as an appropriate example of a Buddhist institute in the southern hemisphere.