Ian Potter Conservatory Australian National Botanic Gardens

Competition Finalist
Canberra, ACT, Australia

‘Place-making’ has all but disappeared from the (architectural) lexicon. Making sense of the site and its context however remains at the core of any successful piece of architecture. It is never enough to simply position a building (no matter how good) on the site and walk away. Canberra is a ‘planned’ city – that is, a city whose growth has been contrived rather than organic. It can at times be weighed down by its own geometry which wrestles against essential (human) urban requirements – scale, accessibility, movement, context  and place. 

For the Ian Potter National Conservatory a constructed context is required that is thoughtful and well considered and clearly articulated before the building itself can sensibly be designed. We see this project as having two essential exercises – place-making and the design of the new conservatory. Each depends on the other for the outcome to be world class. Taking the master plan into account we propose a loggia and forecourt that holds the east side of the entire precinct of visitor centre, café, children’s garden, amphitheatre and conservatory. The existing stone wall in this location can be extended and manipulated to help define a new visitor precinct that addresses the experiential and functions-related aspirations of the brief. Conceptually the re-worked low stone wall, loggia and forecourt holds the entire side of Black Mountain. Our scheme speculates on the possibility of a staged design response that includes a second smaller café at the north end of the forecourt that can be used to assist in events catering and also provide service access to the new conservatory. The forecourt provides an armature that guides visitors sequentially from the new orientation plaza ,main entry bridge, through the visitor centre, past the café, children’s garden, amphitheatre and new conservatory, and towards a re-positioned  starting point for the main circulation path through the rest of the gardens near the top of the site. This key point in the gardens could be marked by an obelisk that provides visual access above the tree-tops and back to Capitol Hill and beyond. The obelisk has the potential to become a sign post for the gardens that is visible from throughout Canberra as well as being an orientation point within the gardens. The main entry to the conservatory touches the west side of the forecourt and in our design the building is embedded into the site so that the dome created by the pure geometry of the circular plan is sliced obliquely through the slope of the site, forming an elegant lens above the ground. Once inside visitors enter high in the tree canopy and face a waterfall that runs the full width of the conservatory. There is a ‘short-cut bridge’ through the tree tops and out again via a second entry point to the west, a meandering ramp through and down to an interstitial level from where visitors can either meander further down to the floor of the rainforest or cut across a second bridge, through the waterfall and to an immersive theatre or into an exhibition tunnel that includes aquarium, water based plants and fungi.