Claiming the stairway to haven

The Grand Stair itself is not only of reclaimed timbers, but so too is the ceiling void.If one had to nominate the Seven Man-Made Wonders of Canberra then the Grand Stair just installed in the environmentally gentle Nishi building in New Acton would jostle for a place.
Shanghai night field

Not quite finished (it leads from the Nishi’s downstairs foyer up to the unfinished foyer of an unfinished hotel), it is a hard-to-describe creation made of thousands of horizontally arranged pieces of reclaimed timber. Startled by the look of it in online pictures, we asked the Nishi supremos, the Molonglo Group, for a tour and explanation. We had as our tour guide Nectar Efkarpidis, one of the group’s three directors.

The idea of him as ”director” of a Group will summon a mental picture of a suited person of mature years, but he is startlingly young and was informally dressed, and tousled, and might have been an ANU post-grad.

He sounds truly earnest about Nishi’s planet-kindly mission and for the first time in my writing life (because cliches are not in my toolbox) I find myself able to describe someone, him, as softly-spoken.

He explains that the design is by March Studio of Melbourne and that, in Nishi’s spirit of sustainability, they’ve used reclaimed timber from a dismembered house, from a demolished basketball court, from about the Nishi site itself and offcuts from the building’s own distinctive blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis) faç¸ade.

No two fragments of wood are the same. There are polished ones and rough ones, painted and unpainted ones, unblemished ones and others characterfully scarred by nails.

Above the staircase, but echoing it, there’s a ceiling space, a ceiling feature, made from 2150 more pieces of wood and then at the foot of the stairs there’s a continuing feature in the wall space. It is all indescribable but did feel, standing on the stairs and surrounded by thousands of horizontally ”flying” pieces of wood (the pieces are held together by hundreds of steel rods) as if one was in the middle of the frozen explosion of something wooden (a Spanish galleon perhaps) that has just been powerfully blown up with its smithereens flying away.

It’s all an alternative, Efkarpidis says, to ”having sterile, white, clean, fabricated materials brought in from China”.

”It was very much about having craftspeople paying respect to carpentry as a skill set. The intention of the building was always about ‘how do you create foyers and spaces, public spaces, that (a) are of genuine interest but also make a place?’ We want people to occupy this building.

”For us this ground-floor area, what we call the ground-floor plains, we see as public spaces, despite the fact that this is the building for [various clients]. We’ve always wanted the public spaces to be used not only by the tenants but by the entire community.

”It’s about welcoming, say, ANU students who might want to just sit here with a laptop.”

In time ANU students and others grazing there will get used to it, and be able to stop looking all about them in wonder and to concentrate on their laptops. But for the moment the ”flying” wooden pieces make the space feel excitingly crazy.

One of the designers says, acutely, ”I think you’ll agree the word ‘beautiful’ doesn’t cut it – the effect is so full of thought and expressive of so many stories, as well as being real nice to look at.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

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