Smart Design Studio’s red -brick wonders


Projects// ROC & Arlington Grove

Photographer// Ross Honeysett & Martin Siegner

Architect// Smart Design Studio (Arlington Grove)

Architect// Smart Design Studio in Collaboration with Jacobs (ROC)

Bricklayer// Favetti Bricklaying

Product// Bowral Bricks in Capitol Red

William Smart talks us through two of his impressive architectural projects in inner Sydney–and reveals his love of the brick.

Smart Design Studio, headed by William Smart, has created two standout buildings in inner-Sydney suburbs that sensitively honour their environs but are still impressively imposing.

The new Sydney Rail Operations Centre (ROC) is a welcome addition to the Green Square precinct in the city’s oldest industrial heartland, and his Arlington Grove apartment-block design draws on the Dulwich Hill area’s predominately Federation aesthetic. Common to both projects is the use of striking red bricks.


With its monumental masonry arches and bold scale, the Rail Operations Centre presents its function and history up front. “The building had an opportunity to speak to the city, to tell it what it does,” says William Smart, founder and creative director of Sydney-based Smart Design Studio.

This announcement of purpose – something he admires in old corner pubs, post offices, churches and, of course, train stations – was key to the ROC design. And so the structure’s raison d’être is evident in its façade, those grand arches immediately recognisable symbols of the golden age of train travel. One glance at them, and you can almost hear the trains pulling in, the whistles blowing, the steam puffing.

In early briefings with Sydney Trains, William was delighted by the obvious passion of the Sydney Trains staff for their work, with many workspaces decorated with train posters and a culture of trainspotting clearly alive and well. It made it all the more satisfying to create a building in which that devotion could be accommodated and nourished through explicit references to rail infrastructure.

A long-time proponent of brick – “I’m glad it’s come back into vogue” – William loves its array of textures, its subtle sheen and the way its apparent imperfections combine with its potential for very precise and detailed work.

The locally made brick (Bowral Bricks in Capitol Red) used for the ROC building allowed for a “layered” response to its surrounds so that it spoke to the many existing brick buildings in the area. It will help shape the future development of Green Square, to which ROC is a relative and innovative newcomer.

Moreover, while William says his practice “does not chase an ‘Australian’ style”, the red brick of the ROC was seen early on in the design as resonating with the landscape of the Australian interior and those endless red miles traversed by train tracks. The brick, then, locates the building locally but also nationally.


Brick plays a similarly important role at Arlington Grove, in the mainly Federation inner-west suburb of Dulwich Hill. William was struck by the ubiquity of red brick in the area, everything from the early single-storey cottages to the buildings along the main street. “Our office is strong on contextual responsibility,” says William. “We look first to what already exists and imagine how we can make a contribution that will improve the whole area.”

While Arlington Grove’s eight storeys may currently stand out, planning controls are set to change and allow for more taller buildings. It was essential to William that Smart Design Studio’s tall building “reinforce the character of the area and build on the image of the suburb” rather than stand at odds or in contrast with it.

Again here, the modesty of the red brick combines with the majesty of the design. The long elevations are inspired by the principles of rhythm and repetition used in classical architecture, while the deep, blade-like corners create a striking play of light and shadow.Of the 246 apartments, 70 per cent face north to capture the low winter sun and avoid the high summer sun hitting the glass. A combination of orientation and multiple cores to encourage cross ventilation makes for a simple yet elegant display of passive temperature control.

It is a building “comfortable in itself”, says William, and it looks lived in and at home in its location – largely because of its warm and textured brick exterior. It is emphatically a set of spaces for living in and, William observes, as the apartments’ balconies inevitably accumulate the “clutter of life” – bikes, clothes lines, pot plants – the building’s rhythmic structure maintains a sense of order and calm.

“We work on a granular scale,” says William. “What’s next door? What’s across the road? How can we help bring that to life and strengthen the character of a whole neighbourhood?” 
While ROC and Arlington Grove are complex and sophisticated designs, at the heart of their success in achieving this strengthening of character is something deceptively simple: brick.

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