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Penguins parade around ‘heroic’ new visitor centre

Terroir has not only repositioned the new centre lower into the site, but has delivered a truly remarkable architectural legacy, picking up a swag of awards in the process, including the prestigious William Wardell Award for Public Architecture and the Regional Prize, both awarded by the Australian Institute of Architects (Victorian Chapter).

While the form is heroic and inspiring, for the thousands of visitors who travel from far and wide (pre COVID-19), they may not initially see the idea behind the design, one that will resonate well after one boards the bus or car to head back to Melbourne.

From above, the design appears not dissimilar to a contemporary brooch, with its jagged fingers entwining with the surrounding landscape, reconfigured by Tract Consultants.

However, from below the exterior undercroft ripples with silver and grey zinc shingles (42,000 in total).

“We placed the penguin feather under a microscope. It’s short and sharp, in essence a diamond shape,” says Balmforth, who saw the variations of the shingles as the penguin’s underbelly.

Creating the various extrusions of the building into the landscape not only allowed for the visitor centre, approximately 5,000 square metres in area, to appear more elegant and lightweight, but also provide the necessary nooks for the functions that needed to be included within: visitor displays, a lecture theatre, a restaurant and cafe, commercial kitchen facilities, together with a retail component and bathrooms.

The visitors centre's jagged fingers entwine with the surrounding landscape.

The visitors centre’s jagged fingers entwine with the surrounding landscape.Credit:Peter Bennetts

Pivotal to Terroir’s scheme is a grand angular space that connects visitors from the entrance at one end, to the board walks leading to the penguins on the other.

“The main hall becomes an important part of the experience, an extension of the board walks,” says Balmforth, pointing out the dramatic angular faceted concrete columns and timber ceilings.

Rather than walls segmenting the various functions (except for areas such as the kitchen and bathroom facilities), the edges of the main hall are deliberately blurred, like cranks in the landscape itself.

“We saw the edges for people to sit momentarily or simply pause and take in this environment,” says Balmforth, who was also mindful of reducing the amount of glass to avoid migrating birds meeting the glass unexpectedly.

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Terroir was also interested in creating a move cavernous centre, with the idea of stalactites appearing from the ceiling upon arrival.

However, unlike a modest cave, here the ceiling heights reach a peak of seven metres.

Commissioned by Phillip Island Nature Parks, the new Penguin Parade Visitors Centre is considerably larger and more impressive that its former home (75 per cent larger).

“We were conscious of the importance of this centre from the outset.

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It’s one of the most-visited tourist attractions in Australia and therefore had to be of an exceptionally high standard,” says Balmforth, whose greatest pleasure was seeing how people reacted when they first arrived.

“It literally comes alive with people of all ages and all nationalities.

Perhaps it makes them think about this place in a new light, creating a slight adrenalin rush as they make their way to the dunes,” adds Balmforth.

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