Inside, it’s a typical upscale apartment building. Outside, the newly completed Swanston Square mixed-use tower in Melbourne is not ordinary at all. Viewed from a distance, the building’s southern façade reveals the face of William Barak, an important elder of the indigenous Wurundjeri tribe that originally owned the land on which the apartment sits. It’s as if Barak’s 32-story-high image is gazing out over the modern city.

“We’re interested in the idea of buildings that tell a story,” says Jesse Judd, project director at ARM Architecture, the Melbourne-based firm that designed the building. The image is created by placing white panels of different heights on the building, which produce the illusion of light and dark lines and collectively form the face. The project was only possible through the use of GFRP, which enables the panels to be cost-effectively manufactured to exacting and differing dimensions. “Composites were quite a good fit for this variability,” says Judd.

Composites Gain Face Time

Photo credit: Peter Bennetts

Early in the project, ARM Architecture investigated using aluminum panels. But test fabrication revealed that was an expensive choice because of the amount of labor involved in machining, welding and finishing prior to painting. Ultimately, a composite solution was less than half the cost of aluminum.

ARM Architecture relied on a photo and several paintings of Barak for its rendering of the tribal leader. The firm then partnered with mouldCAM, a global manufacturer of complex shapes and composite structures. mouldCAM designed, engineered and fabricated the panels. There were more than 400 double-curved panels, each 5½ inches thick and 15 feet long. They ranged in height from one to seven feet, with shorter heights used where darker lines were needed.

The monocoque panels use structural skins to carry the load across all sides, much like a shell does for an egg. The panels were independently tested and taken up to a load of 6.4 kilopascals without any signs of cosmetic or structural damage and without any residual deformation. Strength was critical because the panels are vertical cantilevers, anchored only at the top and extending out from the building as far as eight or more feet.