Howard Raggett. Picture: Ben Crabtree/The West Australian

Perth Arena audiences in the 21st century should have at least one thing in common with early 19th century convicts - excellent sight lines.

The Arena traces its lineage back to late 17th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who conceived the panopticon model prison as the ideal way for a central guard to oversee many cells at once.

ARM Architecture founding director Howard Raggatt said his design team looked to WA's oldest public building, Fremantle's twelve-sided Roundhouse jail, to inspire Perth's newest public building.

But they also used the idea of a puzzle - as they had with other ARM projects like the National Museum of Australia and Story Hall at RMIT in Melbourne.

They settled on the Eternity Puzzle, a 209-piece puzzle invented in 1999 and claimed to have been almost impossible to crack until two British maths whizzes did so two years later.

Like the Roundhouse, the Eternity Puzzle was a dodecagon but it was an amazing contradiction of apparent simplicity and impossibility that set up all manner of imaginative leaps, Mr Raggatt said.

"We were thinking of the forms of ideal cities, too, those wonderful Renaissance visions and urban patterns within a city wall, also often dodecagons." These three concepts - the panopticon, the puzzle and the ideal city - were a constant guide as ARM and joint-venture partners Cameron Chisholm Nicol approached the Arena from every angle for spectators inside and out in the street.

From the Eternity Puzzle's 209 pieces, the designers identified several shapes they loosely interpreted as a horse's head, a swan, a yacht, a mining truck and even a map of Australia. Viewed from Wellington Street, a red-and-white pole (inspired by the urban landscape paintings of Jeffrey Smart) demarcates the WA border. At night, the exterior becomes an illuminated billboard, enhanced by a laser show beamed onto the walls from the 10.5m Totem robotic artwork by Geoffrey Drake-Brockman.

Mr Raggatt likened the building to an avocado, with the hard core of the functional auditorium surrounded by the soft flesh of the public concourses, bars, function halls and foyer areas, all enveloped by its architectural skin.

The public concourses narrow down to just 6m-wide in places but feel much bigger.

A sense of volume and vista is conveyed by steep, angled timber-ceilings, expansive windows and blue walls inspired by 20th century artists Yves Klein and Wassily Kandinsky, who once said: "The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite."

Mr Raggatt said most arenas around the world extended the brutally functional feel of their central bowl into the cold concrete-and-steel austerity of the public access areas. "We didn't see that that had to drive all the public spaces, which are really about hanging out in the pub, meeting up with friends and moving through the building.

"We were thinking of it as a great public building as you would expect with a wonderful museum or a concert hall. We wanted to free the so-called image of the building from its powerful mechanistic necessities," Mr Raggatt said. "We wanted to ensure that our architectural vision could stand free from the purely functional and operational.

"I know people are shocked at how much money it cost but if you boiled that down to how much money went into the architecture you see, it is actually very little. A building like this is such a huge thing that no matter what you did, it could look horrible and still cost that much money. It is just the raw reality of building something that big.

"We hope the building ultimately proves to be an ugly duckling," Mr Raggatt said. "When the Eiffel Tower was first built everybody hated it, especially the cognoscenti, but of course it is now a building we all love.When we build for 50 years or even 100 years, it is surely incumbent on us all to press ourselves to the limit, to that very edge of what we think we know . . . in the hope that it will prove itself useful then, beyond our horizon."

The West Australian

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