Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Babylonian fantasy land emerges from reservoir
The Oxford Street site had been derelict for yonks and tantalising in its mystery – was it a servo? park? reservoir? – with barely glimpsable underground caverns that, to any half-active imagination, offered limitless romantic possibility.
But the best things are always ruined. That's a basic principle of urban life, especially in Sydney. Nature we do OK, but in the artefact department, we generally go for the tacky, the so-so, the fake and the half-hearted. It's like we're congenitally excellence-averse. Like we think ignorance really is bliss.
Often we start with something wonderful then, with enormous care and expense, wreck it. Consider the latest QVB revamp. If Pierre Cardin really did call it the world's most beautiful shopping centre he'll be retracting, any moment, or risk his reputation. Ipoh – with the city's approval, as owner – has painted this glorious interior a ghastly patchwork of sunburn pink, diaper yellow and a truly poisonous aqua then macheted it with a slab of black-mirror Singapore-style escalators that even the tackiest mall would shun. About as beautiful as breakfast television.
At the other end of the expectation scale, but energetically pursuing the same excellence-avoidance theme, is the latest meddling with the Opera House. You recall that squat little no-neck smokers' shelter they clagged onto its western flank a couple of years back? It contradicts the very idea of a building whose entire point – shells above, folded plane below – is to prove columns unnecessary.
Now the no-neck has metastasised, providing a cosmetic armature for a row of airport-style serveries in the new strung-together foyer. The high point is the liftwell, which offers, at least, some real off-form concrete. Otherwise, all is blond on blond; half-round timber battens stuck on cheap white plasterboard like a bad copy of some dullsville Copenhagen furniture showroom. Come back Peter Hall. All is forgiven.
It comes heavy-blessed, of course, by Utzon himself, and designed by Utzon-fils, Jan, with our very own Richard Johnson. While Jan Utzon has no particular distinction beyond the genetic (and a lovely smile), Johnson has delivered some terrific buildings (Governor Phillip Tower, the new Hilton). But also some dogs, including the Westpac building on Kent and the Commonwealth Bank's proposed "Money Box" on Martin Place, for which the Central Sydney Planning Committee last week broke its own height rules, spot-zoning for an extra 10 storeys.
So the question is, is this a team we should trust with the whole? Or just hope they'll never scrape together the readies?
But back to Oxford Street. The Paddington Reservoir is a city-owned site but this, too, could have gone either way. The Clover Years at town hall have produced some flashes of brilliance, like the reworked Redfern Park. But her portfolio also includes some substandard back-pages including Surry Hills' Frog Hollow park, banalising one of the most evocative sites in Sydney. All of which makes Paddington Reservoir a stand-out.
It was already ruined – collapsed, graffitied, rubbish-filled, weed-strewn. And in a way this is what saved it. A ruin is not a common thing in Australia, notwithstanding our tendency to ruination, since the microscopic nature of our history minimises both our ruin-rate and our inclination to preserve.
By the time architect Tim Greer, of Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, came on scene, part of the roof had fallen in – not because the vaulted Victorian structure was flawed but because a modern addition had let water in and rusting cast iron blew the thing apart.
Greer was delighted. "Nice," he says, "to start with a ruin, a pile of rubble."
This particular ruin had been home to an Anglican church, a water reservoir (part of Busby's famous Bore), a garage, an air-raid shelter and a servo, before becoming the canvas for a decade of graffiti artists. And Greer, one of our most acute and accomplished architects, immediately recognised its promise.
In particular, the promise of spatial drama in linking the street with its own subconscious. Although the city envisaged a street level park with non-specific "adaptive re-use" below, Greer argued for connection. He had the good sense to bring aboard landscape architect Anton James. Together they exploited the sheltered, sunny microclimate to create a sunken garden of tree ferns and other rainforest species that spice the subterranean serenity with a quasi-Victorian flamboyance.
There's not a lot of architecture. Just a few platforms and walkways, gardens and pools, grass, paving and balustrades, and the long-legged aluminium-filigree vaults that echo the original, an octave higher, to flag the intervention. This very restraint is its distinction.
Everyone loves it. People hang out just for the pleasure of it, which is seriously unusual in Sydney. They liken it to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Baths of Caracalla.
Personally I'd put it closer to Scarpa's work at Castelvecchio in Verona, or Campi's at Montebello in Bellinzona. Simply say this is a world-class weave of ancient and modern and I love it, too.