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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 21-Jun-2001

Edition: Late

Section: Metropolitan


Page: 16

Wordcount: 1369

Makeover on the way for Aunty

Elizabeth Farrelly

In its 70th year, the ABC will get a new, open and dignified face, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

Well, something had to happen. Almost 70 and still rattling about her ramshackle, asbestos-ridden slumdom at Gore Hill, Aunty has long needed a proper home. By this time next year the maid’s three score and 10 birthday Phillip Cox’s new ABC-TV building will provide it, next to ABC Radio in Harris Street, Ultimo.

The essence of the project is consolidation, relocating ABC-TV from Gore Hill to form a new federal headquarters and statewide production centre in the heart of the city. This is a global trend: CNN, ABC (America), CBC (Canada) and the Beeb are all co-located. It’s about efficiency, ideology, revenue and, not least, image. The new building glassy, urbane and impeccably well-mannered will do all that. More, even, giving Aunty a new look as a stylish, contemporary, international broadcaster. Whaddya mean, old?

Not that the project has entirely lacked controversy. A Federal Joint Public Works Committee hearing into the project in February last year examined a range of submissions, including one from Quentin Dempster who argued, for the Community and Public Sector Union, that the financial implications of the move hadn’t been properly thought through.

It’s not hard to see why the Ultimo option one of four won. There are the efficiencies of facility-sharing expected to save $2 million a year and the possibility of adapting some of the existing fabric to new uses (a new TV-news studio publicly visible in the existing foyer, for instance). Plus, there’s the pull of the city.

City-south is fast becoming the intellectual end of town. Two vibrant tertiary establishments the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and Sydney Institute of Technology (SIT) draw almost 60,000 students. Sydney Uni is 10 minutes away, walking, and the Broadway retail/cinema complex even closer. Conspicuously, too, this end of the city is becoming Cox-town. Already the count requires more than one hand. The Exhibition Centre, the Australian Maritime Museum, the Aquarium, the UTS law/library building on Quay Street, the UTS Design and Architecture building (DAB) on Harris Street and the Bay Street housing that’s six. Plus two in progress: the new Transgrid building (sketch design) on Ultimo Road, and this one for Aunty. This may be less than surprising, given Cox’s decades of adroit self-positioning as architect to the institutions. But I’m impressed.

ABC-II is expected to cost $109.5 million matching with Shylockian accuracy the quantum requested from the Public Works Committee. For that it will provide 29,000 square metres of space in three main elements a 15-storey office tower, a three-level basement and a six-storey podium across the whole site.

In design terms, the primary constraint here is context. The new building wedges in between Cox’s UTS DAB building to the south and the existing ABC Centre to the north, designed by Ken Woolley in 1991. A pleasant surprise is the degree to which Cox contrives to hold hands, in spirit as well as fact, with Woolley, while sustaining the strength, scale and presence of the DAB street wall. Where two buildings can seem like an accident, three at this scale make a strong street.

One of architecture’s most interesting debates, though, is how far contextual politeness should dominate the newcomer’s internal integrity especially if the context is not entirely satisfactory. Woolley’s building dates from his and Sydney’s postmodern phase. Not junk-decorative, but particulate, eclectic and consciously decorative after the dour utility of international modern. A bit of Michael Graves (the square windows punched out of a pink precast grid, the squat elephant’s-foot columns, the pseudo-Greek roof pavilion), a bit of Utzon (the top lighting, the turtle-back roofs), a bit of urban metaphor (the internal “street” atrium), a bit tongue-in-cheek corporate modern (the tartan-grid curtain wall on the east facade).

The new Cox building politely takes its cues from the same prompt sheet. Using the same pinkish precast, the same greenish glass in a simplified grid, the same space-age campanile, inverted in precast and glass, and a similarly loose composition of variegated forms, it neatly sidesteps the architectural bother-of-the-moment that besets those attempting to modify the work of the great Modern lions. (Think Seidler house Wahroonga, Woolley house Mosman, Madigan’s National Gallery, Canberra, Utzon’s Opera House.)

But so far so good. And, despite its sometimes indecisive eclecticism, the Woolley building has a confident presence and a strong organising idea in the internal top-lit nave or “street”. The mistake came when, in order to dramatise this internal street, the rock-solid Goossens Hall was set along the main urban frontage sacrificing the interests of the real, public street to those of the internal, private one, in the old modern manner. This gave Aunty an unfortunate F-U quality, which neither the glazed shopfront beside nor the sad little colonnade beneath Eugene was able to remedy.

So while Cox’s contextualism is to be applauded in principle, it’s also true that the most interesting and evocative element of the entire confection is the stylistic interloper which, unhampered by politesse, brings something entirely new to the picnic.

This new element comprises the fully glazed rehearsal studios and library which, spanning the new street entrance and porte cochere, sits between real Woolley facade and the Cox look-alike to the south. The compositional sprightliness here raking glass facade capped by a roof-froth of white-horse wavelets is more delicate than anything we’ve seen from Cox in a while, and touches both building and institution with a welcome signal of transparency.

Of Cox’s main compositional elements, the podium is by far the strongest, as well as being experientially dominant, deter-mining as it does the nature of the building’s central and public spaces. In addition to rehearsal spaces and combined library/archive, the podium houses retail, technical support, an extended public atrium and four new TV studios: a big one for interactive shoots such as The Fat; a smaller studio for talking heads; a basement current affairs studio (7.30 Report); and a publicly visible news studio at ground level in the existing atrium.

The tower is less confident compositionally, in part because the demand for floorspace, above clear-span studios (intolerant of penetration by columns), required two huge propped cantilevers to protrude from the main block. The rawness of these forms, and their underfed props, lends a rickety, ad hoc kind of look, out of keeping with the surefootedness of the rest.

The same pressure for space led to a rather cavalier way with the city planning policies the tower stands 58 metres in a 42-metre zone. The ABC, as a Federal body, is not bound by such niceties as local planning, and argued that a number of nearby buildings albeit from different eras and in different zones also breached the limit. As Senator Ferguson (Lib, SA) wondered aloud during the hearing, “Have you ever asked the City Council why they bother to have a height limit?”

As a city home of major cultural institutions which, in Canberra, say, would each be moated with vast verdant campuses, this particular bit of territory might be expected to go tallish. That’s if 15 storeys really counts as tall, these days.

The ABC’s reluctance to connect to the new pedestrian way along the disused rail corridor, now under construction, counts as a networking opportunity temporarily missed although scarcely irredeemable. In other ways, though, synergies between the local institutions are already tangible, with shared courses established between UTS, SIT and the ABC.

Physically too, ABC-II will be positive all round, providing an open, dignified face to the ABC, a handsome neighbour for UTS and a street wall that is strongly scaled, adeptly modulated and friendly. This is what cities are about. There should be more of it.


ILLUS: Now and next year …

the ABC Radio headquarters in Harris Street, Ultimo as it is today, left, and, above, an artist’s impression of how it will look once the TV studio joins the neighbourhood.


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