Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
How one architect raised the bar
Renzo Piano has been as good as his word, delivering us something we can be proud of, writes E.M. Farrelly.
Way back in the mid-1990s, the Government moved into the shiny new Governor Phillip Tower and threw its old home, the State Office Block, up for grabs. As a classic ’60s office tower, the SOB was a curmudgeonly old thing, rock-jawed, hard to live in and even harder to change. It was, however, handsomely composed and widely admired by architects. Then, just as the modern heritage lobby was beginning a low growl in the SOB’s favour, Lend Lease pulled Renzo Piano out of a hat.
It was tempting to be cynical. Piano, in direct contrast with the usual bullish egos of architecture, is as thoughtful and responsive in conversation as in his work. If it’s an act, it’s a darn good one and difficult to resist. As Piano waxed Italian to the local press and pollies, sites were bought, buildings demolished, air-rights transferred, rules stroked, poked and stretched, horses traded. And all the while the poetic sostenuto, sotto voce, pianopiano. Nothing really dodgy, of course, and it was good to see ideas changing hands as much as the usual currency, but there was no doubt that Piano’s capacity to charm the pants off the local populace was an essential project lubricant.
Well, that’s progress, and architecture is a whatever-it-takes profession. Few practitioners are guiltless in the blatant charm department. But Piano, for all his skill there, is hardly your standard developer’s architect, being strongly ideas-driven, deeply committed to the integrity of the whole and notoriously particular about detail.
His absorbing passion for the thing-ness of architecture has led Piano to a work method That typically involves iterative full-size mock-ups of the tricky bits joints, handles, pins, levers and connectors of all kinds. This is not something you can easily do via fax or modem, nor is it at first glance a cost-efficient process. But when, in early 1996, two senior Lend Lease execs visited Piano’s Med-side workshop (no, not office) at Vesima, north of Genoa, they fell head over Zegna heels for the whole ideas-praxis-beauty thing that tumbles glassily down the escarpment there.
Even intellectual seduction, though, can end in tears. Now, as romance gives way to the sober light of dawn, it is heartening to find that Piano has been as good as his word, leaving us with a building that is stylish, feminine and euphoric, saluting the Opera House, enriching the town and significantly raising the bar for commercial architecture in this part of the world.
Sure, it’s a top-end building and therefore not strictly comparable with regular commercial development. The glass is all gorgeous white low-iron stuff from the United States and the terracotta is, in fact, precision-moulded German ceramic, fat with the same restrained sensuality that distinguishes the building’s sandstone neighbours. The curves and splays of the facade mean that none of the floors is precisely the same size or shape, and there are extravagantly cosmetic gestures like the sail and the mast.
But it’s a question of return on investment. The apartments have fetched up to $9 million not bad considering that the Eastern Distributor is just outside those shimmering outsize louvres and the office space now out-rents everything in town, including the Governors and the Seidlers. Can’t be all bad.
Aurora Place aka the Piano building is, in fact, two buildings: a 17-storey residential on Macquarie Street and the 44-storey commercial tower, 88 Phillip. The two are entirely separate, structurally and functionally, but they share a single encircling idea.
Lend Lease’s brief to Piano had three main planks: contextual, compositional and social. The building would need to respond to Sydney physically, from the grand sweep of the harbour down to the streetside scale, on a site that was narrow (32 metres), controversial, regulation entangled and plum in the middle of Sydney’s civic/sandstone precinct, opposite the Gardens, and a gentleman’s stroll from Parliament House. Composition-ally, it was expected to create a landmark urban sculpture with plausible environmental credentials. Socially, the idea was to reinvent the corporate workplace, making it more open, more humane, more real and less hermetic (to be rendered in a soft Genovese accent).
Nice brief, if you can get it. Oh, and of course it had to be commercially viable, conforming to all the usual rules of thumb regarding floor-plate, office depth, core location and so on. The thing had to sell.
Piano’s genius has been to find a formal idea or parti, in the lingo capable of encompassing and expressing these diverse demands and, just as impressive, to shepherd this idea through tangled thickets of planning politics, structural exigency, many-headed clients and tyrannical bean counters to realisation.
The idea is essentially simple: to wrap the boat-shaped building in a luminous white facade that is perfectly smooth along its length but melts into sky at the top and peels away at each end, allowing the building to breathe. Thus wrapped, Aurora Place resembles nothing so much as some exquisite neo-oriental canape, tastily cocooned in the latest translucent rice pastry.
It’s packaging, yes. To a large extent that’s what office buildings are. But it’s smart, multi-functional packaging. The glass wrapping sheet, suspended at first-floor level and fritted with white enamel dots like Santa snow to sustain the ghost look, curves asymmetrically around the smooth-bellied plan, flaring upward and outward from the base before sailing 30 metres into Sydney’s tempestuous air, tossing a wave to the Opera House and the world. Its edges are terrify-ingly naked to dissolve into the ether at the top; above the street they hang expressly unprotected (and let it be noted that all that ghost-skin glass is just stuck on, as opposed to mechanically fixed; a first for both the city and Lend Lease. Gulp).
The peel-away cantilevers at either end of the building provide vertical, wind-protected slots within which dark stacks of openable conservatories or wintergardens give real-air breakout space to each floor. And the foyer, clad in terracotta and street granite, links this entire ethereal confection to the hard, busy, real world of earth and street.
The foyer, in fact, is one of the building’s big successes. Piano has always approached architecture from a material rather than spatial perspective, and confesses yet to “a sort of shyness with respect to space”. Here, his feel for material has paid off, enabling him to evade corporate culture’s obsessive-compulsive attachment to the glitz foyer and produce a space that is at once intensely civilised and surprisingly real. In Piano’s words, it “talks the language that is in your stomach”. This quality is part spatial (big, open, square-shouldered like an Enlightenment nave), part material (timber, granite, terracotta no brass or marble within coo-ee) and part acoustic (soft, soft, soft). The imperceptible ticking of Tim Prentice’s air-wheel sculpture makes the perfect spatial counterpart.
Certainly, the building has faults. In the wrong light the sail’s translucency cannot always hide the junk on the roof; the fritting, fading out to nothing around each window so you can actually see (read sell) the view, has in close-up a touch of Santa-snow bathos; the ghost-skin is often compromised by the fact that the white internal blinds cannot be reliably drawn, even at night; the apartment interiors (designed in conjunction with Mirvac) hang awkwardly astride a plan split by a central corridor; and the success of the rat
her amorphous public space at Aurora’s foot has yet to be proved. (Although Kan Yasuda’s magnetically sexy Touchstones will certainly help.)
Broadly speaking, though, Aurora deserves nothing but exuberant applause for sailing fearlessly into town, changing the rules, anchoring so prettily beside its boofy neighbours and proving a more-than-worthy successor to the old SOB.
Three Illus: The big picture, the fine detail …
Aurora Place, above left, looking through the roof from the public space, and a water drain, left.
Photos: George Fetting