Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
A tale of two cities and of two rivers
E M FARRELLY
WHAT took them so long? Melbourne and Brisbane, otherwise so different, have finally discovered that there’s more than one side to a river, and that the liquid stuff between can be a link, not a barrier. Both have used the discovery – much as Sydney did with Darling Harbour – to establish, at the city’s heart, major cultural buildings that may otherwise have spun off to the periphery.
Each city already had its southbank Arts precinct, white, worthy and monumentally upper case, from the hands of a Modern master: Robin Gibson’s handsomely brutalist Queensland Art Gallery, on the one hand, and Sir Roy Grounds’s three Arts icons – Gallery, State Theatre, Concert Hall – on the other.
And there they sat, popular enough but not exactly energising the place. Until the southbank syndrome of the late-80s, precipitated in Brisbane by Expo (as the Bicentennial had propelled Darling Harbour), and in Melbourne, by an alignment of planning powers and developer optimism that produced first Southgate, then other Yarra-bank developments, casino included. Among all this, each city now has a large and successful exhibition centre.
In plan, as more or less predetermined by the brief, the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, designed by Cox Rayner architects (Philip Cox’s northern arm), and the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, designed by Denton Corker Marshall, are almost identical: a segmented thorax of huge, squarish halls, with a head at one end and service pods attached at intervals down the length. In view of the third dimension, however, they are emphatically distinctive: voluptuous and muscular, on one hand; slim and svelte, on the other.
This is scarcely surprising. An exhibition building, 150 years on from Joseph Paxton’s vast Crystal Palace, is a seriously Big Building, and unlike Paxton’s jewel, the contemporary version is essentially a black box, or string of same. Considering how little you can do with the plan, especially on a tight contemporary site and tighter contemporary budget, the third dimension provides the architect’s main play-space. And the primary choice here is how to deal with the bigness thing – disguise it, or glorify it.
The Brisbane CEC, consciously out to diminish the great bulk of the thing on the street, articulates each segment along the street and expresses each hall beneath its own billowing roof form, ghosting Expo. Melbourne’s new Exhibition Centre, by contrast, takes every opportunity to dramatise its considerable length. The effect, however, contradicts the effort. While the Brisbane building seems strapped-in to a site that is a size too small, the other, stretched languidly along its green riverbank, is effortlessly soigne’e.
Such a comparison is less than fair, of course. The Brisbane site affords no expansion – defined as it is by three street frontages, a railway line and a hundred-year-old flood plain. And the building had to accommodate conventions, as well as exhibitions. This use adds value, functionally, but substantially increases the Centre’s bulk, both in plan and in height, since only half of its 1,600-car spaces could be stacked between ground and flood levels.
The layer of parking thus pushed above ground raised the main exhibition floor metres above street level and helps, with the solid masonry base, to give the building as a whole that contained, yeasty look, like so many iced buns, just popped out of the ground. It is by no means the standard Cox image. Not a mast or a guy-rope in sight. This difference too was requisite: it had to be not Darling Harbour, and identifiably – marketably – itself. But did Cox let this inhibit his trademark productivity to technical whizzery in the roof department? Not a whit. These roofs are something else; aluminium-clad shell-structures based on hyperbolic paraboloid geometry, which generates 3-D curves from straight-line sections. Each roof comprises two of these forms – known as hypars in the trade – split on the diagonal by a triangular-section bow-truss, giving a column-free span of 72 metres, and a structure from which a five-tonne load can be suspended at any point along the length of the hall.
As a structure, it is clever, strong and elegant – although the diagonal truss, which reads like the baker’s cut atop the loaf, makes you yearn for some light to be brought in at that point – a possibility precluded by the brief. And as a city building, especially a Queensland city building, it is handsome and confident. But the sheer size of the thing, so fully fleshed on its tight city block, has left little room for the civilising gestures such as balconies and breezeways, planting even – that would have helped disguise the bulk, cool these over-baked streets and add a splash of the tropical charm that so typified Brisbane’s public buildings of the 19th century. Ironically, it is left to Melbourne, despite its less endearing climate, to contrive seductive things with light, filtered shadow and indoor-outdoor veranda spaces. The Melbourne centre inherited an inauspicious start, having to build over the constructed beginnings of Daryl Jackson’s museum building, as prematurely extinguished by the Kennett Government. The remains are still visible, green glass boxes stacked behind the head of the new building, but have been sewn skilfully into the silk purse, in a style that makes a virtue of showing the seams.
Just as DCM’s award-winning Governor Phillip and Macquarie towers in Sydney used compositional means deliberately to separate the public podium spaces from the tower, Melbourne’s exhibition centre has a very distinct head, all heroic angles, and a long, silvery body. The head faces the street, but the body opens, via veranda, along the river bank, imparting the relaxed quality that you might have expected from Brisbane.
The veranda, with its endless, shimmering rows off angled columns, set like so many drinking straws under a gentle-bellied soffit, plays filtered light onto shifting surfaces of grey and silver, pierced by occasional sticks of bright sunlight yellow.
The halls are numbered, down the length, with raking panels of colour protruding into the space like bookmarks. Very legible, very chic. Also very cheap, with black concrete substituting for slate and stone; so that maintenance costs can at least make up for capital savings. There are even four-inch gaps above the doors – an unashamedly shed aesthetic. But none of that can diminish the spectacular presence of the single, simple roof. Viewed from above or across river, as it reflects the changing light of dawn, dusk or noon, this roof will be satisfied by no other than that dangerous and difficult epithet, beautiful.
TWO ILLUS: Workers on the roof of Brisbane Convention Centre (left) and Melbourne’s “effortlessly soigne’e” landmark.