Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
THEATRE WITHOUT A SHOW
E M Farrelly
IT’S the old design versus finance conundrum, like some thirdrate TV quiz show: what will you have, the money or the box?
Architecture has always been a matter for patronage.
With the rise of democracy, however, architects have had to consider alternative means of support – some going blatantly for the commercial jugular while others have preferred to starve in garrets, their integrity intact.
Even now, there are many architects who feel – and many who have broken themselves trying to prove – that architecture and economy are compatible. And there are times, no doubt, when that is so.
Generally, however, it has become clear that a choice must be made and a balance struck: that architecture, being largely a product of thought (that is, time), does cost money. And that where money is paramount, architecture, like the other arts, doesn’t have a show.
Nowhere is this more evident than in recent episodes of the long-running Capitol Theatre saga.
Although the Capitol’s value is mainly sentimental rather than architectural, its refurbishment had been discussed by Sydney City Council for some years.
According to the council’s own study, however, the projected cost is $65 million, making it an expensive piece of nostalgia. What self-respecting developer would touch it?
Two extra parcels of land, flanking the theatre and contributing a George Street frontage and address, were therefore included in the package as bait. In this way, it was hoped the great decaying but dollar-hungry white elephant would be rendered miraculously self-supporting, without having to be sold.
Tenderers were invited to submit a combined design/finance package, with alternative financial offers based on assumptions that the theatre would be controlled (a) by the developer or (b) by the council.
It was suggested that “non-conforming” offers would be given serious consideration.
On the face of it, this might seem a laudable way of proceeding. What would be more natural than for a land- owner to invite physical proposals for his holding, combined with estimates of how the moneys stacked up?
And surely it was tolerant and wise to keep an open mind to any possible flashes of non-conforming financial genius?
In fact, however, it was tantamount to holding a yacht race where the rules and variables are continually negotiable; and the results are as incomparable as a trimaran and a monohull recently proved to be.
Of the four developer-architect teams, three – Capital Land (with Hely &Horne, Stuart & Perry Architects), Essington Developments (with Jones Brewster Regan Architects) and Bond Properties (with Travis Partners and Lawrence Nield Architects) – capitalised on the George Street frontage, proposing office towers of 30-odd storeys.
These towers, vaingloriously topped by proclamatory neon lighthouses and Olympic flames, contrasted with the other scheme (designed for Ipoh Garden by Peddle Thorp & Walker), which had no George Street development to speak of and only a pudgy little 14-storey nouveau-French hotel on Pitt Street.
But appearances are often misleading, and neither the Ipoh Garden nor the Essington drawings showed the other half of the story.
Planning restrictions on the site specify a maximum floor space ratio (FSR)of 12.5:1 (allowing a gross floor area of 12.5 times the site area).
None of the submissions achieved the 12.5, although Capital and Bond came close.
The other two, from Ipoh and Essington, proposed a “non-conforming”alternative – transferable FSR.
The idea is that FSR that is not used on one site can be transferred to other parts of the city, adding development potential to the FSR already allowable there.
This may appear reasonable. It does, after all, make the conservation of heritage buildings in situ possible – and even attractive – by not demanding that developers make the concomitant sacrifice of precious development potential.
In this case, the assumption of transferable FSR allowed Ipoh and Essington to seem to underdevelop the site, stepping with some care around the heritage buildings.
It could only work, however, on the understanding that either the developer would be paid a substantial subsidy or the surplus FSR would be put at the developer’s disposal.
This left the council in something of a bind – wanting to choose a”sensitive” scheme for the Capitol, but neither being prepared to pay the massive subsidies involved nor inclined to set a precedent for transferable FSR on council-owned property.
The council’s reluctance to embrace the transferable FSR principle is based in part on what the Lord Mayor, Alderman Jeremy Bingham, described as the”enormous planning consequences” it would have for the city.
In Essington’s case, it would mean 29,000 square metres (roughly a 14storey building) of hypothetical floor area for sale on the open market; and in Ipoh’s case nearly twice that area transferred to World Square and other Ipoh sites in the city.
In either case, the extra FSR, at $2,000 a square metre, represents a tidy sum ($58 million for Essington).
From the developer’s point of view, it makes the package feasible.
But what about the city? Neither proposal shows the other half of the urban design package – the other 14- or 24-storey building. Where will it go, and how will it affect the city? Transferred FSR, being abstract, is easily dismissed as somehow non-existent.
It threatens to make a mockery of Sydney’s already immensely elastic planning laws, emphasising the primacy of the dollar as the determinant of city form, and driving considerations of scale and livability even further down the ladder of importance.
Perhaps this should be regarded as an inevitable manifestation of our deregulating times.
And perhaps, anyway, there is little to choose between the 30-storey city and the 100-storey city.
But if that is the case, it should be admitted and written into the rules.
Development competitions should be held as straight financial tenders, making no pretence that urban ideas have any real sway, and idea competitions should be clearly that: a search for vivid or brilliant ideas.
In fact, none of the proposals for the Capitol is architecturally outstanding.
The Bond scheme possesses that rarest of commodities, a gracious plan; and the Ipoh proposal, with its colonnaded court, makes some generous gestures.
But the way the competition was couched – stretching its own rules and forcing unnatural wedlock between architecture and money – puts architecture well beside the point.
Good architecture may make money. Unlike most of the serious arts, it may even save money. But that is not, and cannot be, its primary goal, nor what makes it good.
Sydney needs a large lyric theatre. That much is agreed. The crucial question is, as always, who will pay? Traditionally, in democracies, it has been the public purse; to expect developers, in the absence of the political and education system that supported patronage and made it necessary, to suddenly play this role is both unfair and unrealistic.
The Capitol’s fate still hangs in the balance. Even when the council’s choice is made, the Central Sydney Planning Committee (on which aldermen are now a minority) may or may not approve it. Before then the road is even stonier.
No-one is saying what the council will do when conflict arises between the most favourable financial bid and the most desirable architectural proposal.
But it seems unlikely that architecture will be the winner.
Illus: The Capitol Theatre … who will pay to restore such an expensive piece of nostalgia