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Pubdate: 22-Jul-1997

Edition: Late


Subsection: ARTS

Page: 13

Wordcount: 1360

Where gilt is a four-letter word



A SIGN near the entrance sternly forbids the abandonment of children while gambling; others counsel addiction therapy for incorrigibles. With some effort you might even see the entire confection as a voluntary tax depot, a sort of blood bank really, where (for a small fee) your spare cash can be painlessly redeployed to benefit the Government or other charitable institution. Possibly Crown itself.

Thus, in a spin of the wheel, the moral questions are tucked in tight and sent to the sandman. So there’s no need to agonise over any symbolism inherent in the fact that this, Melbourne’s $2 billion Crown casino, is Australia’s biggest building project after Federal Parliament House. Here, on Melbourne’s Southbank, in a sumptuous pleasure palace described by Premier Jeff Kennett as the “new spirit of Victoria”, gilt is definitely the four-letter variety.

No shortage of it either. From the Gucci east end of this hedonists’ half-kilometre to its distinctly plebeian west, gold is the unifying theme. Gold columns, doors, lights, spandrels, balustrades and handrails at one end, gold-coin carpet, wallcoverings and, uh, pendant artwork at the other; gold-anodised panels encrust the outside, gold-leaf ceilings within. If nothing else, it proves there is such a thing as enough.

The architects for this gorgeous mammonite temple (and theme or no theme, it would be vulgar to calculate the consultants’ percentage on $2,000 million) were a triumvirate of local firms, Daryl Jackson, Bates Smart McCutcheon and Perrott Lyon Matheson. Each had bid for the project and was asked by Crown to join the winning team, known henceforth as AIA, Architects in Association.

Well-known architects are not usually famed for their malleability of ego, but this was a monster of a bone with meat for all and plenty of chew-points, and the merger seems to have worked tolerably well. Four-and-a-half years and tens of thousands of drawings later, the product, for all its glitz and glare, is probably the kind of casino to have, if you absolutely must have one.

Unlike Sydney’s new casino, squatting fatly cuckoo-like on the fabric of old Pyrmont, or Perth’s, which stands in splendid isolation from its host city, Melbourne’s is shaped and sited to contribute to the place. The colonisation of Melbourne’s Southbank begun all those years ago by the VAC, was dramatically furthered by the recent Southgate development, with its conspicuously civilised riverfront promenade. Already the sheer urbanity of this gesture had put Sydney on notice. And the new Crown, with its glittering lineup of 35 restaurants, 17 bars and 6,500 square metres of designer retail, completes the exercise, finally persuading the city’s centre southward to embrace that great, grey-green, greasy, long-neglected Yarra.

This is no small achievement, however obvious it may look as a strategy. The traditional casino is neither urbane nor contributory but, like that most godforsaken of genres, the modern shopping centre, works on the black box principle. This, while dependent on the transforming magic of the interior, needs no outside at all – a spot of neon and sequinned billboard if you’re lucky. Which is why Vegas-the-town exists only after dark.

It’s a leftover puritan thing, in a way, based on the idea that to sin behind a wall is OK. But, just as we now accept that the local footpath cafe may serve an occasional frascati without finally extinguishing the nuclear family, Melbourne’s Crown challenges the concealment mentality. To challenge is not to repudiate, and the black box is still in place, but it’s no longer impervious.

In issuing this challenge, the AIA and their Crown clients were at once abetted and inhibited by Government constraints. Inhibited by the existing casino legislation, 50 years old and requiring the shameful activities to be shut away as tradition required. But abetted by imposed urban design rules which required the extension of the Southbank promenade, the provision of active uses along it, and a degree of permeability for the whole. Something had to give. Mercifully, it was the former. This generative frisson produced a comparatively low building strung out along the water’s edge, with the gambling-hall guts of the establishment fronted along its 500-metre entirety by a lively shopping-and-eating strip, pierced horizontally by the elevated King Street and vertically by the ellipsoidal high-rise hotel, Crown Towers.

At first glance this general configuration may seem similar to the Sydney Harbour Casino, due for completion later this year. Both buildings sit on derelict industrial land across water from the existing downtown, gazing back at it from a seriously well-leathered vantage point, with Sydney’s Casino threaded onto the new light rail track much as Melbourne’s straddles the roadway. But, thereafter, the two stories differ.

Where Melbourne’s casino was carefully moulded to fill an otherwise unfillable gap in the city’s long-term plan, Sydney’s was dropped amidst an existing residential redevelopment by ad hoc political expedience, the plan being amended retroactively to

fit. Where Melbourne’s elegant hotel is concentrated into a single, slender tower, Sydney’s, contrary to the Government’s “viewsharing” rhetoric, forms a mammoth view-hogger, Bondi Junction-style, greedily plugging the last view-hole in the built wall that now separates the peninsula from Darling Harbour. Where Melbourne’s casino enlivens the waterfront with urban activity, Sydney’s sits well back, commanding the bay rather than participating in it. Where Melbourne’s offers a chic waterside street of shopping and imbiberies, New York-style, Sydney’s owes more to West Coast eclecticism, monumentalising itself by spreading grass and parkland all around.

Inside, they’re all much the same. Casino still spells casino, and there’s no disguising the fact that a casino is about as sophisticated as a Saturday night in Kings Cross. Within Melbourne’s vast concatenation of interiors there is some jaw-dropping opulence (the huge black marble stair, the chandeliers and waterfalls, the lasers and light shows and artificial fog all choreographed and techno-whizzed by the ex-Star Wars chaps) as well as some downright trash. Throughout, though, is the occasional redeeming encounter with the outside. Sunshine, on a good day. This in itself is startling. And while the wowser might argue psychological damage from child-glimpsed darkened gaming tables during an innocent riverside lunch, any regular three-year-old would go for the outside, easy. And, although the numbers are against us, I’m with the kid. Out there with the water and the light are some fine, strong architecture, acres of Melbourne’s definitive, enviable bluestone paving and a collection of the most engaging waterworks you could hope to see.

The first job of any building half-a-kilometre long is to avoid becoming club bore, on and on and on. Opposing this, though, was the need to give coherence to this new waterside “street”. AIA’s solution to this conundrum has something to teach Sydney too in the way it uses a limited palette of materials – sandstone panels, black granite, stainless steel, opaque glass and gold-anodised aluminium, after Corrigan’s RMIT building – to express both variety and unity, dignity and playfulness, high-mindedness and popular appeal. The baubles and gimcracks, essential to the showbiz quality of the joint, are integrated enough, and ironic enough, to enrich the architecture rather than impoverishing it.

The building’s long river frontage is more successful than either end in this regard. At the east end, the very effective curve on the hotel entrance is diminished both by the excess of the interior and the Alexanderplatz-circa-1975 quality of streetscape at that point, while the western (Planet Hollywood) end dissolves into outright trashiness. The glued-on quality of the show stuff at this point is only highlighted by Denton Corker Marshall’s Melbourne Exhibition Centre across the road, combining the haute and the popular with exuberant, indivisible style.

And then there’s the fountains. Designed by WET, a team of ex-Disney engineers out of LA, the fountains are not designated art and are therefore relieved of the burden of meaning, but people of all types and conditions make time just to sit and consider. The works are not well named, but they are a delight to behold. Revelry sends joyous eruptions of water randomly from unsuspecting pavement holes two metres into the sky, as if expressing some subterranean thermal activity, while the eight “brigades” which stand guard up and down the riverbank as water-clad obelisks during the day, transform by night into fabulous fire-breathers, sending great balls of natural gas burning to the heavens. Not surprising, then, that Melbourne’s Southbank promenade, a wasteland five years ago, now streams with humans day and night. There may be a downside: 3,300 new restaurant seats is a lot to add to any city in one hit, and the effect on Lygon Street, South Yarra and the existing Southgate development, already looking saddish, remains to be seen. But as a mix of civilisation and sheer spectacle, this is going to be something for Sydney to beat.


Illus: Melbourne’s Southbank … as a mix of civilisation and sheer spectacle, this is going to be something for Sydney to beat.


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