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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 28-Oct-1997

Edition: Late

Section: News And Features

Subsection: Arts

Page: 15

Wordcount: 1700

Chifley gets a nip and tuck



AS house symbolises self, so the city is said to manifest a society’s world view, like some great collective work of art. What does it say about us, then, that Sydney’s “squares” – Whitlam, Railway, Queen, Chifley – are by and large unglorified road junctions, distinguished not by serenity or sense of place but by the endless snarl of cross-town traffic? Nothing flattering, betcha.

Whitlam and the rest may be past help. But now, 35 years on, Chifley at least is getting the treatment. Not only has his semicircular square undergone a no-nonsense nip-and-tuck but the great man himself has materialised at its centre, typically pipe-in-hand andcrumple-suited, in one of the few and finest pieces of figurative statuary to grace our streets for decades.

The square itself, unfriendly and unusable for so long, looks like taking a spot as one of the city’s best civic spaces: simple, strong and an excellent place for a party, as yesterday’s ceremonial unveiling demonstrated.

The abrupt end of Elizabeth Street at Hunter was always thrombotic and the idea of extending Elizabeth through to Bent had been around for a hundred years by the time it finally hit the city council drawing boards in the early 1950s. The Commonwealth had started buying up Phillip Street development sites in 1922 but it wasn’t until city engineer Robert Garnsey returned from his overseas trip in 1949, fired with near-spiritual enthusiasm for cloverleaf junctions and traffic efficiency, that things really started to move.

Mooted design solutions over the years had included a tunnel to the Quay (1908 Royal Commission) but Garnsey’s answer was a gentle semicircle joining Phillip and Elizabeth, and shaped to ease tram cornering. Ironically, by the time the “square” was named in 1961, Commissioner Shoebridge’s relentless removal of Sydney’s trams was all but complete.

Qantas House, by Rudder, Littlemore and Rudder 1957, was the first building on the new arc. Despite its unceremonious 1992 deletion from the city’s heritage list, Qantas House is even now a much-admired relic of the curtain-wall era, hugging Garnsey’s curve with its smooth, glass-green facade.

Qantas – along with the ANU, the CSIRO, the Commonwealth Bank, large-scale multi-ethnic immigration and the Snowy River Scheme – was a Chifley baby. So, with Qantas on one side and the Commonwealth building on the other, the new Elizabeth Street square may have seemed an obvious spot for posthumous commemoration of Chifley’s remarkable achievements.

It is also just possible – and here I speculate – that the fact of a then Labor-dominated city and State (by Lord Mayor Harry Jensen and Premier Robert Heffron, respectively), 10 years after Chifley’s death and 12 after his defeat, belies some up-Menzies politics in there as well. Haven’t devoted many of our best traffic islands to Sir Robert, have we?

GARNSEY’S design showed a symmetrical, semicircular road pattern, a Beaux Arts wannabe. But pragmatic Sydney scarcely favours such civic gestures and Chifley’s square, falling perennially short of formal clarity, always had some difficulty coming across as more than a curious blip in Sydney’s notoriously idiosyncratic street system.

The eastern quarter-circle was paved over and the Commonwealth building offered blithely ignored the geometry of the public space. Natch. The square was unblessed by sun and bedevilled by wind and Bob Woodward’s magnificent Endeavour Fountain was eventually disconnected after complaints about wind-blown water.

Eventually, in 1993, the Commonwealth’s stalwart was replaced by the New York-designed Bond Building (now Chifley Tower – wouldn’t that roll him over?) Contextualism was in vogue and although the Bond Building tower eschewed Garnsey’s geometry, its podium positively embraced the arc, even to the point of commandeering the entire quarter-circle as a private forecourt, buried under an extravagant convulsion of shrubs and multi-level planters.

The sheer cost of the building was, however, a sideways blessing. Of its contribution to public space, a further $1 million was earmarked for a central rotunda, or similar, but there was no agreement as to design. Competitions were held but the entries were unconvincing. It became clear that the problem was bigger than the single central object: the space itself lacked unity, coherence, a sense of welcome.

Eventually the City decided to simplify. (And yes, I was involved at the time, but it’s still a good idea). Remove clutter, reinstate a single, lower level, provide wind protection and carve out a wall to sit against in the sun. Basic, but essential.

Even so, a design strategy for unifying this uncomfortably bifurcated space proved elusive. Idea after idea was tried: trees and totems, presences and absences, the unifying ring and the focal object. Nothing sat up and begged to be taken home.

It was Tim Williams, a young council architect recently returned from Paris, who had the next good idea. His proposal was to abandon the radial geometry in favour of a unifying Cartesian grid of gangly, mop-headed cabbage palms. The whole semicircular area would drop to a single plane at Phillip Street level, with a splinter of a cafe lodged in the level change.

This provided the conceptual base, but the proof of an idea is in the realisation. Enter architect Ken Maher and sculptor Simeon Nelson. In order to get the grid working, with even one full line of trees on the Qantas side of the square (and one down the median,) Maher’s team had to skew the grid and realign the road. Thereon it was a question of refining the detail, designing the cafe, and finding a plausible answer to the vexed question of public art in a godless century.

Maher’s response to detail has been to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) and keep kissing. The benches are of unfinished recycled hardwood, with stainless knobs to foil skateboarders: tree-beds are gravel-finished, avoiding fancy grates, and the cafe itself is a carefully understated composition in greys and silvers: granite, matte zinc and glass.

In pursuit of unity, Maher’s design constantly stresses the “horizontal” (east-west) linearity of the whole. Seat design and placement, paving patterns (that fabulous Melbourne bluestone inlaid with strips of Australverde granite), the cafe and Chifley himself, all lie crab-wise along the axis.

Williams’s concept had placed the cafe within the water feature, allowing takers of tea to dally aÅ deux under a waterfall, so to speak. Maher, acknowledging the romance of such a stratagem but preferring to enhance links between inside and out, has reconfigured the idea into a simple folded-plane roof which hovers above Hunter Street, bringing in high southlight.

The cafe’s back wall, wrapped in milk-glass, has been fattened to accommodate kitchen, furniture stores and lavatories, with the body of the cafe compressed against it to maximise public space. Locked thus to its rock, the cafe opens like a great glass oyster to sun and square.

The simplicity thing is not just a cost-saving device, although it has that side-benefit. It also reflects Maher’s response to the status of the square. Chifley, for all the achievements of the man, is no major ceremonial space, but an incidental one, a discoverable, locked by history into the crazed pattern of our streets. Opulence would be out of place, reasoned Maher. Such a place demands serenity, not flash.

And you can see his point. For my taste, though, a little gleam would be welcome, especially in downtown’s secret spaces. There is a danger – exacerbated only by the shameless ostentation of the Chifley retail emporium – of sophisticated understatement becoming indistinguishable from dour public Calvinism. Much will depend on the ongoing enthusiasm of the cleaners and scrubbers but, assuming they do their stuff, the Williams/Maher/Nelson job on Chifley, and a Stan Sarris-run cafe, will generate a hub of much-needed vitality at this end of town, and a proud piece of design, to boot.

THE Williams water feature has become a skeletal glass matrix, one of two new works by Simeon Nelson, extruding the cafe wall to the west and creating the illusion of a limitless view into the interior. Nelson has titled the work Crucimatrilux, a pig-Latin play on the ideas of cross, matrix and light, together with the generative maternal principle.

Whether observers will avail themselves of such meanings, or rest content with the rainbow refractions of city form within, remains to be seen. Open to the sky and apparently unprotected, however, you can be sure that this naked construction will issue a further challenge to the City’s maintenance department.

The Legendary Labor Leader, modest to a fault, takes his place nearby as just another tree in the grid. A seven metre-high steel sandwich, held apart/together/up by a neat zig-zag truss, the work has Chifley’s unmistakable delineations channelled through each stainless plate. Sustaining a Churchillian attachment to smoking materials, Chifley cradles his pipe and beams that crinkled, light-on-the-hill smile down the ages.

Contemporary statues are rare. Like Trevor Weekes’s wonderful Macquarie in Governor Macquarie Tower, Nelson’s Chifley is both figurative and abstract, fearlessly representational but at least as concerned with the idea as the mere pictorial fact of commemoration. Unlike Macquarie, though, Chifley stands in public. Maybe it’s time for a few more public persons in public places, leavening last century’s obsession with explorers, colonists and foreign monarchs. If nothing else, such works demonstrate that the statue as a genre is neither dead nor brain-dead.

The new Chifley could have been taller still. So far, at seven metres, he holds his own among the crowd of lollipop Livistonas, but as they grow, and they will, the power relationship may change. One up for Menzies after all, perhaps?


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