Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Architects shed blood for modest returns
IN a few years the great capital city casino epidemic sweeping our land will prove to be like Sunday shopping; we’ll look back and wonder if things were ever any different. Now, though, the spread and the prognosis remain unknown. Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra fell first, followed most recently by Sydney, whose new temporary casino has been designed by Philip Cox Richardson Taylor, architects, and installed at a cost of some $43 million in Pyrmont’s Pier 13. Such an investment, only 2« years ahead of the big one, indicates the scale of profits expected by both the Government and the operator.
How might an architect go about putting form around this curious human taste for cards and wheels and dice?
This is an activity involving the ritual but voluntary immersion in smoke-filled half-light of 4,000 to 5,000 near-silent gloomdwellers and their garrulous machines. What type or style of building could either enhance such an experience or declare its presence to the world outside? Most abandon architecture at this point, and settle for a whopping great sign: CASINO.
There are miles of precedent, from Las Vegas on. For those who believe that permanence is essential to architecture, this presents a problem, since the Vegas model deals unashamedly in fiction. The sham and the sequins are the substance; what’s behind just doesn’t matter. Let’s face it, even the sequins don’t matter much: the acrobats at the casino Circus Circus are ignored by the punters, who could be licked by eternal fires and not falter from play.
This sort of thing throws architecture’s authenticity camp into a tizz. How to produce real architecture around an industry that patently doesn’t give a damn? Philadelphia architect and theorist Robert Venturi, who 30 years ago brought postmodernism to architecture (or vice versa), framed this as the “duck” versus the “decorated shed”.
In Venturi’s formulation, long since absorbed into architectural argot, “ducks” are those buildings where form follows function skin-tight, revealing all. Decorated sheds, by contrast, are the ultimate in loose-fit, go-anywhere tailoring: change the cosmetics, and you have a whole new architecture.
Of Australia’s casinos, Perth’s is a duck, for all its tailfeather ostentation. Sydney and Melbourne, in the interim at least, are definitive decorated sheds.
Melbourne’s temp, across the water from where the new casino is being nursed and hammered into shape by a dozen working cranes, doesn’t have an outside. Or a front door, for that matter. The entry portal and bridge signify one’s forfeiture of daylight, with nary a glimpse before the deserted non-smoking room at the far, far end of the beast.
History will decide whether Melbourne is really more cultivated than Sydney, or just more pretentious. Melbourne does better clothes, better footpaths, and better talk – probably. But when it comes to casino interiors, Melbourne is way down.
In design terms Sydney’s fledgling casino is a step up from there. This in itself represents an avalanche of tiny triumphs. Every table leg, bar fitting, wall hanging that is not direst repro has been paid for in architects’ blood, and the theming, mercifully, is subtle to the point of recessiveness. We have art – Clifford Firth’s pretty, mercurial capitals and Peter Cole’s scudding geometries, of which it would be nice to have more and bigger, respectively. And above all, we have light. The sea glitters in through venetians. Very Sydney, this gorgeousness of sea and gluttony.
So the site. Sydney has the glitter, Melbourne has – well, the Yarra. One to Sydney. But the manner of treatment? Melbourne tucks its temporary casino out of harm’s way, in an existing unlovely complex.
Sydney, on the other hand, shows no such wisdom. For reasons which remain shrouded in rumour, Sydney’s casino, temporary and permanent, will not enliven the great Hickson Road wastes along the city side of Darling Harbour. But the temporary casino is at this moment settling its giant footprint into Pyrmont, a supposedly small-scale mixed-use residential precinct.
Already the casino’s 3,000 employees dominate Pyrmont’s infant residential market. Traffic from the 5,000 opening night guests – only half the building’s capacity – paralysed residential streets. And we have yet to see how many of the pawn and porn shops that dwell like buffalo birds on the backs of great casinos will find a perch in Pyrmont, despite the Government’s proposed prohibition.
With the Better Cities program, $117 million has been poured into this peninsula from the Federal Government and about the same from the State; but will a huge casino make Pyrmont a better model suburb for the ’90s?
Ian Hicks forwarded letter from Peter Cox and Hank Abernathy stating that the Temporary Casino and the Permanent Casino were both designed by Cox/Hillier, a joint venture of Philip Cox Richardson Taylor & Partners and The Hillier Group from the