Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Architect can rest on his aurals
If architecture is indeed frozen music, then the new Con is a symphony, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Architects are visual types. They eat, blink, breathe visual images. And though the best designers can’t always manage a full sentence their sense of style is unmistakable. From the slick to the crumpled spun stainless to recycled ironbark, bow-tie to collarless black, Saab convertible to pre-Cambrian Citroen architects are helplessly, hopelessly, congenitally visual. For many, that’s what all architecture is about, making it look good.
Imagine your shock, then, as a member of this guild, to be given a brief dominated by another sense, the aural. This is the story of the Con, aka Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Sydney Conserv-atorium High School. Architects may comfort themselves with the thought that, as someone said, architecture is frozen music. But designing a building around the real stuff changes the shape of things. Suddenly what matters most is not sunlight on surface or other visual quiddities but acoustic ephemera like reverberation time, timbre, sonic richness. Stuff that is not only indefinable but, worse, unphotographable. Does it exist?
Well yes, this stuff exists. And has helped shape a music school that rates, according to those involved, with the world’s best. Sure, you might think, they would say that. And most of the rest of us, the aurally sub-expert, will have to wait for posterity’s word on it. In the meantime my advice is: go have a listen, have a look.
Because for all its acoustic finesse, and despite the fact that it’s largely underground, this is not one of those blind-mole buildings, snuffling along with airy disregard for mundane issues of light and form. Even on the inside, acoustic exigencies have been enriched by other performance needs visual, social and ritual.
In degree of difficulty alone, this project ranks high. Compare, for example, the common-or-garden Great Australian House (one architect, one client, one consent authority) which always features strongly in annual awards. The Con, by contrast, has a string of institutional clients to satisfy (the Conservatorium itself, the high school, the university, the State, the Botanic Gardens, the students); dozens of stakeholders, lobby groups and consent authorities (State Rail, National Trust, City Council, Heritage Council, Central Sydney Planning Committee) and at least four significant architectural players. Just for now.
The architectural story goes like this. The Con was established in the old Greenway stables in 1915. Greenway’s 1816 building was itself an exercise in poor man’s Gothic, an outhouse for horses and servants, in unrendered brick with mainly blind windows. Mindful no doubt of Macquarie’s budget, Greenway gave it just enough of a gothic look (the only true openings were in the turrets) to create a plausibly gardenesque impression.
In his Con-version, a century later, Government Architect Seymour Wells stuffed a cheap’n’cheerful performance space into Greenway’s courtyard and called it Verbrugghen Hall after the institution’s first director. It continued to grow. By the time the Con had so outgrown its home as to focus government attention, the complex was unintelligible, uninhabitable and damply unendearing. Something had to be done.
In 1995 the new Carr administration examined 11 options which included the Greenway (with and without the Chief Secretary’s building across Macquarie Street), Walsh Bay, Woolloomooloo finger wharf and the Government Printing Office in Pyrmont. Volumes later, a 1997 report found in favour of the Greenway, solo.
That’s when it started to get complicated. Professor Sharman Pretty, principal, was determined to extract more than a silk purse from the sow’s ear she had inherited. Based on this, Government Architect Chris Johnson held a series of workshops involving various players. Paris-based adaptive-reuse expert Philippe Robert was in town at the time, working on Walsh Bay. At Johnson’s invitation Robert sketched an idea. It showed a new building, terraced into the gardens behind the Greenway, with the Verbrugghen dug into the rock on its current site keeping the “heritage ceiling” intact and a great glass roof over the lot.
This became the project’s generative diagram. Getting it up, though, was never going to be easy. Clouds of angst billowed like white ants around the project site. There was unhappiness about the impact on the gardens, on the Greenway and, when they finally started to dig, on the fossil drains crisscrossing the site below ground. Robert’s initial sketch was amended to keep the Verbrugghen in place, lower the new building to require only a slight raising of the gardens terrace, and reduce the glass roof to embrace but not dominate the Greenway. But the principle a two-level underground horseshoe linked to the Greenway by a glazed foyer remained intact.
Fortunately for all, Pretty had done her homework and, foiling the inanities of the government tendering process, contrived to play old-fashioned patron. Her first move, when funding was approved in 1997, was to scour the world for useful models. (There were none, but an eclectic approach served her well.) Second move was to get the “world’s best acousticians” Chicago-based Kirkegaard & Associates on board. Pretty also had a strong preference for Daryl Jackson, having taught as a young thing in the Jackson-designed Canberra School of Music in the ’70s. She got what she wanted, and when she got it, it was still what she wanted.
So three other architects were now involved the Government Architect, in association with Daryl Jackson Robin Dyke (DJRD) and Kirkegaard, acoustic consultants. But the reality is both simpler and more complex. Larry Kirke-gaard is an architect and musician with a large international practice specialising in performance spaces. His projects include the Ricardo Bofill-designed Music School at Rice University, Houston; the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall in London; the Beijing Opera; the Juilliard School and Carnegie Hall, New York. What he does is help design spaces for performance. What he doesn’t do is “just” the acoustics.
And the building, the product? This is where things get, well, visual. In fact, it looks terrific. The great, gangly, asymmetrical foyer, shaped by accident as well as design, is the heart, hearth and hub of both building and institution. Splitting the dressed-stone escarpment that leads you into the building from its answering rough-hewn cliff (on which the Greenway now sits), the foyer holds new and old in exquisite dramatic tension.
A surprise part of the excitement is the main-stair descent into the rift, proceeding from overview to detail like a privileged inspector of Mother Earth. But the alternative journey along the fringing galleries is just as rewarding, past consciously-contrived practice room sound-slots that give an effect like louvred light a flash of lugubrious sax, jazz piano, Beethoven violin. No question what this place is for. Music is everywhere.
And it’s full of humans. Chatting, coffeeing, kissing students are no different with trumpets or double basses attached. What’s clever, though, is the way a sense of occasion, quite up to evening opera, cohabits easily with the down-dressed student feel.
The facilities are fabulous a jazz basement (smokeless), three performance/rehearsal rooms instead of one, 70 practice rooms instead of four, offices instead of laps. And a real, working library. For the visitor, though, the excitement lives in the feel of the place. From the start, Kirkegaard felt strongly that “music is about fresh air and sunlight. It’s life-enhancing, not meant to be buried underground”.
Probably the building’s weakest moment visually and nasally comes at the front door, where the loading dock has been left stranded by a receding budget. Not really a good look, but nothing a spot of adept time management couldn’t fix.
And heritage? In the end, the ancient drains and rough stone cistern, cut from the rock and replaced, enrich the place immeasurably. The Botanic Gardens have a new, improved grasses display, and the Green-way, despite fears, lives again. Dressed now, and in its right mind after dishevelled decades, it positively radiates satisfaction. The WWI additions are dark, disting-uishing clearly from the newly rendered Greenway, and the cupolas gleam. The Verbrugghen remains, its sacred ceiling visually intact but transparent now to sound, so the thing actually does its job, first time ever.
Whether it was the right decision to keep the Con downtown depends on your opinion of cities, music, gardens, archaeology and heritage. My own view is that the way it puts students in the streets, music in the air, light in the earth, energy in the Greenway and archaeology in that enchanted public space is worth every penny. It could so easily have been just another Sydney con game.
ILLUS: No con job …
the new Conservatorium of Music, main photo and left, and a view from the interior, above.
Main photo and above: James Alcock