Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Customs House: no ‘potpourri of novelty shops’
By ELIZABETH FARRELLY Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney City councillor and architect.
THE change of government has renewed debate over the Customs House, revisiting year-old decisions – in particular, the single- or mixed-use question.
Of all Customs House proposals to date, however, only two have been genuinely single-use: a hotel, and a recital hall.
A hotel, to be viable, would need a tower behind, using the existing building as an atrium to house conventions, exhibitions, restaurants. This might work well but would certainly put council’s deal with the Commonwealth, requiring 70 per cent public use, back in the Prime Minister’s in tray.
The recital hall option has been much more thoroughly scrutinised – and rejected by all council’s advisers as capital-hungry, heritage unfriendly and irredeemably B-grade. Sydney needs a 1,200-seat recital hall, but an abandoned government office building with a capacity no greater than Brisbane’s new 700-seat (purpose-built) hall is not the place for it.
There are two different hall shapes proposed – one traditional “shoebox”, one “in the round”.
The shoebox demolishes large parts of the building’s high-heritage (sandstone) parts; the hall “in the round” ditches age-old acoustic principles, essential to Leipzig’s Gewandhaus, for instance, and to Melbourne’s and Brisbane’s recital halls. It also gives 20 per cent of the seats no view of the centre stage.
If making do is all we aspire to, there is already the Verbrugghen at the Con. Musica Viva reject the Verbrugghen on the grounds of railway noise, but a Customs House hall would be subject to similar vibes from the inevitable undergrounding of the Quay railway.
A Customs House recital hall, then, is a seriously high-risk option requiring increased capital outlay and ongoing subsidy. Is the State Government proposing to underwrite it?
The Sydney City Council’s chosen proposal – repeatedly endorsed by both State and Federal Governments – springs from the building’s location. The Quay has some great individual attractions but there is no keystone to hold it together as a real cultural gateway. Customs House will have performance venues, galleries, shops and restaurants; a best practice showcase, open day and night, seven days a week, accessible to all. And it will be financially self-sufficient.
Specifically, interested entrepreneurs include Melbourne’s famous Mietta’s, which combines fine food with performance, and Andrew Felke of Red Ochre. The National Museum of Australia will mount exhibitions. The tourism industry is being encouraged to mount a first-rate cultural expo.
This is no “potpourri of novelty shops”, in the Premier’s much-quoted words. Only a genuine imagination vacuum reduces craft to macrame and bric-a-brac or tourism to T-shirt shops. But even highbrow cultural institutions rely on shops and restaurants today – why shouldn’t Customs House?
Admittedly, there is a nomenclature problem but this is strictly transitory. No-one calls the QVB a “shopping centre” now. Once Customs House is full of light and life, it will simply be known as Customs House. If we must have precedents, Paris’s Pompidou Centre is one – a single building combining cultural uses with immense panache.
So, the furs-and-diamonds imagery makes a recital hall more PR-able. Surely, in real life, a 24-hour all-in cultural expo at the Quay has got the edge on an expensive black box where the well-heeled nod off during the second movement of The Trout?