Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Public joy at private expense
A tale of two city developments … civic responsiveness versus bare pragmatism at Darling Harbour.
RESISTING the future-gurus’ conspiracy which would have us all electronically couch-bound by the wee hours of the new millennium – working, shopping, banking, socialising, studying, voting strictly through the benign auspices of our at-home interactive media – two new developments on the city side of Darling Harbour struggle valiantly to keep some small distance between the human and the screen.
Darling Park Stage II, under construction on Sussex Street, redoubles the efforts of its predecessor to retail-enhance the common or garden office experience. Just down the street, Darling Walk (aka Sega World) uses the narcotic effects of theming to heighten the standard retail sensation, or possibly vice versa.
But there the similarity ends. For while Darling Park leaves no stop unpulled in its efforts to render an essentially serious use person-friendly on all sides (including the inside), Darling Walk is uniformly frivolous and strictly monovalent: clown-bright on its harbour front but
shamelessly offering the city its broad and unlovely rear end.
Not that it’s altruism driving the tall building’s bonhomie. Far from it. Just the difference between enlightened self interest and the other sort. And a determination to prove that no site, however freeway-beleaguered, is exempt from the core architectural obligation to welcome and dignify the bare forked animal.
Darling Park I, if you remember, was Where Seidler Stormed Out, constructio-interruptus circa 1991, leaving American architect Eric Kuhne to bring the tower safely to the ground and flossy up its footprint.
In this manner, messy but effective, client Lend Lease acquired what was arguably the best of both worlds; a regular Seidler tower (not his most distinguished) with a postmodern East Coast base. And Darling Park I became the first tower in town to host a small but genuine gaggle of retail in its public parts, including two splendid cafes – welcome indeed in the desert that was Sussex Street.
This was no accident. Kuhne’s simple brief was to differentiate office from “public” space on the basis that even corporate types should be classed as public when out-of-office. This sounds obvious, but leads on the ground to a small revolution in design thinking. The office lobby abandons its familiar corporate cool and emulates the friendlier, more permeable front-of-house patterns of the standard five-star hotel.
Whenceforth the office lobby is expected to be seriously street-friendly, and actively to proffer services and amenities of all kinds. Not before time.
To this end, Darling Park I made genuine attempts to enliven the street front, to civilise the unavoidable vehicle entries onto Sussex Street and to offer public amenity including leafy Brolga Terrace and the footbridge connection to old Pyrmont Bridge, with lifts for wheeled persons. More endearing still was the generous forecourt-wide deployment of class materials, squashy furniture and coffee tables, free for the sitting. Just like a proper public space, only comfortable.
Darling Park II extends the same thinking over one of Sydney’s most impossible sites, sliced by half a dozen expressways. A second office tower on Sussex Street links to the existing forecourt building; a luxuriant 0.3 hectare garden spans two expressways, while alongside Darling Harbour, beyond yet another skein of roaring linguini, sits a four-storey outrigger building layered, in true Darling Harbour tradition, with hedonism of one kind and another.
A third, possibly residential tower, half the size of the other two and set delicately betwixt motorways, will constitute Stage III, if and when.
Architecturally, it’s good but not heartstopping. The towers themselves will be more of the same, and the low harbourside building is essentially an extruded section of Melbourne Southgate or its generic market substitute. Two new cross-expressway footbridges land in a shower of escalators, on the one hand, and a rather grandiose helical stair, on the other. This is run-of-the-mill aggrandisement.
But the underlying moves are well out of the ordinary. The huge crescent-shaped garden – park might be more apt – will be, like the Brolga terrace, wholly publicly accessible. Any old joe can wander in off the street, take a coffee, catch some sun, stroll over the freeways for a fast harbourside sushi, whatever. All this public joy at private expense, and in the private interest.
Sega World, two blocks down, is by contrast a shamelessly introverted attention-seeker. Out-decibelled only by the huge sign with which the neighbouring Imax has rashly plastered its chequer-belly, Sega’s waterfront has, admittedly, a certain scale-based presence. The primary colours and equally crude geometries take points for sheer audacity and the huge fake ficus, encrusted with live epiphytes, offers a cafe entrance with genuine if corny appeal.
Inside, the combination of fairy-floss retail and digitised all-weather sideshow produces a level of design sophistication you’d expect from the producers of Pandaland Shanghai and Lulu Island Theme Park, Abu Dhabi. Like so much at Darling Harbour, you gotta see it, once.
But where Darling Park does its magnanimous best to remedy the truly forbidding gulf between harbour and city at this point, Darling Walk not only fails to make any amending gesture but actively cold-shoulders the city with an entire frontage of expressionless panels, service entries and bark-based shrubberies of the most municipal kind.
Blame this if you will on the city carve-up which has doomed this urban edge as a lifeless buffer zone rather than any easy interface between lively city precincts. But it’s also an attitude thing.
Whereas enlightened selfinterest recognises that there’s gold in them thar humans and welcomes them accordingly, making a decent stab at civic design along the way, the other sort takes a more straitened, supermarket approach. Bare pragmatism dictates a blank box with a front door sign? Well, so be it. Civic responsiveness go hang.
Guess we should be grateful it’s not surrounded by hectares of car park.
Illus: An artist’s impression of the Darling Harbour cityside waterfront and Darling Park II.