Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
AMID THE FRIVOLITY, A SERIOUS INTERLOPER
DARLING Harbour is regarded officially as an “urban park”. In fact this is something of a misnomer. “Urban” is one of those dignifying words currently popular among the architecturally-initiated but, like “scientific” in the 1960s, its use sometimes lacks accuracy.
Possessing few of the qualities normally associated with an urbs (density, cohesion, organisation into streets, a degree of uniformity and a certain seriousness of being) and little more substantial in the way of wilderness than the standard municipal garden, Darling Harbour is neither wholeheartedly urban nor unreservedly park, but falls, equivocating, between the two. Designed and used as an escape from city rather than an addition to it, Darling Harbour is, more properly, sub-urban and even antiurban in its forms and aspirations.
Anti-urbanism germinated in Britain but took true and fruitful root in the New World. Little surprise then that Darling Harbour is North American in inspiration, having been consciously based on similar successful projects in Baltimore, Boston, New York and Vancouver. Its buildings may be large and individually admirable but, in the absence of any unifying street pattern, they stand alone; strewn over 50 hectares, speaking different languages, vying for attention like the wildly various suburban palaces – Spanish mission, Chinese pagoda, ranch-style – of Beverly Hills.
This is not the fault of their architects, who were commissioned and expected to work in isolation. It does, however, contribute to the prevailing sense of unco-ordinated, almost carnival frivolity generated by an exclusive concentration on leisure and pleasure. Serious architecture, in this context, is a welcome and conspicuous interloper.
John Andrews and Philip Cox are two of Australia’s best, best-known, and(therefore) most controversial architects. Between them they have produced pretty well all of Darling Harbour’s serious architecture. Cox designed the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Exhibition Centre, and the Sydney Aquarium. Andrews limited himself to the Convention Centre.
On both projects many months, and many millions, have been lost due to what Andrews calls the “union buggery factor” but, more than a year after Darling Harbour’s royal opening, the museum and the Convention Centre are finally nearing completion. With Andrews’s stern, heavily earthbound Classicism the perfect foil for Cox’s winged Romanticism, they promise to be two of Australia’s most distinctive monuments.
The Convention Centre is not Classical, of course, in any literal sense. And yet there is in its centredness, its manifest weight, its unadorned almost Tuscan solemnity something of classicism’s unassailable self-possession.
The building has, furthermore, a Roman plan. The amphitheatre type, familiar from football stadiums, bull-rings, concert venues and other modern gladiatorial edifices, was pioneered by the Greeks and perfected by the Romans- that vast tiered form, the complex system of encircling structural ambulatories, those cavernous vomitoria. The idea, says Andrews, has been around for 2,000 years – “all we did was build another one”.
Well, not quite all. Roman amphitheatres tended to be awarded plum sites; of the scores of potential sites at Darling Harbour, that finally allotted to the Convention Centre was undoubtedly the most formidable. Ten metres up, huge multi-strand expressways criss-crossed its derelict acreage with ferocity enough to daunt the bravest visionary spirit. Even James Rouse, the American developer who (with in-house architect Mort Hoppenfeld) had helped initiate the project and to whom a little alchemy with sow’s ears was all in a day’s work, nearly gave up when he saw the farrago overhead.
Perhaps somebody sensed that only Andrews was tough enough – to withstand the constant incursion of noise and fumes that such a site entails, but also to sidestep the prevailing cocktail aesthetic and confront the obduracy of road engineers with a
comparable seriousness; to fight scale with scale, with dignity.
He fought, and won. It is one of the great triumphs of Darling Harbour to have turned that expressway liability into a major sculptural asset, transforming its expression of brute Futurist pugnacity into one of ebullience and dynamism. This – greatly assisted, it’s true, by the lunatic hauteur of palms – was due in large part to the sheer unflinching confidence with which Andrews planted his building on the site, shaping it to sit with, not under, the roaring ducts of traffic.
It is not, however, a popular building. Andrews knows this – “everybody says it is a Modern building and therefore it’s old-fashioned” – but, unabashed, takes a longer view. He didn’t expect instant popularity: he does expect that the building should work. And work it does – being able to accommodate, say, a multilingual 3,500-strong conference, several smaller meetings and events, and half a dozen exuberant Greek weddings at one time.
In this, Andrews’ attitude is more that of a Swiss watchmaker than the average architect. His early analysis of the organism’s functioning -structure, access, circulation, flexibility, acoustics, egress – was intricate and exhaustive. Not only must each aspect be flawlessly operable, but each should function, as far as possible, in seamless unison with the rest. Thus the eight round towers, with escape stairs spiralling down in double helix formation, also carry air-conditioning, rain water pipes, and general services.
The semi-circular plan gives shorter structural spans and shorter viewing distances, while allowing easy divisibility of space and giving visual expression to the building’s protective role, sheltering its inhabitants from the motorway. Whereas the elegant attenuation of the foyer makes legible the structural separation between the building’s two round halves. In early proposals, the circular “water feature” in front had been a direct harbour inlet, which would double as a heatexchanger for the building’s cooling system(an idea which the authorities, ever fearful of innovation, disallowed. The heat-exchange occurs anyway, obviating the need for a cooling tower, but in the basement, not the sea).
For an architect so preoccupied with function, however, a constantly changing brief was no help. The auditorium (in use well before completion) has been criticised for being not acoustically adapted to orchestral performance. In fact, the brief had specifically excluded “entertainment” from the building’s functions, believing that overlap with the nearby Entertainment Centre was undesirable. So the fan-shaped auditorium, notoriously inappropriate to unamplified music, was chosen specifically to allow delegates to interact with each other (and not just with the primary speaker) in a way that is crucial to conferences but unnecessary, even
undesirable, for concerts.
Only now, with the management of the Convention and Entertainment (and Exhibition) Centres amalgamated, is the auditorium expected to perform musically – an unpredictable requirement that has had to be overcome with mechanical help. The ground floor banqueting hall too was affected by such changes, having been intended as exhibition space until nearly half way through the contract. Even so, Andrews is proud that, with its five neatly tucked-in perimeter serveries, the hall allows 1,200 people to be given full silver service in 11 minutes. This, he says, is “what buildings are about”.
To complicate matters even further, there were major constructional changes too, as it became evident that (for political reasons as much as mechanical)high-quality in situ concrete work would be impossible to achieve. After months on site, the building had to be hurriedly redesigned in pre-cast pieces. This sort of thing makes life less than rosy for an architect who”believes absolutely that the way you design a building has everything to do with the way you build it”.
Even this, in the end, was not without its pay-off, since the centre’s now considerable art budget came about largely through the need to hide what defective concrete remained. But it is a measure of Andrews’s skill and stubbornness – equally invaluable architectural assets – that such Herculean obstacles did not prevail against this honourable building.
For Philip Cox, equally strong-minded, the emphasis is rather different. Cox is a self-confessed Romantic who, responding to context with equal vigour, uses in his Maritime Museum forms which are consciously evocative and even expressionistic. The museum’s given site possessed all the evident advantages that Andrews’s site lacked. Perched on the north-western tip of Darling Harbour it had water-frontage, splendid views, and quietude: the site had status, and the building would have to live up to it. “A strong iconography was called for,” says Cox. The site simply reinforced his conviction that “all museums should be memorable, anyway – even if people forget what’s in them” -particularly in demanding a building of sufficient natural magnetism to draw people from the far southern end of the precinct.
There is an inevitable comparison with the Opera House. Like the Opera House, the museum uses poetics to generate charisma; like the Opera House, its images are easily accessible and powerfully symbolic of its harbour-hearted host city. The belly of a wave, the curve of a sail, the gently billowing cloud; it is familiar but enduringly vivid imagery to residents and visitors alike, particularly apt in this instance since the building is designed (and coloured white) as backdrop for the silhouetted masts and rigging of its collection.
Like the Opera House, too, the museum’s dominant forms float over a solid land base. Unlike that very centred edifice, however, the museum is an extruded, open-ended form, extending itself towards both land and sea; a bridge between two media, two worlds. The collection itself will emphasise this duality, since roughly half of it will be floating in front of the building, and fully explorable from two new finger-jetties.
The other half of the collection, from model ships to the real thing -including one of the Sirius’s aging anchors, a Wessex naval helicopter, and the jet-powered hydroplane in which Kim Warby broke the world speed record in 1978 – will be inside, in dry dock, as it were.
Contrary to our typically 20thcentury emphasis in the arts, in architecture, originality is not the most important thing; design from precedent is a respectable and even desirable modus operandi – providing it is principle, not mere form, that is copied. At the start of the design process, then, Cox travelled to other maritime museums – notably at Greenwich, in London, and Bremerhaven, West Germany.
It was the Bremerhaven Museum, 1969 swansong of the German Expressionist Hans Scharoun, that was most pertinent and most influential in Cox’s ensuing design. The Bremerhaven building, in its square angularity, is much more overtly nautical than Cox’s museum, and its plan more wayward, but the relationship to land and sea, and deliberate welcoming of light and dockside views are similar. Further, just as Scharoun’s building shapes itself to its contents, focusing on the Bremerhaven Cog, a 24-metre medieval wooden ship, the Maritime Museum’s main boat hall, maximum height 35 metres, offers pride of place to a fully-rigged Australia II, or similar.
It is Cox’s intention that visiting the building will be “almost like visiting a shipyard”. To this end, the public will be invited to clamber on to the floating exhibits and beneath those on land, and from the main halls huge windows give dramatically intimate views of a still-working dock. (The predictable curatorial resistance to the such high daylight levels was countered with compromise: there are, downstairs, darker galleries – such as the American Gallery, built with a $5 million donation – where more delicate treasures can be stored). This treatment of atmosphere as a priority comparable with function further substantiates Cox’s claim to be working within a Romantic tradition that encompasses Joseph Paxton’s so-called Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the
Garden Palace(long-since demolished) that once graced Sydney’s Hyde Park.
His use of structure, too, is similarly Romantic. The museum is very much a steel building, aiming to use that material as its nature requires and to create an evident, discernible structure.
For all that, though, the museum is a long way from “high-tech”; structure and materials are important, but still subservient to the generation of legible, expressive form.
Even as Romanticism goes, Cox’s assertion that his building is “as much a wool store as an Opera House” may be a bit far-fetched, but comparisons with the Opera House are unnecessary. In its own right, and on its own merits, the National Maritime Museum stands to become a significant national icon.
Darling Harbour may not possess the urbanness it claims, but it can certainly boast some seriously admirable and immensely urbane buildings. Andrews is surely right to say “Laurie Brereton should be given full bloody marks for having gutsed the thing through. It’s the only way to get anything done in this country.” Or any country, perhaps.
Two Illus: Romanticism vs Classicism …
Cox’s Maritime Museum (left) and Andrews’s Convention Centre.
Pictures by BRENDAN READ