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Pubdate: 06-Feb-1996

Edition: Late


Subsection: Arts

Page: 16

Wordcount: 772

Are the ’60s worth saving?


E M Farrelly

AND while we’re on the subject of heritage, here’s an even tougher question. Since there won’t be any heritage to squabble over unless some buildings of each generation are allowed to survive their unlovely adolescence – too old to be fashionable, too young to be sainted – how many ’60s office buildings are we inclined to preserve? And who’s to say?

Traditionally, we leave neglect to do the weeding. Just as neglect obliterates some, it protects others. It’s random, roughly speaking, but, unlike most shop-bought heritage systems, it is effective. Neglect is weeding our city even as we speak.

The ’60s were a fecund time for office buildings in Sydney. Over 20 years almost nothing had been built in the city. Suddenly, as postwar prosperity and modernist optimism combined to toss off the statutory 150-foot height limit that had blanketed the State for 45 years, towers sprouted everywhere.

Now those same bright-eyed buildings are themselves ready for the hammer. Some (such as Seidler’s Lend Lease House at the Quay, and Walter Bunning’s much-admired Liner House in Bridge Street) have gone; a few, like the IBM building at the stem of the Bradfield Highway, are sufficiently slim and permeable for conversion to apartments; still others, in these chastened times, are simply being tarted up, in the hope of magically doubling their design-life.

Central Square in Hay Street (near the Capitol), is a good example. Having been sold by the City Council with a height encumbrance to prevent overshadowing of Belmore Park, Central Square has moved from semi-forlorn to smartish, thanks to a soothing poultice of black granite and designer coffees liberally applied around the base. No bad thing either, in this part of town.

An uptown, if less convincing, instance is the old P&O building, now 55 Hunter Street. Originally quite a strong design by Powell Mansfield and Maclurcan (1964), the P&O has gone black granite in the grand manner, complete with fountains and foyer-art.

And there are more. The old Sydney County Council building is in the throes of a full facial, and even the sour-faced McKell building, at the nether end of George Street, has had its teeth done, replaced by the revolving stainless variety.

Cosmetic the surgery may be – and admittedly it seldom extends beyond the foyer – but it’s not all just nip and tuck. What is being attempted here, as often as not, is a genetic makeover, a bold reversal of what the buildings stood for, in architectural terms: above all, the reinstatement of front – front door, facade, address.

For the true moderns, the very word facade was an offence against democracy. Front doors, no longer to be celebrated, were disguised as fire exits and tucked in beside the car park exhaust, or ironed into the ruthless Cartesian plane.

This stuff can be hard to remedy. It’ll take more than smart doors to disguise the fact that the McKell building’s great entrance stair takes you grandly sideways into a sheer concrete wall. Even two of our ’60s classics, our most revered, and hated, modern towers, suffer from precisely this. Both the State Office Block (1967) and the American Express tower (1976), loved by the profession and rather less well by the public, had great difficulty with the front thing.

Both were very exciting buildings in their time and both are still capable of generating controversy, despite being now a bit sad and sorely in need of something. It happens to icons; the more vividly they embody the heroisms and blindnesses of their time, the harder they fall.

For they were heroic in their way. The State Office Block, designed by Ken Woolley for the Government Architect, brought Sydney’s so-called nuts and berries aesthetic to high-rise design, and as such is as much a homage to Alvar Aalto, the Finnish master of light and fine materials, as to the usual, more threadbare gods of corporate design.

Woolley’s confident manipulation of light and shadow to invigorate the building’s skin, in those curtain-wall times, his use of bronze – bronze! – cladding, and his gossamer glass skin encasing the core, all bespeak a poetic feel for material rarely spied in office buildings, then or now. The interiors – of the old premier’s wing, for instance – carry the same anachronistic conviction as to the enriching value of real materials.

What can be done, though, with a building whose lift core is so tight you feel as if you came the back way by accident and whose several front doors are all equally invisible? View or no view, it ain’t going to enthral the punters.

Ditto John Andrews’s King George (Amex) Tower. All those external sun-shades, expressed loo-with-a-view towers and levels peeling away from the street just seemed so damn brave, at the time. Spiffy, even. Smart. Try nowadays, though, to explain the rationale for a triangular building on a square street corner, with sunglasses facing south. Or try explaining to your regular building user why you can’t just walk in off the street, but must approach diagonally, and still can’t find the lifts.

Say it’s dated – those arched lift doors, that whiff of Barbarella – or say it is emphatically of its time. But you can’t say it’s not memorable. The question is, what happens next? If you thought the battle to revitalise a seven-storey Victorian building was bloody, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.


Illus: The State Office Block


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