Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Death of the Hills Hoist?
URBAN LIFE ARCHITECTURE
E. M. FARRELLY
IT’S on. The Sydney way of life is changing as we watch. In numbers unimagined even a decade ago, Sydneysiders are buying into a lifestyle which throws no fewer prawns on the barbie, but puts significantly fewer square metres around it.
Whether this will reduce our rate of continental desecration is another question. One can confidently assume that the move to medium density is driven as much by image and commerce as by any feeling for planet Earth. But PC or not, the fact remains. Every few minutes in the city’s intimate parts – Glebe, Leichhardt, Chippendale, Ultimo, Darlo, Surry Hills, the Cross and Kensington as well as downtown CBD – yet another smart apartment block labours noisily skywards.
The buyers are a variegated lot, including offshore investors, over-protective parents, empty-nesters and small families as well as your regular yuppies and casino workers. And they’re by no means downmarket, as a peek at their bulging garages will indicate. Depressingly, though, there is mounting evidence that their taste in architecture is wa-a-ay less sophisticated than their taste in cars.
Two exceptions to the general mediocrity have recently arisen in the inner east – one on the old Resch’s brewery site between South Dowling and Bourke streets, the other on the site of the former W.D. & H.O. Wills factory in Tedman Avenue, Kensington.
In a piece of fortuitous symbolism, each development transforms a site once dedicated to the propagation of old-style vice into a middle-class enclave within jogging distance of IKEA.
There, though, the similarity ceases. The two developments play to quite different corners of the market and operate dramatically different world-views. Where Moore Park Gardens, designed by Allen Jack and Cottier’s Reg Smith, is smart and sassy, strutting its styleconscious stuff for the world to see and the cappuccino classes to invest in, Mirvac’s Raleigh Park, just round the corner, is demure to the point of denial.
While Moore Park Gardens is out having a fine old time in one of Sydney’s smart-to-be suburbs, Raleigh Park dines elegantly at home, its every gesture declaiming complete uninterest in the world beyond the road to its front door. How else would you get the BMWs in?
This world-attitude – in it or out of it – colours each development throughout and, it seems, helps shape its demographic complexion as well.
Moore Park Gardens is much the more sophisticated animal in design terms. A pre-existing DA, for Comrealty, had proposed two layers of car parking over the entire site, beneath a monolithic perimeter block which was gabled and turreted in a manner supposedly reminiscent of the old brewery buildings. Sounds OK, but visitors could not exit the carpark without a compass and a ball of string.
The site’s new owners were convinced that qualities such as individual address, identity and a sense of community would prove essential to the success of residential development on this site. They also wanted a development proposal that could be staged, allowing the architecture and market pitch to evolve with the suburb, and the money to be supplied in bursts. They invited their architects, Allen Jack and Cottier, to design accordingly.
THE site was a challenge in itself, right on the cusp between wealth and the rust belt. While one edge looks to Moore Park, the other inescapably faces the sour end of Bourke Street, Redfern. There is a big Meriton development to the north and the old ACI site, all Deco front and development-opportunity back, to the south.
Density limits were high by (non-CBD) residential standards. Floorspace at 2 1/2 times the site area, over 2 1/2 hectares, is a lot of building in an iffy part of town. The thing was to avoid the kind of overbuilt ghettoisation threatening parts of Ultimo and Pyrmont. From the developers’ point of view, the pitch would be somewhere between Meriton, just over the fence, and Mirvac to the east, appealing to townhouse buyers as well as studio types. And the market should be local. None of this offshore sales, absenteelandlord stuff for them.
The architects’ primary response was to take a new avenue across the centre of the site, reducing its huge scale, connecting the main street entrance to pool and child care, and giving front doors and back gardens to ground-floor apartments. There would be four stages, running anti-clockwise from north, with height constraints set by the old brewery buildings.
Stage 2, a 16-storey tower on the corner of Bourke and Crescent, is now complete, and a very sprightly piece of design it is. Smith worked up the old idea of “crossover” apartments, a model that first arose in revolutionary Russia, was developed by Le Corbusier in France and Marcel Breuer in America, and brought to Australia by Harry Seidler. Cross-overs have split levels under and over the central corridor, allowing the apartments to run right across the building (for ventilation purposes) while the central corridor runs along it on alternate levels, avoiding the godforsaken-ness of deck-access.
This slightly complicated sectional arrangement brings compositional opportunities, of which Smith has taken full advantage. The smaller, studio apartments which occur at the interstices of the interlocking three-dimensional puzzle are allowed to project out through the skin of the building with stylish, black-gridded wrap-around bay windows, so that even those which face south receive generous amounts of morning and evening sun, as well as extra views. This in turn brings a more varied, contrapuntal rhythm to the facades than the usual endless repetition.
The end elevations, too, are given special treatment, with curved balconies and heroic, flying roof forms in a conscious stylistic reference to the ACI building next door. The whole comes alive with a quirky colour scheme which includes ochre, terracotta, Naples yellow, black, jade and a deep grey-violet.
Raleigh Park, by contrast, is sedate in the extreme; all putty-pastels and lush exotic planting. Raleigh Park offers about a quarter of the density of Moore Park Gardens, at substantially higher prices, with roughly the same number of units as at Moore Park Gardens (some 150 houses and 350-odd apartments) on 10 hectares of landscaped lawns adjoining Moore Park golf course. The planting is undeniably splendid, with mature trees of a dozen species and habitats leading an air of graciousness not commonly seen in the ranks of Sydney’s spec housing.
The five towers, each named for a famous British golf course, all gaze north over the putting greens while the houses cluster around parks of their own – Raleigh Park itself (a handsomely planted water-retention basin) and the Serpentine Gardens, a clumsy miniature of the water staircase at the Villa d’Este or similar.
Stylistically, it’s Mosman federation meets ’80s California gelato, with tiled roofs, turrets, gazebos, pergolas and mini-doric columns at every juncture. In terms of feel, it could be anywhere – except inner Sydney. No traffic, no noise, no dirt. No vagrants, no litter, and no sense of time, past or future. Just the unending, padded present. Expensive cars glide at measured pace through quasi-cobbled culs-de-sac. Interiors are hushed, carpeted and cushioned: much less distinguished, spatially, than at Moore Park Gardens, but so very quiet, and much more expensive. Even the air feels different.
The roads, also named for the snob-dollar (Brompton Road, York Place), are open to the public and, on closer inquiry, owned by them. But the great unwashed are nowhere in evidence. Just the occasional couple padding off on air soles for a gentle round of tennis. Water trickles, leaves fall. This soporific ambience is less unpleasant than unreal; all country-clubbed-out while greater Sydney roars unnoticed a few hundred metres away.
It’s tempting to take a moral view of all this, as though the wealth, the overseas investment, the conscious insularity and the new-money aesthetic added up to something suspect. But is there any real reason why the wealthy, especially denizens of cities and suburbs much grubbier than this one, shouldn’t seek solace in secure, anonymous quietude if they so wish?
Two Illus: Building blocks … stylish Moore Park Gardens, top, and country-clubbish Raleigh Park, transforming sites once dedicated to old-style vice into middle-class enclaves.
Photographs by JAMES ALCOCK