Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Falling short of ‘dangerous whimsy’
One of the world’s leading architects has designed a tower for Sydney. But, asks Elizabeth Farrelly, where is that famous Norman Foster magic?
As an architect, you know you’re nudging beatification when they digitise your handwriting, so as to sprinkle that authentic glow across the now-computer-generated “sketches”.
Norman Foster Lord Norman Foster is quite a phenomenon. And it’s not just the handwriting. His opus includes many of the world’s most significant modern buildings: the Hongkong and Shanghai bank in Hong Kong, the Carre d’Art at Nimes, London’s third airport at Stansted, the vast new Hong Kong airport, Frankfurt’s Commerzbank (the world’s first “ecological skyscraper’), the Reichstag (new German parliament) in Berlin, London’s Canary Wharf Station and the Great Court at the British Museum.
Now, he’s doing one for us, Sydney. The lord is landing, corner Phillip and Hunter.
Foster formed Foster Associates in 1967 and made his name in 1974 with the Willis Faber and Dumas building, Ipswich, a supple little dark-glass job which “reinvented” the workplace before that was the fashionable thing to do.
With the hangar-like Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia (1977), he became unassailably established as Britain’s other high-tech architect beside Richard Rogers, now Lord Rogers of Riverside.
He has designed many of the world’s highest-profile buildings and received 190 awards, 38 of them last year alone.
Even in architecture you don’t get this level of recognition just for being at the right parties. So what has Foster been doing right?
High-tech, for one thing, and to this he adds a level of abstract intelligence. A hallmark of his genius is to interweave multiple layers of dreary technical stuff into a single, overarching, even poetic idea.
And then there’s the photogenic minimalism; Foster has always been King of Cool.
My snap-frozen retinal image from an office visit, years ago, has the solitary receptionist perched behind an equally fleshless table (Foster’s famous Tecno, all glass and spider legs) in that white and cavernous hall. Not another prop in sight. Not so much as a handbag. If you like it, this rates as super elegance. If not, it’s just plain sterile. Either way, that Manchester suburb is well and truly expunged.
But in the end, motives don’t figure. What matters in architecture is the product, and as product, Foster is right up there. No question.
In view of all this, we could forgive ourselves for expecting something pretty special from Foster in Sydney. But the Stage 2 DA lodged last week does little to encourage such expectations.
In part, this is circumstantial. The new Foster building is an “investment” office building, meaning that Bankers Trust (BT) will build and own it rather than flogging it off before the warts show but not inhabit it.
This is one step above the get-in, get-out speculative culture that usually defiles Sydney, but one step down, in pride-and-responsibility terms, from the owner-occupier mentality that usually elicits the best from architects.
On the other hand, the building would be dead-on-the-drawing-board if it were not 40 per cent pre-let to Deutschebank, not exactly your standard low-rent tenant. And the right development, here, could be expected to stretch downtown’s “golden triangle”, as defined by Chifley-Macquarie-Aurora, into a rhombus.
The new building is neat, rational and elegant. It’s unusual, having a side (not central) core, and rather pretty. But the dazzlingly clever everyday Foster magic the reason, indeed, you bother having Norman Foster in the first place has drifted off somewhere.
A retrospective of his work, showing in Cologne, bears the title “Norman Foster: Architecture is About People”. The office blurb tends to carry catchphrases like “social ends technical means”, and the principal idea for this building, specifically, is officially to provide a new model for the workplace.
It’s about natural light and flexible, uninflected floorspace. Which is pretty much what modernism’s been trying for during the entire last century. And the actual workspace, once you get there, is essentially more of the same. Easier to let, being open, but not significantly different to work in.
The building is an elegant mid-height (28- to 34-storey) office tower, svelte and well dressed with a glassy atrium and some slinky detailing. Much of the rest, though, is defined by site and planning constraints, in combination with commercial demands. The usual recipe.
Makes you wonder why they bothered getting him, really, if only to sit so neatly inside orthodoxy, if not to do a Renzo and blow away the rules with the sheer poetry of the thing.
Foster has been lauded for years as “the silk glove on the iron fist of powerful economic forces”. Yup, we see the economic forces, full glory, but the glove? Bring on the silk.
Foster, 66, has lately been accused by critics of becoming, like Frank Lloyd Wright in his late years, “dangerously whimsical”. This, it is feared, might dilute the Foster magic with kitsch. On the other hand, a tad of dangerous whimsy might be just the thing.
As Foster projects go, the Sydney proposal suggests less danger or whimsy than perfunctory production. From just about anyone else, such a building would be just fine. Possibly thrilling. But from Foster? Truth is, he could do better.
What exactly? Well, that’s his job, and above all it should be a surprise. It’s just that as it stands this particular Sydney surprise, however nicely wrapped, isn’t so much a main pressie as a good little stocking filler.
ILLUS: Rational and svelte …
Foster’s proposed office block.