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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 28-Aug-2001

Edition: Late

Section: Metropolitan


Page: 16

Wordcount: 1378

Funky design with a heart of glass

Elizabeth Farrelly

Some East Sydney residents will soon really get to know their neighbours, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

One of the reasons people undergoing domestic renovations typically get divorced, commit partnercide or dismember the kids is that the house, common or garden, is a deeply personal thing, rooted in primitive stuff about what it means to be human and what it means to be you.

Even assuming the two are compatible, just briefing an architect can demand the kind of soul-searching and value-sifting that simply liberates the greeblies in a normally dysfunctional intimate relationship and leaves them marauding around uncaged. Apparently simple decisions about whether you actually need a formal dining space/second bidet/children’s ensuite can become major political debates before you even get to the qualitative stuff about feel, style and character.

So, what is a house, exactly, and why does it matter so much? Theorist Joseph Rykwert has argued that the first building Adam’s house in paradise was no utilitarian hut but a splendid canopy whose function was mainly conceptual and symbolic, driven by the need not for shelter but for meaning. “It was,” he says, “both an image of the occupants’ bodies and a map, a model of the world’s meaning” placing Adam himself at the centre.

Others have argued that the house is a symbol and re-presentation of self, a mask in effect possessing all the magical, therapeutic and transformative powers with which masks from Greek tragedy to the Noh to Native-American shamanism were traditionally endowed.

This suggests that houses should, like their wearers, be thoroughly individual, each confidently different from its neighbour. Sadly for us, however, the very thought that houses are personal and idea-driven indeed, that they have any intellectual content at all is hard to sustain in a world where most are designed, if design is not too strong a word, as mass-market life accessories, both eyes on the resale value.

The market dictates, for example, that every dwelling exceeding $x must have Italian marble bathrooms. Nobody actually likes marble bathrooms, but every buyer demands at least one, on the basis that everyone else likes them. Thus the supposedly free market, liberty’s last bastion, ensures conformity. It’d be sad, if it wasn’t so funny. Or vice versa.

Trafalgar Properties’ Republic Stage II, designed by Burley Katon Halliday (BKH) with assistance from Marchese and Partners, Architects, on the old Sargent’s pie factory site in East Sydney, has dared to break some of development’s standard strictures.

Stage I, completed a year or so ago, involved some existing terraces and a small new-build perched above Liverpool and Bourke streets. Republic II, a full block (bounded by Burton, Palmer and Bourke streets and tiny King’s Lane), is altogether a different box of fish. Gleaming white in an era of beige; glassily revealing in a neighbourhood of dour terraces; big, blond and heroic in a part of inner Sydney that positively glories in dark espresso gloom, Republic is gambling on a niche market. Will it pay off?

BKH had a background in fashionable restaurant interiors, but it was an architecture firm, too, and by the time Trafalgar properties approached it about the pie factory site it had already completed a smallish but handsome apartment building in Rutland Street, Surry Hills, and another glossy number in Billyard Avenue, Elizabeth Bay.

BKH was frustrated by the lack of light in inner-city living and had developed a habit, says David Katon, of “floor-to-ceiling full-width glass, that sort of look”.

The site itself is pretty special an entire empty block within five minutes’ walk of the city centre. Closer still to art schools, Oxford Street and Darlo’s pink precinct, Republic II was designed, says Katon, for a section of the market which is “young, groovy, single, gay-ish and design-educated”. The agent’s blurb takes architecture as a prime selling point, gushing “it’s architecture as art (as architecture was always meant to be)” and claiming that “designers themselves are the type of people who will actually live in the development”.

Because of that, perhaps, its aesthetic owes more to Giuseppe Terragni’s 1936 cult Como classic Casa del Fascio (yes, the Italian Fascist headquarters nice irony) than to run-of-the-mill turn-of-the-century Sydney development fodder. Republic’s emphatically expressed 3-D concrete matrix, its deeply recessed glazing (strong shadow-line) and heroic, high-contrast monotone all bow to Terragni, but when it comes to proportion, BKH has added something new.

The decision to concentrate double-height studio-loft apartments along the south and east (Burton and Bourke streets) frontages allowed BKH to turn the grid sideways portrait to Terragni’s landscape feigning the general rhythm and proportion of the

local terraced street.

Beneath the supercooled abstraction sits a countrified and somewhat defensive dry-stone rubble base, protecting the privates (in stark raving contrast to the building’s other faces) and metaphorically linking with Mother Earth, but offering a much less active streetwall than urban design theorists would prefer. At least, though, it’s not dominated by driveways and garage doors, like so many of its confreres.

In fact, the overall site layout was a given. A previously approved design had established the three linked street-defining buildings, each with a single car entrance but split diagonally and opening to a large plaza on the north-west quadrant.

In BKH’s hands the diagonal gesture became a grandiloquent silver-sided slot, 1.6 metres wide and six storeys high, which marks the front door to the development and cuts direct from street corner to watery interior court.

As an opening move it’s a lot to live up to, and a couple of disappointing moments follow. The front door, for instance, right at the focal point, is solid, not glass, as though someone’s accidentally closed the fire door.

And the diving-board canopy a little piece of Lubetkin (another cult-modern) escaped from Regents Park Zoo to cantilever over the Burton Street entrance is both conceptually and techtonically crude. The Big Diagonal itself, in establishing a major visual axis, implies some pot of rainbow’s-end gold but focuses instead on a muddle of humdrum city towers.

It is, nevertheless, a gesture of such remarkable clarity as to set the building apart from its peers; and the same singularity of purpose distinguishes the rest of the development. The water-courtyard, for instance. If you’ve wondered in passing why the facade moves night and day with a scaly light here’s the reason the courtyard is more water than solid, with a 25-metre mosaic-tiled lap pool set into an enveloping ornamental fishpond. It’s terrestrials who are the intruders here, stepping gingerly across the stones.

And the glassiness itself. Glass is gorgeous stuff, and the transparency of the thing especially the two apartments that hang above the plaza is seductive. But it’d be a challenge to find, anywhere, a collection of 99 separate dwellings, inhabited by neither blood relations nor sect followers, with a lower proportion of separating solidity.

Sure, all north- and west-facing facades have external blinds. But nearly all the apartments are single-sided, getting light, sun, air and what view there is from one orientation; close the blinds and you lose the lot. Fact is, unless you want the lights on, you have to live with the neighbours and the odd friendly telescope being able to pass informed judgment on your furniture, pictures, living arrangements. Face it. You don’t get a lot of therapeutic transformation from a mask of glass.

But, you point out, this may suit some people. Maybe design types don’t mind. Maybe they like it. And indeed, this is what niche marketing’s about. So then everything hangs on how many Big Brother wannabes can be found to expose all in the name of art. And on what people really want from a house. Privacy, seclusion, serenity? Or full-on extrovert in-your-face exposure? Haven or fishbowl? Just keep watching the space. You’ll know when it’s full.


ILLUS: Breaking the rules …

the Republic Stage II has a courtyard with a 25-metre mosaic-tiled lap pool set into an enveloping ornamental fishpond (top left); the front door (above) features a diving-board canopy and opens to a watery interior court (left).

Photos: James Alcock


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