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east circular quay

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 13-Jul-1991

Edition: Late

Section: News and Features


Page: 22

Wordcount: 1407



IT IS a little-known but dependable rule of thumb, in the world of architectural presentations, that the glossiness of a performance stands in directly inverse relation to the quality of its content: the smoother the hollower. Kohn Pederson Fox is a New York firm, described by American critic Martin Siller as “the ultimate careerist architectural firm of the ’80s”, whose presentation techniques are notoriously seductive.

Its Circular Quay East show last week, no exception, was a positive invitation to scepticism. In fact – flattery, gourmandising, old etchings and new “people places” notwithstanding – it isn’t really the architecture that’s the problem. Not yet, anyway.

Nor is it a question of developer villainy. Maximising profit is what developers do, even if they’re really insurance companies. Do pigs grunt?Underneath, and more importantly, the failure on Circular Quay East, so typical of Sydney planning, is a failure of government.

Sure, the building has its faults. So centred and symmetrical a plan sits oddly on this supremely directional site – a point acknowledged in the quaint, rather whimsical manner in which the building salutes the Opera House. One must query so glassy a wall facing Sydney’s fierce west, and there is something deadly about all that thin stuck-on stone that post-modern corporatism requires as a substitute for the gravitas of real masonry.

On the whole, though, the architecture is quiet and composed, if undistinguished: its transparency at the ground levels is admirable, although underdeveloped; and its determination to fill these lower levels with the now-mandatory “people-places” (6,000 square metres of “cafes, restaurants and shops” on three levels, connecting underground to the Opera House concourse)is probably well-intentioned, if unlikely to succeed.

On a larger scale the maintenance of a strong built wall to preserve the”room” of the Quay, the City-Opera House connection, the dignity of Macquarie Street and the distinction between the City and its garden is a proper urban strategy, supported by Utzon himself. And the building makes an honourable if climatically suspect attempt to differentiate stylistically between its street and sea frontages, as this difficult site entails.

But – seldom are architectural issues so clear or so unanimous – the bulding is just too big for the place: too high, too wide, too big, period. The Colonial Mutual Life men were keen to stress their corporate respectability, their deference to the sacred site (first white settlement etc), and their building’s adherence to “the spirit of” the Central Sydney Planning Committee’s new urban design guidelines. Well, they had to say that, didn’t they?

Conceding in the same breath that the building exceeds the guidelines, which have no mandatory force, by nearly 25 per cent, CML argues that the guidelines were drawn from purist planning principle, taking no account of”practical economics”, and that compromise is therefore only reasonable. In fact, as any comparison of the current version with the initial draft makes plain, the guidelines themselves bend over backwards to accommodate public interest to private profit.

It may be true that the early study, by Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp(architects of Parliament House fame), was more than a little naive to ignore existing ownership and consent conditions on the site. It is also true that the new guidelines were expanded significantly in both dimensions (a height increase of some 70 per cent, and a near-doubling of width) in order, not to enhance public amenity at the Quay but simply to equal, and slightly better,

the existing development applications – to help salvage, that is, CML’s rather overenthusiastic investment.

These expansionist ideas were drawn in fact from another, independent study undertaken by Lewin Tzannes architects for My City of Sydney (an influential group composed in the main of Quay Apartments residents) which, feeling obliged to heed “the commercial objectives of site owners”, proposed 14 storeys above Quay level (cut away on the east to allow sun into the gardens)and widened the site over the Circular Quay East roadway.

The absorption of the roadway, of course, meant finding somewhere else for buses to park, and the group’s report suggests, quite reasonably, that a new bus-parking area should be provided by the developer as a quid pro quo for the newly fattened site.

By the time these ideas resurfaced in the revised Urban Design Guidelines, however, the height had increased again to 15-17 storeys, with no concession to sun angles, and site-widening had become simply a way to “make buildable space available” to

the developer, with no clear strategy for dealing with, or paying for, bus parking. Suddenly CML could feel justified in claiming a further nine metres’ width, two storeys and 11,000 square metres, as straightforward “practical economics” to compensate for the bus-parking station which it now chooses to count as an extra, unprovoked

imposition – and therefore a bargaining chip.

No-one really expects the DA to go through at this size, of course. Even CML all but admits that the thing is too big, and indeed the oversized lift cores and flatulent ground levels, puffed up with all that unworkable”retail”, suggest that the building has been deliberately over-inflated. How did this happen, given the many months of prior negotiations between CML and the planning committee, and why?

There are two possibilities – either the DA is meant strictly as an ambit claim, with enough fat to allow substantial paring without cutting flesh or -and this is at least equally probable, however audacious it may sound – the building is a deliberate ploy to illustrate beyond question the disastrousness of CML’s Quay position financially, and therefore architecturally – in the hope that the State Minister for Planning, Robert Webster, might swoop to the rescue with an exchange of

the State Office Block or similar.

There is a further question, as to use. Is a site of national significance the right place for a speculative office building? CML doesn’t like words like”developer” or “speculative”, pointing out that it means to keep the building, not sell it on. But habitation, not ownership, is the crucial question; there is a world of difference, architecturally, between a speculative office building and a head office such as Seidler’s Capita on Castlereagh, and CML has no intention of making even a secondary home on Circular Quay East. Whether from sale or rent, its ends are strictly commercial.

That’s if it ever gets that far. At the moment it looks unlikely. CML, it would seem, wants out, and although it is a moot point as to whether the public should pick up the tab for bad business decisions made by an out-of-town insurance company in the hot days of 1988, this may yet prove the best way of preserving the public interest.

Only the Government can ensure that on this pivotal site architectural principle, for once, is allowed dominance – both by making the site available, and by confidently shaping its use.

Contrary to cliche, good architects work best when most highly constrained. With a carefully orchestrated competition (along German lines for instance) we could have world-class architecture on the Quay – a relocated Conservatorium of Music, perhaps, offering varied public performance en route to the opera; a seemly six or seven storeys in that most sophisticated design mode of all, dignified civic restraint. Perhaps, for the greater and general good, the Government should do the decent thing and put CML out of its misery.


Illus: An artist’s impression of the proposed Colonial Mutual Life development at Circular Quay.


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