Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Gold in GPO backyard
E. M. FARRELLY
THEY’RE having another go at the GPO. The previous development application, designed by Darryl Jackson Robin Dyke and approved last year, really just tested the temperature. It’s a standard trick – get an art crowd on board up front, establish some cred, dump the art crowd, get on with the serious stuff.
The new DA is designed by Buchan Group (of Melbourne’s Southgate fame) for Grollo (of Melbourne’s World’s Tallest fame, only it isn’t up yet) along with the Melbourne shopping centre developers Lustig and Moar. Australia (“just treat us like any other developer”) Post, a little-known Melbourne firm, isn’t even named on the drawings. The credits may not suffuse you with optimism. But the proposal itself, identical in principle to Jackson Dyke’s highly skilled proposition, will prove, on balance, a great enrichment to the city.
The GPO is one of the few decent buildings in Sydney that no boofy developer or politician has ever tried to demolish. Less than 40 years ago, the AMP levelled Blackett’s fine Mort warehouse on the Quay without a second thought; Lord Mayor Harry Jensen had a go at the QVB and the architect Neville Gruzman, inter alia, concocted all manner of designs to flatten the Rocks.
But Sydney’s GPO, origin of this far-flung colony’s main umbilical, was recognised from the start as something to celebrate. No effort was spared on its design, no expense on its construction. From the moment of his appointment in 1862, the Colonial Architect James Barnet spent 25 years intimately engaged with the project; crafted the colonnade, weathered storms of controversy over the clock and the bas relief, and regarded the result as his finest work.
Quite right, too. It is a fabulous civic prop, solemn or vivacious as occasion requires, while the play of Sydney sun on that honed trachyte and sculpted yellowblock, the depths basted in deep shadow, is something to write home about.
And yet, and yet. Where are the spaces? Like so many of Sydney’s public buildings, the wrap is terrific, but the grand foyer, the exhilarating stair, the seductive loggia, the irresistible spatial sequence? Forget it. The late Victorians, after all, perfected the art of packaging; Queen Anne front, Maryanne middle. And let’s face it, no amount of lavish decoration can substitute for spatial magic, post hoc. It’s either there or it ain’t and in most cases, regrettably, it ain’t. Think Sydney’s grand public-funded sandstone heritage. Think Education Department, Lands Department, Chief Secs. Think GPO. The Mitchell provides a welcome exception as does, arguably, the Town Hall. But generally speaking, even compared with the Martin Place banks, the spaces are not exactly terrific. So it seems apt that the one really distinguished aspect of the GPO proposal is a big, new, central, public space.
The Barnet building is a flattened U-shape in plan, hugging the perimeter streets (George, Pitt and Martin Place). In its centre sits the much later (1927) postal hall, which was the nearest the GPO ever came to a seriously memorable space. The George Street wing of the 1927 building has already gone, and Pitt Street will follow. But the postal hall will stay, complete with paired glass roof-lanterns and two working postboxes placed sacramentally on-axis, centrepieces to the new courtyard.
THIS will make the GPO permeable, and in that sense public, as it has never been. For the first time you’ll be able to wander through from George Street, do your shopping/posting/banking, take tea on the terrace, have a meal or a drink, then carry on out to Pitt Street or Martin Place or across one of the flying bridges to the hotel lobby. This new hotel (rumoured to be a Hyatt) and the office building next to it form the southern wall of the courtyard. Between them they will pay for the entire development, including the $40 million for the renovation of Barnet’s masterwork.
One is, of course, aware of a critic’s duty to lament the mammonising of the public service (I do) and deplore the necessity of development yield to shore up their sainted halls. Taking these as givens, though, can you honestly, hand-on-heart, swear to prefer the Barnet colonnade strewn with back-packed poste restante queues, as of yore, to the afternoon-tea-at-the-Ritz option made possible, at least, by the handsome city hotel?
The renovation part of the project is in the capable architectural hands of Clive Lucas Stapleton and Partners. It will include a post office (on George), a banking chamber on the Pitt Street corner, and assorted restaurants and retail on the ground floor. With Armani across the way, this starts to feel positively Rivoli.
Upstairs a health club, a few guest rooms, two very elegant, long function rooms above Martin Place, and a lap pool – sadly not glass-bottomed, Melbourne- style – atop the banking chamber. The rather lovely “black and white stair” will be restored for access to the hotel and the two wonderful vaulted roof spaces inside those whale-back copper roofs will be accessible for the first time as banquet ball and ballroom, respectively.
Between this and the new high-rise to the south, an overarching glass roof defines the courtyard, from which holes in the floor give view, QVB-style, to a bar/brasserie below. The only conspicuously missed opportunity is the failure to open the old vaulted mall tunnel under Martin Place to public use.
Even the hotel is reasonably civilised, its concourse spaces merging indistinguishably with the courtyard retail and its porte-cochere structured tightly into the Pitt Street facade in a manner at least as urbane as whatever-it-is-on-the-Park (with a
nice colonnade but chronic identity problems). The hotel tower is slim and concave, sliding fearlessly up in front of the Amex tower – just when it’s having the cataracts off, too.
The office building is, well, an office building, big and square. But the detailing is careful, with the scale and rhythm of the window pattern sufficiently refined, in quasi-American style, so as not to overwhelm the Barnet tower, to which it forms a backdrop. Arguably, indeed, the tower’s visual lot will be improved, since Amex never did it many favours.
You can lament the commercialism of it all. Or you can thank providence there was gold to be found in the GPO’s backyard. Otherwise the GPO, for all its splendour, would just be another mouth in the queue for dwindling government funds, another sad story in our ongoing heritage fiasco. This way it’ll have a life – and a buoyant one at that.
Illus: Underneath the arches … the facade of the GPO in Martin Place, destined for renovation.
Photograph by JAMES ALCOCK