Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
E. M. FARRELLY
YOU may not like it. You may not know what it is. But the new IMAX building at Darling Harbour, once seen, can be neither ignored nor forgotten. That chequerboard breastplate lodges in the brain, galvanising opinion just as naturally as its ocular form divides the streaming motorway traffic.
Lionel Glendenning, architect for the new IMAX, is a conspicuously unassuming man, but his new baby is loud, even by Sydney’s power-dressing standards. The taxi driver’s straw poll reportedly came out 60 per cent for, 40 per cent against, with most of the fors well shy of middle age. If, as seems not unlikely, Sydney’s urban aesthetic should come to depend on instant appeal to a 17-year-old passing at 100 km/h, such visual volume may be revealed as a harbinger of cacophonies to come.
It’s not everyone’s idea of a promising site. Bisected in one direction by a major stormwater drain, and in the other by the shifting tides, it has electrical easements to the north, sewers to the south and roaring freeways overhead. Scarcely the ideal acoustic location either for a simulated-reality experience dependent not only on the edgeless-image but also, hugely, on the fidelity of its specially designed state-of-the-art six-track, 15,000-watt digital sound system.
Chosen this site nevertheless was. And chosen above other contenders, which included the space beside the MCA (now mooted for a cinematheque) and one next to the Australian Museum. Both of these would have fostered a more traditional IMAX-link with some established parent institution.
But IMAX is no longer run by the film-makers and techno-freaks who first developed Ron Jones’s Brisbane-invented “rolling-loop” projection system. Since the March 1994 sale of IMAX to a Texas-based group, IMAX cinemas have started to stand alone, with a little help from their sponsors. The Sony IMAX in Lincoln Square, New York, is one of the highest grossing single movie screens in America; Sydney’s Panasonic IMAX is no doubt expected to mirror this performance and Melbourne’s opens in the autumn.
Darling Harbour, with its dumplings-in-gravy approach to urbanism, is just the spot for a fiercely freestanding super-populist gee-whizzery infotainment pavilion of this kind. Indeed, Darling Harbour forms a veritable family – gang, even – of such buildings, oxymorons notwithstanding.
And for such an in-your-face building, the new IMAX is an assiduously good neighbour, tipping its cap to its fellows with a little peak of a roof that is strictly, unashamedly gestural. The building’s silver-and-grey striped skin mimics the Cox Exhibition Centre, while the dimpled, flummery look of the sheet aluminium cues the eye to the same glassy liquidity in the city towers.
Most impressive of all, perhaps, this 33-metre (10-storey) pleasure dome stands its ground among the tangled sky traffic with a boldness rivalled only by John Andrews’s Convention Centre.
In fact, the IMAX seems positively to enjoy the lunatic, futurist quality of its site, exploiting at every opportunity the visual play of curve on opposing curve. For this reason, unlike many of the Darling Harbour monuments (and despite the great show it gives the freeway), the IMAX rewards pedestrian approach, with a changing display of gorgeous gymnastic geometries.
Glendenning has consciously enhanced this distinction between the building’s ground and freeway selves. At freeway level the bumble-bee graphics radiate unmistakable warning: danger, stay back. On the ground, by contrast, glass protrusions pierce the skin to offer practical welcome – tickets, retail, food (in the form of Neil Perry’s newest brasserie) and what’s-on information. Inspired by the worn-shiny hand-level patch on the acute marble apex of I. M. Pei’s famous East Wing museum in Washington, Glendenning has brought the vertical stainless strip that protects each “eye” corner down to the ground, precisely for those who would have a feel.
Despite this on-the-ground quality, the metaphor that dominates Glendenning’s description is that of flight. He conceptualises the thing as an aircraft wing, its aluminium skin riveted to a curved substrate. The dimply cellulite look, which results from the thinness of the aluminium and which, to many an educated eye, might seem a mistake, was deliberate, as Glendenning sought to reveal the underrated vibrancy of aluminium as a material.
Other interventions in the skin of the perfect object all have meaning, obscure as this may be to the observer. The painted matt-grey shapes delineate underlying intestinal presences such as ducts, lifts and plant, with round openings for exhaust and rectangular flaps for air intake (carefully positioned to avoid the teeming motorways).
INSIDE, in the retail and front-of-house space, flight becomes fantasy, as blue columns rise through the double-height space from sea-bed piles to an undulating white-waterfall ceiling. It’s vulgar, but at least it’s vulgar with flair.
In the inner chamber, the analogy is more tardis than turbo-prop. This, the eye-shaped venue for the ultimate out-of-body experience, is undiluted essence of IMAX. One wall, to the south, is simply a huge screen, rising 10 storeys through space. The other, northern cue of the “eye” carries the seating, rows and rows of high-backed Spanish numbers in cyclamen plush, stacked steeply into the surrounding matt-black space.
The chamber is densely anechoic, seeming to suck sound from the air just as the matt black sucks light. This gives a high-tech edge to what is otherwise a surprisingly dramatic and intimate space, as much Paris Opera as Hoyts, with an in-built sense of The Imminent Event.
Each wall (and indeed the roof) is a part-cylinder. To spring an entire building from such a clear and simple geometry is a bold move – quite as bold as siting a cinema between flyovers. Such geometry, though, brings its own, unforgiving discipline, and some of the detailed resolutions are disappointing.
The painted cornice strip, for example, provides a weak terminus to the extruded eye-form and the yellow profile-steel roof leaning-to over the bumble-bee bulge (which houses the VIP-lounge atop projection room) introduces a foreign aesthetic to this
unaccommodating schema. The black-glass protrusions rather ditto: how much more exciting to walk through the aluminium wall of the tardis to the mystery within. But, well, retail will be retail.
The chequerboard itself, however unforgettable, is both unnecessarily dominant in the cityscape and unnecessary to the composition, which could have been just as good or better, without.
For all that, though, the IMAX will unquestionably enrich Darling Harbour as a pedestrian experience, a flyover experience and a Sunday arvo jaunt with the kids. It’s modern, it’s vivid, it’s tautly stylish and it’s fun. Not to mention the value-added of a decent brasserie, which could go a long way in this rather dryish neck of the woods. This, surely, is what cities are all about.
Two illus: Gee whiz … the chequerboard breastplate on the IMAX building at Darling Harbour.
Photographs by JAMES ALCOCK