Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Never know your luck in a big city
A plan for design on the city’s last major site wins, once again, by breaking all the rules, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Even those who no longer leave coins for the tooth fairy still toil, often as not, under the happy impression that planners shape development, as potters mould clay. It’s the professional mystique. In Sydney at least, vice is usually versa. Property calls the shape and, via the machinations of democracy, planning (as we still fondly call it) tags along.
Developers, unlike humans, see the city as a tangle of variables costs and constraints, proximities and probabilities, calculated and incalculable risks to be assessed and found friendly before the architect so much as breathes on the envelope’s back. Design is strictly afterthought. Planners, on the other hand, try to predict or even pre-empt this process by balancing the city’s remaining capacity (bulk, area, people or cars) against what the market demands, then striking some sort of compromise. That’s the theory. As you can imagine, though, it is virtually impossible to achieve with any semblance of logic or scholarship, let alone science. So, when push comes to shove, shove usually wins.
The KENS site, recently won in a developer’s competition by Denton Corker Marshall or DCM (Sydney), is a case in point. KENS, named for the acronym of its boundaries (Kent, Erskine, Napoleon and Sussex streets), is generally accepted to be the last remaining developable site in the city centre. Ten years ago there were five: including the GPO, the State Office Block, Caltex House and World Square. Now there’s only KENS, wallflowered because it’s not centre at all, but city edge.
The western fringe has always been the city’s badlands, relic of a tradition that put urban docks at the bottom of the location pile. Circular Quay itself was “fringe” until the ’60s, Darling Harbour till the ’80s. Eventually, as Darling Harbour moves north (to wit, King Street Wharf) and Walsh Bay creeps south, the last container wharves will be pinched out and the entire western flank open to what used to be, in more optimistic eras, called “improvement”.
That much is obvious. Characteristically, though, the city’s planning geniuses are even now sitting on their hands, waiting to see who will propose what. And perhaps this is just as well, since their few recent attempts at proactivity have proved self-trashing within weeks. Again, the KENS site, just a row back from the reclaimed harbour-frontage, is an apt example. Owned until the late ’90s by Sydney City Council itself, the site has been for decades almost entirely dominated by cars. Current uses including an auto-repair workshop, two ground-level car parks, the very attractive Kent Street car-park and, soaring across its north-west corner, two tiers of Western Distributor. No surprise that the heritage buildings on the site six terraced shop-houses on Erskine Street and the handsome Moreton’s Hotel on Napoleon/Sussex seem a tad marginalised.
There was also Sussex Lane, where a successful bar flowered briefly during the Olympics. Stymied by the dramatic Kent-to-Sussex level change, Sussex Lane does not bisect the block but forms a U and re-emerges onto Sussex Street. Such laneways have for the past decade been protected by the council, partly for their own sake and by way of maintaining some human scale in the city: vast buildings need vast footprints.
For years, the KENS site had been covered by an 80-metre height limit which was draped generally over the western fringe and meant to encourage view-sharing, and to establish a transitional height between harbour and city-proper. Then, last year, the new owners Multistar applied to develop the site residentially, complying with the 80-metre limit but, in proposing three quite slim towers instead of two, breaching the city plan’s anticipated maximum floor-space ratio by about 50 per cent (more than 12:1 instead of 8:1). The council rejected the proposal but within weeks it was approved by the Land and Environment Court, along with an 800-space car park (existing use rights).
Enter Leightons, who took an option to develop the site as commercial offices. This was seen as a more appropriate use, so near a motorway, and Leightons was encouraged by the council to hold an invited competition, in pursuit of design excellence. The competition brief combined the court’s findings, the developer’s requirements, and council’s remaining constraints, drawn from an urban design study by Ken Maher of Hassell which had suggested that maintaining height and density limits on the site was less important than street set-backs, tower separation and view corridors. It raised the height limit to 110 metres and the floorspace to 12.4:1, and allowed 650 public car parking spaces the same number as currently on the site, screened by active uses.
The five invited architects included the usual commercial suspects Peddle Thorp, Travis McEwen, Rice Daubney and Crone, with Tony Caro and DCM, who with the huge success of Governor Phillip Tower have strategically positioned themselves as A-grade commercial, but still arty. Smart boys. Good designers, too among the best.
The five proposals make it blindingly obvious why DCM won. Of the five, DCM’s is the only one with a clear intellectual diagram, a coherent site strategy or a confident compositional approach to the tower problem. It may illustrate no more than the way a competition system, on the wrong sites, merely starves design of adequate teasing-it-out time. But, while the others thrashed around with smart-arse angles, raked facades and all the cosmetic trickery of bad disguise, DCM coolly thought the thing through, breaking the rules to collapse the brief into a single, bifurcated tower instead of two.
This enabled DCM not only to offer the flexibility of a huge, Manhattan-size floorplate (nearly 4,000 square metres at its base, twice the size of Grosvenor, and more than twice Darling Park II) but also to vacate the entire northern half of the site, making it available for outdoor basketball (replacing the one under Sega World), lunch, coffees and plain old-fashioned on-the-ground sunshine. Good move.
Expressed as three separate tower elements in order to reduce its visual bulk white on the harbour side, grey on Kent the building can be built in one or two stages, and operate as one tower or two. It has a single lift core, although this too can operate in halves. In space terms it is therefore more efficient than two towers, although less efficient than one. But it does offer a range of use options, including vast floor areas for tenants who, in line with current management theory, feel the need for large, interchangeable team structures.
The irony is that, while the council rejected the previous Multistar plan for its bulk and density, the DCM/Leightons proposal, which the council at this point can hardly refuse, is both higher and bulkier than Multistar’s and well in breach of the 1996 city plan. The proposal, resulting from the council’s own design excellence procedures, is 110 metres high (the city plan allows 80 metres), at a density of 12.4:1 (the plan allows 8:1), with a floor-plate of 3,650 square metres (the plan allows 1,000 square metres, max) and a 50-metre solid facade along Kent Street where the plan allows no more than 40 metres on any one elevation. Whereas the city’s laneways policy is designed to preserve fine grain by protecting lanes, poor old Sussex Lane is here relegated to one end of the site precisely in order to establish the tower’s massive footprint. But it keeps the heritage sweeties intact, and offers a basketball court, quasi-public.
Maybe this is all worth it. After all, it is a much, much better building. But it’s not small. And it breaches policy after policy.
Before the developer can apply for planning permission, therefore, the council must amend its 1996 city plan in order to accommodate the new proposal, with the draft amendment (currently exhibiting at Town Hall House) worded specifically around “the
winning entry of the architectural competition (submitted by Richard Johnson, Architect)”. So from June 4, when council expects to approve the change, Sydney’s official city plan will actually name the architect and specify the development proposal around which it is shaped. It passes for planning. Pretty weird.
And will the building actually be built? Leightons, negotiating with prospective tenants as we speak, is avowedly risk averse: will it really jump, so far from the golden triangle, which has lately moved not west but east, towards Governor Phillip and Piano’s Aurora Place? Leightons says yes. Sure, no worries. KENS has been slow to move because of its fringe location but Leightons insists that it is currently “repositioning” as “financial core”. They wish. Then again, as true disciples of the tooth fairy know, wishes do sometimes come true.
All five KENS site proposals are on show at the City Exhibition Space, Level 4, Customs House, until June 3.
ILLUS: Watch this space …
an impression of how the DCM design would look.