Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Rum story in stones
“THERE are only two classes of people in the colony,” observed Governor King in 1800, “the rum servers, and the rum drinkers”. A few years later, one John O’Hearne was paid 600 gallons of rum for repairing the Tank Stream crossing, next to which sat Sydney’s first, conspicuously unpalatial Government House – home to King, among others. And although the house itself is long gone, the rum flavour lingers on in the story of the ground on which it sat.
The site of Australia’s first permanent building now bears aloft two of Sydney’s most patrician symbols of ’80s-style joint-sector corporatism and, with equal prominence, the tiny, fragile remains of our rather humbler national origin.
The towers, named for our first and fifth governors, Phillip and Macquarie, respectively have awards emerging from every orifice, and the sacred ruins are housed in and around one of Sydney’s unsung joys, the new Museum of Sydney.
Their story, aptly enough, is a classic Sydney saga of public sector vacillation and private sector greed. But the result – and this is the unusual bit – is an emphatic success.
For 50 years, the site had been squatted on by the Public Works Department’s unromantic tin shed. The first gleaming redevelopment proposal emerged in 1982, designed by Jackson Teece Chesterman and Willis, for Northpoint Holdings, ably assisted by the Wran regime. But a few old bits of crockery and a goat’s femur, or similar, exposed by the first sod turned, put paid to that. Archaeologists dug in, puffing the dust from enough brick footings and other nugatory (but iconic) remains to sterilise the northern part of the site forever.
So the government contrived, with near-legitimacy, to stack enough development rights from the front, now-sacred half of the site onto the back half to keep the developers salivating, while the Institute of Architects, then under Lawrence Nield, demanded, and got, a national design competition.
The competition was held over the summer of ’88. Architects everywhere forwent their deck-chairs; short and even shorter lists were selected – before the whole thing was suddenly dumped and joint developer Sid Londish got one of the non-conforming also-rans on-board. Just like that.
The good thing about this otherwise drearily familiar Sydney story is that the also-ran in question was the Melbourne-based firm Denton Corker Marshal (DCM), designers of our very handsome Beijing and Tokyo embassies, inter alia. And that the result of their labours is not just a couple of office towers, but a whole, handsome city precinct, including the towers, the museum, and two new city squares, First Government House Square and Farrer Place (designed in collaboration with the City Council).
Apart from the embassies, DCM had produced some of Melbourne’s more succulent office buildings, including 222 Exhibition Street and 101 Collins, before being rewarded in Sydney in 1989 by what Londish promised would be “timeless, simple and elegant”.
Londish was right, the thing is elegant – due not least to his own efforts. Name another Sydney tower where the stainless steel chic and designer doorknobs don’t stop at the car park.
“Timeless” is less accurate, except in the Vogue Living sense, since everything about the buildings marks the slow passage of time. This is true not just of the Museum, which consciously manifests chronology, but of the towers too, whose immense dignity and confidence impart a sense of aeons, both past and future. This derives in part from the essential compositional concept, using sandstone to connect the base to the ground and the precinct, while the tower rises, disconnected, into the clouds.
To some extent the artworks assist: the immense, silencing presence of Trevor Weekes’s Macquarie, for instance, and Laurence and Foley’s talkative Edge of Trees. These apart, however, the art adds little to the buildings, struggling to present Sydney’s cultural beginnings in a way which, unusually, is less sophisticated than its architectural substrate.
The Museum of Sydney is even more gratifying in this regard. Here the question of representation, working from an unpromisingly meagre collection, has been worked through in a way that rivals even the Hyde Park Barracks.
Both of these museological gems take a fresh, first-principles approach to the problem of exhibiting the essentially unexhibitable – time past. Both are bent on enhancing the slow cognitive process with allusion, suggestion and a sort of sensual poetics designed to give a feel, as much as an understanding, of old.
In this, the Museum of Sydney exhibits to the same end. Even the sandstone rustication, probably the building’s most literal device, is sufficiently abstracted to give a sense, rather than a look, of tradition. The use of material – black steel, spotted gum, glass and that fabulous Pyrmont honey-stone – is simple and confident, a maturing of DCM’s familiar style.
And the exhibition itself is an unexpected joy, presenting ancient comestibles inside a glass grid which not only looks as good as a Milanese deli, but imparts an irresistible sense of distant exotica – the silks and spices and four trade winds as must have seemed to tiny far-flung Sydney town. Tiny porcelain figurine fragments slide inside halogen-lit stainless-steel drawers, updating the technology of butterfly collection with the satisfyingly glutinous movement of an expensive German auto. Electronic images chat disarmingly about the social mores in 1790s Sydney, wink, and vanish.
It’s a while since Sydney had a new museum that was neither boring nor patronising. Now it has two, MoS and the Barracks, both genuinely enchanting.
ILLUS: Museum of Sydney’s Edge of Trees, Governor Phillip Tower, left.
Photograph by PALANI MOHAN