Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Skinny but alive, hospital survives
E. M. Farrelly
THE General Hospital, Macquarie Street, was Sydney’s Opera House of the 1880s. A competition had been won by high-profile architect (and president of the institute) Thomas Rowe, whose exuberant Parisian design would have produced one of Sydney’s most distinguished works. But costs ballooned and Rowe was sacked, halfway through construction.
For eight years the building stood unroofed, before Rowe was replaced by the more malleable John Kirkpatrick, who knocked a storey off and considerably desplendoured Rowe’s vision. But neither this, nor the hubbub that ensued, prevented the final costs blowing out to more than six times budget.
Since then, even Kirkpatrick’s truncated version has demonstrated enough sandstone gusto to have become a Sydney favourite, helping constitute that special Macquarie Street cachet. From a design point of view, though, this rich historical context only makes life more difficult. In the 1990s, 100 years on, the hospital found itself in a classic grow-or-die dilemma, on a site cluttered with building treasures and hemmed by sacred immovables – Parliament, the Mint, Macquarie Street and The Domain.
There was, of course, no money.
Tight spots demand smart thinking, and the hospital’s eventual strategy was not without audacity: make up the critical mass by inviting the Sydney Eye Hospital, already under the same management, to share a new building on the site; then insert a whopping new underground public car park to pay for it. Get Healthworks, the Government Architect’s hospitals division, onto the design.
This in itself produced an interesting quandary. Nobody wants more cars in the city and the only way to limit cars is to limit parking. But at a time when, in recognition of these uncomfortable facts, the Government was imposing parking taxes and the city was opposing new car parks, the Government Architect, formidably flanked by doctors, nurses and Friends, was obliged to lobby City
Council to support a major new public car park. Embarrassing.
The hospital was fighting for its survival. The city’s excuse was different. From the city point of view, there was another principle at stake – that of urban biodiversity. As well as reducing cars in the city, the council was committed to the belief that strong cities comprise myriad uses, not just offices and banks and the odd corporate florist. Whether there may have been other ways for the hospital to support itself – such as the provision of private clinical rooms – remains a moot point. In the end, the council judged it more important to sustain a city hospital than to prohibit this particular batch of 250 car spaces.
Healthworks’ design, responding meticulously to so constrained and conspicuous a site, is founded on the idea of extending what was extant without replicating it. This suggested a new building that would take its place within a formal planning geometry in which separate pavilions were arranged to form courtyards – very Florence Nightingale – and linked by bridges. The visual vocabulary of the building should progressively lighten up the building and new buildings should front the Domain not the street.
On this last, there was little choice, the Macquarie Street frontage being somewhat spoken for. The Domain side, too, has had its controversies, such as the very public feud, in 1917, between architect John Sulman (who gave his name to the Big Award) and barrister, labour advocate and Minister J. D. Fitzgerald. Their quarrel centred on a proposal for a temporary venereal disease clinic on Sydney Hospital’s eastern side, backing onto The Domain. Fitzgerald supported the proposal; Sulman thought it ugly and inappropriate, and eventually persuaded Cabinet against it.
Despite Sulman the Travers Building, present incumbent of the hospital’s Domain front, is scarcely less of an eyesore. Completed in 1930, it will be demolished any moment as a part of the new plan to open up the hospital to the park.
This will expose to public gaze the handsome Worrall building, enfolding its magical little St Luke’s Chapel, and give access too to the new courtyard formed by the conjunction of the new building with the old. This courtyard is the primary spatial idea of the Healthworks design. Intended to complement the existing courtyard (with cafe and fountain), it occupies a roughly symmetrical spot in the overall plan. But there the similarity ends. The existing courtyard is no world-shaker, but it is sufficiently gracious to dispel any lingering fear of the boiled-cabbage smell that normally lurks behind hospitals.
The new courtyard is regretably small – about half the size of the old one and, being on the south of the central block, gloomier. It is so small because the building is so deceptively big. With 52 beds on each floor, all capable of supervision from a single point (compared with 16 in the existing wards), the new building is also remarkably efficient. Surely here, though, of all Sydney’s special places, efficiency might have been expected to bow just a little to civicness? This was the moment and the place for a really ripping, really beautiful courtyard: how much car parking would it take to pay for the extra pairs of eyes?
In its detail, too, in its putting together of form and material, the new building announces at every junction that economy was of the essence. Sandstone appears around the base of the building, but strictly as a skinny material, with no detail – no sills or heads to the windows, much less balusters or rustications or carved curlicues. Detail is offered by the thin arc of the corrie iron sun-hoods, which grace even the south face of the building but which, making no attempt to disguise their thinness, afford little visual comfort.
There is a stone colonnade, which runs for a brief moment past the main entry, but the columns support thin air, so you can’t even pretend they’re real. And the copper-coloured cladding on the plant rooms – like, but not like, the old roofs – merely underlines the limits of simile.
Inside, unlike the high-ceilinged corridors of the Rowe/Kirkpatrick building, the new interiors – where outpatients wait on rows of vinyl chairs, with a few toys in one corner and tea on a trolley – could be any hospital, anywhere.
It took six floors of car parking to keep Sydney Hospital alive. If it needed an extra floor – two extra floors – to give the city’s only hospital the civic substance it deserves, would that be worth it? Can you measure civicness in carbon monoxide? And are there times when a full-blown repro-job, a real thoroughgoing architectural pastiche, may be publicly preferable to an architecture which constantly declares the thinness of things?
Two illus: Top: looking into the old courtyard at the General Hospital.
Bottom: the new courtyard, with the new building on the right and the old building on the left.
Photographs by SAHLAN HAYES