Skip links

mos 89

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 01-Jul-1989

Edition: Late

Section: Spectrum


Page: 81

Wordcount: 2514


E.M. Farrelly

ARCHITECTURE is often described as the most public of the arts; it is also, by its nature, the most compromised, the least “fine” art. The very idea of pure architectural theory, unsullied by politics, finance and feasibility, is a nonsense, for however enthusiastically architecture may wave its head in the intellectual clouds, its boots remain irretrievably stuck in the mud of praxis.

This appallingly human duality is architecture’s most essential characteristic; at once its saving grace, and its final, fatal flaw.

For anyone attempting over recent years to follow what has become known as the First Government House Site Fiasco, this natural turbidity of the profession must have become abundantly, murkily clear. Even now the story continues and, for those who like such things, it seems it may yet have a happy ending. No tragedy this, despite all early indications and intricate entanglements of plot – just a complicated comedy of errors.

The house was built by Governor Phillip in 1788 and was the colony’s focus and seat of government until its demolition in 1845.

Sited on what is now the junction of Phillip and Bridge Streets, it had been NSW’s first “permanent” building; but NSW then was interested very much in the future, not the past.

By some fluke the site, now deep in the continent’s most sought-after commercial territory, has lain fallow ever since. The Public Works Department’s much-hated “tin shed” office stood there from 1919-1967; but in recent years, despite a ready supply of would-be cultivators for so commercially fertile a spot, it has served solely as a car-park, leaving the precious below-ground remains undisturbed.

The complications began on February 20, 1983. For some months, a deal had been under negotiation which would give Northpoint Holdings, jointly with the State Superannuation Board, a 99-year lease on the site and the right to build a 38-storey tower on the site – for a mere $30 million contribution to the State Government’s dwindling coffers.

The tower was already designed (by architects Jackson Teece Chesterman and Willis) but a preliminary archaeological investigation was also part of the deal. And when the first sod turned exposed “remains of national cultural significance”, a public outcry began which gave Northpoint the perfect excuse to withdraw from an agreement that was anyway proving expensive, and deprived the Wran Government of its

keenly anticipated recompense.

Also on the site were two groups of terrace houses, on Young Street (1874)and on Phillip Street (1866). A conservation plan, drawn up in 1986 for the DEP by architects Conybeare Morrison and Partners, recommended an expenditure of $20 million to $50 million on the preservation and commemoration of FGH. Mr Wran, however, reportedly unimpressed by the site’s putative significance and feeling that Sydney already had enough museums, counterrecommended a maximum expenditure of $2 million – a monument perhaps, and some special paving, no more.

It is arguable, in fact, that Mr Wran was right: that the significance of a site which has after all yielded little more in the way of tangible evidence than some rows of ill-laid brick footings, 46 bits of printer’s lead type, fragmentary wine bottles and a goat’s skeleton, which has added little to our understanding of history (but has in fact been elucidated by it) – and which is anyway mostly interred beneath Bridge Street itself – has been greatly over-stressed by the combined forces of public hysteria, professional lobbying and media hype.

But the other side is arguable too and, politics being what it is, public opinion held sway. Meanwhile, in the commercial sector, further proposals were being made for the site by, among others, Comrealty’s Sid Londish.

Concern for the unity of the project led to the inclusion in the development site of the 37-storey Legal and General Building (owned by the State Superannuation Board which nevertheless refuses, to this day, to countenance demolition) on Bent Street, and it was agreed that on the granting of development consent, Londish and the other promoters would pay $85 million to the State Government, in return for transferred development rights from the front, historic part of the site to the so

uthern commercial area. The Government, in turn, would reinvest $10 million (the amount it was estimated that the preservation exercise might reasonably cost).

This, it was thought, in one of those curious pieces of reasoning that so characterise 1980s politics, would not only allow comprehensive redevelopment of the block (bounded by Bridge, Young, Phillip and Bent Streets) as a whole, but would enable the retention and public exposure of the remains without straining the public purse, by making the commercial development on the back part of the site pay for it.

The only catch was the great 50-storey cliff it would have at the bottom of its fragile historic garden. A list was drawn up of those to be invited to participate in a limited competition.

Here, however, things began once again to go awry. There was pressure, most notably from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (under the president Lawrence Nield), to hold an open, two-stage national competition instead. On November 30 last year – under a new government anxious to make its mark and despite opposition from Andrew Andersons, then assistant Government Architect, who felt that the “extraordinary and contradictory complexities” of the program made it unsuitable for open competition, and Sid Londish, who was concerned that such competitions were often won by young firms without sufficient substance to carry the project through – the competition was thrown open to all Australian-registered arch


THEY were given an immensely complex, centimetres-thick and not altogether unambiguous brief, and 12 weeks in which to solve it, that is: to preserve the fragile FGH remains intact and in situ while exposing some of them to public view; provide a museum of “commemorative facility” which would dignify and interpret the remains to the public; “sympathetically conserve” and re-use(perhaps as part of the museum) the Young Street terraces (the Phillip Street terraces are to be restored and managed

separately); and create an”outstanding” and unified urban environment. Oh, and, incidentally, to provide 93,500 square metres of “aesthetically significant and commercially viable”office space (less than one-third of which would be accounted for by the existing Legal & General building), capable of being built in two stages and of allowing the existing building to be occupied throughout. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Quite a lot of the country’s most eminent architects took one look and abandoned the idea as ludicrous but 74 brave (and possibly over-eager) firms took up the challenge.

What architects hope for in such a situation is not a prize, whatever reward it carries ($20,000 in this case for the first-stage finalists – barely enough to cover the cost of a serious entry) but the status of winning – and above all, the job. This alone explains the dismay and disgust felt by the profession generally, entrants and non-entrants alike, when on April 28, 1989, it was announced by the Deputy Premier and Minister for Public Works, Mr Murray, that the esteemed assessors of the competition had reached the improbable conclusion that none of the 74 entries was good enough even to promote to a second stage, and that the competition was therefore abandoned from that date.

That eight honoraria of $20,000 each were to be dished out as promised (for schemes that the assessors themselves would later describe as mediocre at best) was no consolation, and the fact (which was never announced but was immediately common knowledge) that six architects – four from among the eight, two not – had been chosen independently by the “promoters” with whom to negotiate further towards the possibility of the job, added injury to insult.

The panel of seven assessors, which included five architects (three of them professors, one the present Government Architect), one archaeologist, and Sid Londish, blamed the fact that very few of the entries had complied with the conditions. To have given any sort of prize, they argued, would have involved their acting “illegally”; the eight premiated schemes were merely the poor best of those few who were not actually disqualified for contravention.

From their point of view, this seemed entirely reasonable. Rules, after all, are rules, and the whole idea of competition would be meaningless without them. But the opinion of the profession was against them – and not just out of pique. It has long been conventional wisdom among architects that all competition-winners, long before and after Utzon, break the rules; the art, it is said, lies in knowing just which rules to break.

This is not just professional wilfulness. Architectural competitions, since the Council of Athens invited submissions for a war memorial on the Acropolis in 448BC, have traditionally been part of the search not just for adequate solutions, but for brilliant and undreamt-of innovation; for ideas. This is particularly true both of overt “ideas competitions”, of which this was not one, and of two-stage competitions, which allows ideas to be premiated in the first stage, on the condition that the rules, as further defined and clarified in the interim, be met in the second.

To disqualify non-conforming entrants per se, therefore, runs directly counter not to the letter but to the spirit of architectural competition, and the First Government House Site assessors’ determination to give legal advice priority over architectural merit, however fearful they may have been for their reputations, leaves them with their integrity intact but their honour more than somewhat tarnished.

For it was entirely predictable, from the moment they decided to abandon the competition, that what did happen, would happen – namely, that a group of the better schemes (rule-breakers or no) would be chosen by the clients, a way forward negotiated, and an architect picked for the job.

This, which amounts in effect to the holding of a second stage outside the structure and boundaries of the competition and without the set remuneration($25,000 each for an anticipated shortlist of four), makes the assessors’abandonment an abrogation of their responsibility to select the best, most imaginative few from which the “winner” would be chosen, prize or no prize.

IN the event – though more by luck, one suspects, than anything else – the”winning” architects are the Melbourne-based Denton Corker and Marshall, whose scheme, while not among the premiated eight (presumably because it, like most, broke the rules

by, for example, stepping quite outside the site boundaries to encroach on to Bridge Street and close Young Street completely), was surely one of the three most skilled and sensitive solutions entered (the other two being schemes by Philip Cox and L

awrence Nield – neither of which figured in either the assessors’ eight or the promoters’ six).

DCM is a Melbourne-based firm with considerable experience in designing ceremonial/cultural buildings (such as the Australian Embassy in Beijing and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra) and high-rise commercial buildings, such as 91-97 William

Street and 101 Collins Street (the Carringbush Tower, now under construction), both in Melbourne. Its work in the former category is characterised at best by a sombre elegance; in the latter by a conscious emphasis on “sculptural quality” which in fact gives rise to a decorative, even garish, superficiality.

Their scheme for the First Government House site involved both categories of work, and displayed both sets of contradictory characteristics. The museum at the front of the site is low, simple and stone-clad, stepping with deceptive ease around the existing buildings, encasing the fragile remains in small glass pyramids which erupt through the pavement like tiny additions to the Louvre – easily the most sensitive plan submitted.

The tower, however, told a different story. Deliberately divorced from the the rest of the site, its massive 51-storey bulk was intentionally over-scaled(in an attempt to make it read at “city scale” rather than “street scale” and so leave history visually unscathed) and clad in a loud Mondrian tartan. It was, in the architects’ own estimation, a “brave” tower – parlous brave, since it nearly cost them the job, proving too vulgar even for Londish, who does not normally shrink from kitsch and describes even his own office as “quite garish up on top – I like people to remember they’ve been there”.

This building, of course, is different. For Londish, the chance to build around the first germ of the colony is almost a symbolic act, the culmination of a career; “I may build one or two more buidings, but I won’t get another chance to do something like this”. His constantly repeated description of the new scheme whose tower, on his insistence, has changed since the competition and will continue to change until development application in a few weeks’time, is “simple and elegant; timeless, simple and elegant”.

Clad now in marble, sandstone and trachite, with strips of inlaid metal, the new, still unnamed building will be Sid’s lasting monument on planet Earth- more elegant, he says, than the Bond building, “more elegant, even, than anything we’ve done”.

Let us hope, in the interests of history and of this most urbane part of the city, that he’s right, and that his urge towards timeless monumentality is not confounded either by a misplaced fashionable populism or by any habitual compulsion to extract every last drop of profit from so bankable a site.

For while Sid, having never wanted an open competition, may be well-satisfied with the outcome, the architectural profession continues, with some justification, to fell aggrieved.

Their willing and lavish expenditure of person-hours, and the unqualified good faith (and, of course, self-interest) so demonstrated, have been abused, and the competition system, while no doubt inappropriate to this site from the start, must surely suffer as a result. Any happy ending now rests wholly on the quality of the building that results.


Two Illus: The site of the first Government House (foreground, top) today, with the original Government House c.1790 at left.


More text on SII


Join the Discussion