Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
BUT A LEMON WITH JUST MINORITY USE
LET’S get one thing straight. The Customs House debate is not primarily, or even secondarily, about Musica Viva. Nor is it to be won by collecting autographs of the great and good, however lyrically they might sit on the page. Sydney needs a concert hall, yes. And Customs House needs a cuddle. But simultaneous availability is no guarantee of a perfect marriage, and this one is a definite mistake.
All right, it’s convenient. But this convenience conceals deep incompatibility. The use is a big – seriously big – black box with a substantial requirement for ancillary space and a strictly elitist appeal. (Nothing wrong with elitism, necessarily; here it’s just a fact.) The building, on the other hand, is an under-loved 19th-century office block with a handsome face and a centre that needs warming, expressway-divided from the harbour, too aloof to take easy advantage of the swarming tourists and protected by a Permanent Conservation Order. It’s no perfect match.
The real question is not about Musica Viva, but about the best and most invigorating use – for the Customs House, the Quay and the city. Enforce this unnatural union and you get something Sydney certainly doesn’t need, a third-rate concert hall which, with no guaranteed end-user, will be quickly abandoned when a better one turns up; a black hole in the heart of tourist territory bleeding the city council through the Olympics and beyond. You’d have to be daft.
Sure, $24 million has a certain magnetic quality. You can understand that. But you should understand, too, that it’s not a gift to the city council, going free to the loudest mouth. The Customs House lease, and the money, have been offered to the council in exchange for air space over East Circular Quay, in a deal designed to keep those buildings low in perpetuity.
This quid pro quo means that whatever happens in the Customs House has to stack up. It needn’t make a profit, but it has to sustain itself. Shoehorning a concert hall in there not only gives problematic acoustics, a cramped foyer, a building that will always feel gloomily overstuffed and a 30 per cent chance of not seeing the stage but – even with the $24 million – it just doesn’t stack.
Let’s go through the issues then, seriatim. First, architecture. An early accusation in the Customs House debate – also, as it happens, from the concert hall lobby – was that the project was being “architecturally-driven”. As though minority music deserved heavy subsidy but architecture, a still rarer indulgence round this town, should remain some sort of secret vice. An especially curious attitude, you might think, to a building which already bears the stamp of three of our finest architects and the uncommon distinction, partly for this reason, of a Permanent Conservation Order.
In plan the building is U-shaped, its fine yellowblock walls enclosing a one-time central court, infilled with no noticeable grace or style in 1917. The obvious architectural response is to reinstate, in some form, this large dignifying central space, bringing sun onto the honeyed stone and light into the heart of the beast. Only light, as directly precluded by the black box option, can turn the building’s dour visage into a face of welcome. The forecourt may – will – be alive with performers, a la Pompidou, but only light, and constant activity, can draw humans in.
In heritage terms, the old courtyard has a centrality which deserves recognition, as the loading and unloading area for the carts and drays of Sydney’s early customs activity. The heritage questions are difficult, with the building’s layered construction over time exaggerating the usual conundrum as to which layer claims greatest authenticity. However, one thing is clear; gutting the building for the sake of doubtful acoustic strength is the answer you only have when you haven’t got an answer.
Archaeology is another thing. As the first-landing flag in Loftus Street denotes, this is hallowed turf, and any attempt to disturb same (such as the full-size underground auditorium proposed in the Aboriginal scheme for the building), is likely to have us all sit on our hands for a few years while some overalled person digs the hole with the soft end of a paintbrush.
Money. As in any adaptive re-use, the project cost is directly proportional to the degree of intervention; an effect only reinforced when you include costs-in-use. The more building you keep, the less you pay – and the more you have left to make money from, once real life begins. In a project like this especially, set about not only by heritage constraints but by a 70 per cent public/cultural requirement and a strictly finite shoestring, the dollars are crucial.
The building needs a use, not a gob-stopper. Culture should entrance the whole passing public, not the hyphened few. And 24 million is an adequate kind of pile, not huge. Reliable advice – in so far as reliable financial advice is a semantic possibility – shows that anything more interventionist, more specialised and less reversible than a vibrant mix of cultural uses puts all the Customs House graphs below the line for a good part of the next 60 years.
The city council might be about improving the public lot, but that doesn’t include being left holding the lemon, when the music stops.
DRAWING: By Jock Alexander