Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
A sporting chance for no-man’s-land
E. M. Farrelly
Big Ideas are in order to create something out of the nothing that is the Olympics site.
ALL RIGHT. I concede. Random collections of sports stadia are not exactly my pick of the litter, with or without their thronging multitudes. And few of life’s rewards, if any, could tempt me within coo-ee of a railway station rhythmically disgorging 50,000 people an hour.
Such heretical aversions, however, do nothing to preclude an abiding academic interest (I use the term advisedly) in the near-orgasmic frenzy of architectural activity that increasingly characterises the Homebush site. What can possibly result?
You don’t have to be a genius to design a stadium, Olympic or otherwise – although most of the architects of the current batch are rather that way inclined, of which more later. Certainly, there are basic things to get right. Stadia can fail to protect the punters from rain, fire or hooliganism. But that’s not the hard bit. The hard bit at Homebush – the hair-tearingly, breast-beatingly difficult bit – is to make somewhere, anywhere, out of a site that is, as we speak, definitively nowhere. And do it in three or four blinks of an eye.
That is a nice wee urban design challenge.
The stadia, public subsidy notwithstanding, will be privately run and utterly selfcontained. They are the Platonic Forms of introversion. So it’ll be up to the public realm at Homebush to pull it all together.
Even in an existing city, this kind of place-making requires a big, unifying idea. At Homebush, especially in view of the current archi-frenzy, it’s going to take an Idea of truly sit-up-straight-in-bed proportions.
The Olympic Co-ordinating Authority (OCA) recently unveiled designs for two primary elements of this future public realm: the new Olympic Park railway station, designed by Ken Maher and Rod Uren of Hassell, and the Public Domain, designed by Harvard Professor of Landscape Architecture, George Hargreaves, with help from the Government Architect’s unassumingly titled Design Directorate.
You’d be forgiven for expecting the Public Domain, a vast forecourt linking all the main stadia with their patrons’ points of origin (including station, coach ranks and car parks) to be the bearer of the Big Idea. Few, on the other hand, would pin their hopes on the intellectual content of the Great Australian Railway Station. But reality can still surprise.
While the Public Domain is struggling to hold it all together, the Olympic Park station makes self-possession look like a piece of cake.
Of course, the degree of difficulty is a bit variable. Linking assorted stadia into a cohesive order is like putting half a dozen bullish egos on a committee. Each sees the universe as radiating from its own bellybutton, which doesn’t do a lot for civic manners. Especially in view of the fact that the stadia got in first.
The “core area” at Homebush comprises several of these dominant ego-buildings – Olympic Stadium, aquatic centre, athletics centre, athletics warm-up arena, multiuse arena (MUA), showground arena, and domed exhibition hall – all floating like so many poached eggs in a sea of nothing in particular. The original Lawrence Nield Masterplan for the site was commissioned, in true Sydney tradition, well after the stadia locations – and in some cases the buildings – were set in concrete. It attempted to resolve the inchoate nature of the place through the baroque design device of placing each stadium within a rectilinear space and threading a connecting boulevard between the squares.
Then, as the private operators came on board and the main stadium grew by 30 per cent to accommodate 110,000 in Olympic mode (a mere 85,000 otherwise), it became clear that the linking “thread” would need to be one seriously big space, coping with up
to 300,000 people at a time.
This meant rethinking the “boulevard”, under Hargreaves’s guidance, as a plaza or forecourt. Flattened right out to engage the stadia bodily, rather than merely approaching their front doors, the plaza became “the biggest welcome mat in Australia”, as the blurb goes.
It wasn’t just a question of size, either. To compete with stadia up to 18 storeys high, each beginning to sprout its own egocentric paving pattern, the Olympic Plaza was required to evince grandeur – not an everyday concept in building briefs – in sufficient quantities to memorialise the 2000 Games for generations to come.
Thing is about grandeur, though, it’s awful hard to do lying down. Some things take naturally to the horizontal dimension. Grandeur is not one of them.
Hargreaves, for all that, is practised at great encompassing gestures which turn land into scape, and his scheme does what it can. Huge bold graphics subsume the whole under a red and yellow backgammon board the size of Hyde Park (north and south), fringed by green “fingers” of different landscape characters and an “urban forest” of eucalypts.
There are great arcing fountains at either end, part of the “grey water” purifying system and by far the most poetic gesture on the site to date. And strewn over the plaza like the crimson follies at La Villette in Paris, only useful, are 23 freestanding pylons, one for each Olympics so far.
Each pylon, as designed by Tonkin Zulaikha, is seven storeys high and capable of snuggling a sizeable refreshments kiosk between its feet without noticing it. Each carries a standard kit which includes some spectacular Barry Webb-designed special-events lighting, signage designed by Emery Vincent with inimitable graphic flair, and a translucent solar collector to render it selfsufficient. The plaza itself will be carried into its next design phase by Denton Corker Marshall, of Governor Phillip fame, while Hargreaves and team will refine the watery bits at the ends.
In terms of design attention per square inch, it rates highly. But the space itself still feels a little overbaked. Australia is a hot country. All the more reason, surely, to turn the fact to advantage with a huge shade structure like Skidmore Owings and Merrill’s wonderful Jedda Airport of a decade or so ago. There, thousands of white-clad pilgrims squat in the sand beneath a vast billowing roof, its dignity and theirs wholly unimpaired by the myriad jumbos plugged in like piglets around the perimeter.
Already the architects are talking of bringing more trees into the plaza. Perhaps in the ensuing stages of design development, the understandable reluctance to impede pedestrian flow may be tempered by a desire for comfort along the way.
The new Olympic Park Station, however, is formed around a single strong idea. Eschewing the obvious temptation to emulate the great stations of Victorian London, Ken Maher and Rod Uren pursued an idea which dramatised the horizontal as given.
The station was required to be a design of “international stature and a source of community pride”, a super-efficient conduit of humans and, as far as possible, naturally lit and ventilated. The line was underground, the land was flat. The idea that grew from these conditions was simply to treat the station as a depression in the earth’s surface rather than an underground chamber, with a big open roof hovering over.
And, due to the determination of the architects and the enlightenment of their clients, this is precisely what has eventuated. The base of the station, in the interests of the metaphor, are entirely concrete – stairs, platforms, columns, pavers, all expressing connectedness with earth. The roof, a vast folded plane comprising a series of glass-spined steel leaves, hovers, offers sun and rain protection but lets air flow freely through.
The hall is 22 metres (some six storeys) high, 200 metres long, and unmistakably directional. All stairs and escalators point like iron filings straight to the Olympics. A pair of timber-and-steel ticket booths sits at the mouth, but otherwise the great vaulted space is smoothly furniture-free, concentrating on the fluid dynamics of population flow.
This could become even a little too cool, perhaps. But the presence of real, moving air and even the occasional shaft of sunlight turns austerity into serenity. Ask yourself. How might Town Hall or Wynyard feel with a spot of fresh air in the belly of the beast?
As for the plaza, who knows? Perhaps backgammon will be the next Olympic sport.
Two illus: The Olympic Plaza, with seven-storey pylons to commemorate the 23 Olympiads so far.The Olympic railway station … a single strong idea.