Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Penrith defies the westie cringe
ALL right, agreed. As world cities go, Penrith may not be first in line for critical acclaim. And yes, there are those who query its right to the title “city” at all. But Penrith’s city centre has achieved something remarkable over the last few years, something little short of metamorphosis.
Since 1989, Penrith has acquired a new Civic Centre and Library, the new Dame Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, a major building in the mausoleum style to accommodate the Australian Taxation Office and, unforgettably, that mammoth shopping experience known locally as “the Plaza”. In a town the size of Penrith, such a transformation can only signify serious energy – and seriously bulging demographics.
All of the developments have been built, pushed, funded or fund-raised by Penrith City Council, determined to show that civilisation doesn’t stop at Glebe. The Performing Arts Centre, a smallish, prowed, striped number in pale grey and white – unmistakably Philip Cox, but not his finest hour – is on part of the former council chambers site. Lend Lease’s vast Penrith Plaza was facilitated by a complex land swap with the council. And a part-sale of the old council chambers site to the taxation people underwrote the whole thing.
The council has changed the shape of Penrith centre.
This was the gist of the city’s brief to Feiko Bouman, architect for the Civic Centre: to give Penrith some tangible presence, something to identity with, and be identified by, other than the Panthers. To counteract the “westie” cringe.
The City Council also wanted, however, a building which knitted together its rather disparate neighbours – the Dame and the Plaza – and which was friendly and approachable for the citizenry. That made it more difficult. How to design a building that shows them, but welcomes us? This tension is palpable throughout the building.
Trained as a Modernist (he was one of the designers of Canberra’s High Court), Feiko Bouman was never going to go for the full-frontal, double-breasted columns-and-pilasters treatment with which many architects would respond to such a brief these days. But his Civic Centre creation is none the less flamboyant for that. Its centrifugal geometry articulated by a series of turrets, flying buttresses and a spectacular carapace funnelling visitors in the front door, the building loses no opportunity for drama.
As a Modernist, Bouman was conscience-bound to ensure that such aesthetic gestures were disguisable as pragmatics: thus, at least some of the turrets let light in (some don’t), the buttresses double as fire escapes and the entrance carapace supports a system of ramps – although the lifts are just inside. But the imagery is there, all the same.
Penrith Civic Centre, its basic grey splashed heraldically with pink, violet, orange and green, is about as dour as a catherine wheel. Still, from the outside at least, the fortress quality is undeniable. It takes only a small imaginative step to see the ring-road filled with water and the city elders up there in the chamber – hanging heavy with symbolism over the front door – ready with the boiling oil.
Inside is different. Inside the building is all light – rather too much of it, judging by the post-hoc sun-screening tarps. But let’s call that teething, and pass on. Reflecting the new corporate thinking, as well as the new Local Government Act, the central space is a large one-stop shop, designed with some care and intelligence around the complex activity it holds. Staff offices, and staff-public meeting rooms are arranged more or less concentrically around. The flavour is relaxed and businesslike, smart but not chic, not pompous – the mayoral photos and terrifically formal chamber notwithstanding – but not especially civic, either.
Penrith’s real civic heart – its town hall steps, if you like – is somewhere else. The place for a tryst in Penrith is not the Civic Centre, but the Plaza fountain. Yes, the Plaza is naff – it is a shopping centre. But unlike the Civic Centre, the Plaza has a strong underlying discipline – the spinal “street” – and some simple, vivid spatial gestures, very close in principle to the QVB. Only at the last does it add the gilt and baubles.
Critics often note – usually with disdain – that the shopping centre as genre has turned civicness inside out. The street, quintessential public space, is not only interiorised, but air-conditioned, sanitised, privatised. Architecture too has been inside-outed. Penrith Plaza is a building with no exterior. A car park on one side, a grass swathe along the other.
So, what do the townspeople think? Of the civic inversion; of the great and prosperous Lend Lease cuckoo; of the High Street mall, and of the new Civic Centre building? How successfully has it put Penrith on the map?
The answer must depend on whom you ask. Asking “easties” can only reinforce the cringe, so it’s local opinion one seeks. And the local consensus is, it’s great. Purists might mutter about formal indiscipline, but people who work in the Civic Centre lyricise over the sense of endless discovery it brings, and the bytes of surprise visual joy; while even detractors concede it’s bold, memorable, different.
Which brings us to the much underrated sez-who problem in architecture. Can a building, especially a public building, be liked – loved, even – by all inhabitants, and not be good architecture? If so, according to what standards, whose judgment? Sez who?
Illus: Penrith Civic Centre…not glamorous but the locals are happy.
Photograph by BRENDAN ESPOSITO