Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
More fun in the fast lane
E. M. FARRELLY
ONE of Sydney’s longest and most lovable traditions is the harbourside swimming baths – Redleaf, Wylie’s, Dawn Fraser, Bondi, Bronte and Berrys Bay, inter alia. Other cities are forced to the bother and expense of building indoor pools in town: Sydney, exorbitantly talented in the climate-and-topography department, just corrals a patch of harbour and relies on she to be right, mate. Like much of Sydney, this can prove a touch obscure for the uninitiated, playing hunt-the-blue-rectangle under the cliff there. But it’s easy when you know.
Nearly 120 years ago the North Sydney pool – one of the few you can actually see from anywhere – had just such a true blue beginning. Since then the Wonder Pool, as it was dubbed after being rebuilt for the 1938 Empire Games, has acquired distinguished neighbours – the Harbour Bridge to the left, Luna Park to the right – and achieved a formidable track record of its own.
The three icons together form one of Sydney’s top-drawer heritage precincts. Intimidating, rather. But after 60 untouched years the pool needed expanding and improving: the council’s new proposal, designed by Ken Maher of Hassell architects, will make it more accessible, better looking and, heaven forbid, more fun.
Fun hasn’t really been the thing at North Sydney. Ever, arguably. Competitive races dominated the old piled harbour baths as far back as 1878. And while the pool has reincarnated at least twice since then, its swimming culture has remained doggedly Calvinistic. In the 23 years between 1955 and 1978 no fewer than 86 world records were set in the Wonder Pool, including one during a school carnival. More recently, while North Sydney’s CBD has been hell-bent on proving itself against the big smoke, the pool has become a lapping field so fast and furious that any who dare frolic in its furrows can expect to be firmly ploughed under.
So, when in April of this year North Sydney Council came to hold a design competition to improve the pool, the main item on the list was a new 25-metre indoor leisure pool. Competitors were also required to provide a new gym, restaurant and conference rooms; to conserve/upgrade existing facilities, improve the landscape treatment and to suggest any plausible money-making uses that could reasonably be squeezed in as well
without offending the view-gods.
The obvious place for the new pool, as suggested by the brief, was on a dreary patch of grass just east of the existing pool. No tears for the grass, personally. But as is oft noted, winning competitions is all about knowing which rule to break, and this turned out to be it. Ken Maher’s winning scheme wisely ignored the sea-level suggestion, placing the new pool at the top of the site instead, on the recently resumed Olympic Park (another piece of turf, equally dreary in itself but blessed with fabulous fishbowl views of
the salt-caked inner harbour – bridge, quay, city, wharves, islands and Luna Park).
Maher’s choice of this site immediately magnified the dramatic prospects of the entire complex. Take three consecutive planes of water – upper pool, lower pool, harbour – stepping from cliff-top to sea level and linked by tiered seating, leisure garden, water cascades, restaurants. After that it’s pretty hard to go wrong. About all you could do to stuff it up is match the existing architecture – by the elegantly named Rudder and Grout, architects – with its motley Depression brickwork and less-than-classical proportioning.
I know, I know. Aesthetics aren’t everything. Cack-handed or not, Rudder and Grout’s Wonder Pool is time-honoured and well loved. But comparisons drawn in Graham Jahn’s otherwise exemplary competition brief between R&G’s compositional aspirations and those of the widely emulated Willera Marines Dudok, who designed the handsome brick-deco Hilversum Town Hall (Holland) in 1934, would seem just a tad fanciful. Luckily, such arguments are academic, since the Maher proposal as selected leaves the existing building largely untouched and entirely unemulated. This was another point in Maher’s favour. Although the brief proffered the lower site, the competition entries conclusively demonstrated the difficulty of developing that site without damaging the existing fabric. Maher’s preference for the upper level allowed him to establish the new pool with minimal intervention in the old, creating a new pavilion which meets the Rudder & Grout original at a common entrance, but is otherwise separate.
Further advantages of this site strategy are that it allows the Wonder Pool to operate continuously during construction, and facilitates natural ventilation up the cliff and through the building.
Running between the two pools, the existing double height entrance hall will serve as circulation spine to both. Above, poised neatly on the edge of the six-metre drop, the new pool confronts the harbour, its glass pool-wall offering a somewhat tamed version of DCM’s wildly wonderful cantilevered lap pool atop the Melbourne Adelphi.
The new pool will be enclosed in a slender, glassy pavilion with confidently cantilevered roof and simple, rational planning. Formally so steeped in the modern spirit as to dismiss the entire postmodern miasma, it nonetheless relates more to here-and-now Sydney than to any third-rate ’30s Euro-copy.
The new pool complex draws some obvious cues from two of Maher’s recent works – the new cafe at Chifley Square (floating roof plane unites two levels) and the new Homebush railway station (heavy, earth-sheltered base supports airy, perforated upper, bringing light to the depths). This may reveal an emerging signature style, or simply the return of modernism as a look, as already acknowledged in under-40s work across the world.
Either way, minimalism is an unforgiving game. The austerity of the style shifts the onus emphatically onto quality of material, elegance of detail and longevity of tectonic, especially in a salt-and-chlorine soaked environment. Maher’s site strategy is one of those ideas that’s so good it’s obvious, once you see it. Realising it with as much elan will be the real test.
Two Illus: The North Sydney pool, above, and left, the architect’s image of how it will look