Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: News And Features
Pyrmont’s new promise
Walking the high wire of invention ARCHITECTURE
E. M. FARRELLY
THE gods should be tickled. Bruce Eeles’s new apartment building for Pyrmont approaches what architecture was put on earth to do. Not just getting the technics sorted and not just supplying the pretties. But gently eliciting the latter from the former: rubbing, shining, coaxing, seducing a measure of spatial magic from the very narrows of problem-solving itself.
This, arguably the basis of all arts, is not such a grand thing. But like commonsense, it’s hellish unusual.
Eeles, in association with Flower and Samios architects, won the job in a limited design competition hosted by the City West Development Corporation (CWDC). Their Saunders Street site, pocketed between the old quarry-scarred cliff-face and the GI Bridge approach, is not at first sight one of Pyrmont’s most promising. But the CWDC, oiled by the last of Brian Howe’s Building Better Cities money, has come to the party with up-front tree-planting, street lighting and paving, another Sydney rarity.
In general terms, the much-touted and more-subsidised Ultimo-Pyrmont redevelopment has been so far something of a disappointment, frankly. Street after street of regimented red-and-yellow face brick plainly marks the continuing urban spread of iterative meritonitis, depressingly reminiscent of the 1950s three-storey walk-up epidemic.
Little evidence here of the florid PR claims, the vibrant village quality and the exemplary green-think as promised. The take-home message is overwhelmingly that imagination and housing design don’t mix. Oil and water.
Fact is, though, that even within the limited ambit of post-enlightenment Western culture, and excluding the suburban house, the study of housing types sustains significant scholarship. Differences abound. Terraces, towers, townhouses, maisonettes – many of the sub-types have yet to be named. But their mere existence suggests that the problems persist: how to amass units in a way that doesn’t feel anonymous; how to admit light and ventilation all round; how to design a circulation system without either endless internal corridors or muggers-alley deck access; and how to package it all so that a developer can make a quid?
How, in short, to design housing that doesn’t end up feeling like something out of The Bill? This is a question wide open to the application of creative intelligence – design, in a word – and the Eeles/ Flower scheme refreshingly manifests precisely this. The City West Development Corporation was established by the Greiner administration with the enviably simple purpose of recouping peninsula development costs from government land sales. As subsequent structural changes have softened and broadened that aim, however, the corporation has made real efforts to improve the design quality of the product. For each residential site a limited design competition is now held as a matter of policy, within carefully framed design guidelines and brief requirements. The site is then sold with the DA attached by both contract and covenant in an effort to sustain design integrity throughout the ensuing development.
The Saunders Street brief called for 60-odd apartments arranged as a perimeter block around an internal garden courtyard, with crossventilation (no air-con), solar protection, dual aspect (views from two directions), a usable roof space and high-quality finishes. The corporation even indulged in a spot of social engineering, calling for a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments to balance the overwhelming predominance of bedsits in the peninsula redevelopment to date.
And all to be achieved within given height and floorspace limits, environmental sustainability principles and set financial/marketing parameters. Externally, the building was expected to look like a Pyrmont native – whatever exactly that might mean among so mixed and changing a fauna – without compromising its modernity. No sweat.
Eeles & Co did their housing-type homework. But every type they examined, from Corbusier to condominium, failed on one or more fronts – no cross ventilation, no privacy, nasty internal corridors, no disabled access, no sharing of views or amenity. Unable to find a type worth copying, they invented one.
Invention is a high-risk hobby in architecture, too often rewarded with life-threatening legal action, or similar, over that single, devastating detail (rainfall, for instance, or human nature) which the invention overlooked. But Eeles’s invention was spatial rather than material and, thus far, resoundingly successful.
Late one lackadaisical evening as Eeles describes it, the answer fell onto the page. Corbusier had invented the famous scissor-section decades ago, but he couldn’t get cross-ventilation without the ongoing affront of deck access. Eeles made a simple, crucial move. Treating the apartment building as an outsize Rubik’s cube, he twisted the bedroom levels through 90 degrees.
This meant that while the living rooms, aligned along the facade of the building, could still be serviced by an internal lift core, the bedrooms ran across the building’s width, bringing two-directional light and air movement throughout the apartment.
It also meant that, with some tricky manoeuvring, the architects could persuade each lift lobby to serve up to eight units, while still satisfying the fire escape requirements and getting the structural and car-parking grids to work.
Most satisfying of all, though, the ingenuity of the plan is manifest externally in the first genuinely lively facade – full of light and shadow emphasising its syncopated rhythms – to grace the peninsula for a while.
The use of materials is very Renzo Piano (the architect for Lend Lease’s State Office Block revamp) with varying colours and textures used skilfully to articulate a single plane; face brickwork (Piano uses tiles) set within expressed steel frames, perforated metal balustrades, and sliding timber shutters over deep-shaded balconies. Ground-floor apartments open onto individual gardens, those on the upper level have accessible roof-terraces under a unifying timber-ceilinged pavilion roof, while the rooftop lap pool is accessible to all.
Sounds good. The minister has now blessed Blackwattle Gardens, as named, with development consent. But this is just a beginning. Next step is to auction the site, DA attached, to the highest bidder. At that point the architecture becomes heavily contingent. Many a fine edifice has fallen ‘twixt cup and lip.
The corporation’s contract specifically protects the architecture, as approved, but not the architect. Even post-DA, however, much design work remains to be done, and architecture watchers know the extent to which the deity resides in the details. In the event of said developer dumping hapless architect, the CWDC has promised to retain the Eeles team in a concurrence role, thus ensuring that the design itself remains broadly intact through its arduous journey into light. This may prove unnecessary. But since architecturally conscious developers weren’t exactly thick on the ground in Sydney even before this latest residential goldrush, the corporation is wise to have such a contingency plan in place. Can only hope it works.
Illus: The south- west elevation of Pyrmont’s Blackwattle Gardens, designed by Bruce Eeles.