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Pubdate: 24-Dec-1996

Edition: Late


Subsection: ARTS

Page: 11

Wordcount: 1054

Piano’s Practice


E. M. Farrelly

The plans for the skyscraper to replace the SOB are enchanting – but can they be realised?

RENZO Piano is very much the architect’s architect, adhering fearlessly to principles which leave regular adults trapped between mirth and bewilderment but which in his peers inspire unalloyed admiration. Envy, even.

Piano’s practice, no pun intended, is spread over Paris and Berlin but based in Genoa, and advisedly entitled Renzo Piano Building Workshop. It is the kind of practice in which dedicated youngsters the world over aspire to work – for nothing if need be. Here, adapting the master-builder tradition in which he was raised, Piano and disciples model, test, remodel and re-test ways of turning architectural idea into architectural fact.

In this way Piano has crafted not only the Pompidou Centre in Paris but the Menil Museum in Houston, the Cite Internationale complex in Lyons and the Kansai International Airport in Osaka. Always testing the boundaries of convention and expectation, the works tirelessly explore new materials, intriguing structural geometries, fringe-ish environmental theorems and new ways of bending, bouncing, filtering or otherwise manipulating light.

Hardly your standard developer’s poodle, then. Which makes Piano an interesting-if-not-courageous choice to design Lend Lease’s remorphing of the State Office Block (SOB – and yes, that is its official name).

For all his breadth of invention and experience, though, one thing Piano hasn’t done before is a straight speculative skyscraper. This is not extraordinary. Office buildings in Europe tend to be not only lower rise, but longer term, and typically custom-moulded around a single, enduring owner or tenant. Turning out towers to go is something else altogether.

And another thing. Few commercial towers leave a lot of room for architecture. Once you clad the estate agent’s formula in some off-the-peg facade treatment, modern, post-modern or new age, there’s little for the architect to do, bar arranging the ground-level potted shrubs so as to pass for urban design. Oh, and collect the fees.

At 155 Macquarie, though, Piano’s brief was to rethink precisely these three aspects of the skyscraper: site response, facade technology (in the interests of energy conservation) and corporate workplace.

That makes it more interesting.

The site is recognisedly special, not only for the Woolley award-winner it already hosts but also because it represents what theorists like to call an “edge-condition” between midtown and the Park (culture/ nature/dualism), stands sentry at the Bent Street entrance to the city (“gateway” site) and is visible from virtually everywhere. Whatever is built here will take a lead part (between Governor Macquarie and Chiffley) in the jostling line-up that is Sydney’s skyline. Not to mention the genius loci (spirit of place) that emanates from the shell-form white building just down the street.

Piano’s response to these stimuli has been to design an invitingly “non-hermetic” tower, open, as far as possible, to nature and the elements in a way that is intended to express what Piano sees as Australia’s open nature-culture relationship.

Nice thought, but of course office buildings can’t really be open. Not in any dull literal way like, well, windows. So the openness idea must be sustained through formal metaphor. The glass crust that enwraps the building in varying degrees of transparency like some sublime Japanese delicacy is “open” at both ends, and cantilevers heroically into the blue some 24 metres higher than the highest plant room.

The glass is plain but “fritted” (as in fried) with baked-on, non-vitrified ceramic. Fritting comes in any colour or pattern you care to choose; transparent where view is required, opaque to hide unmentionables or filter western sun, and increasingly transparent towards edges and tips to “dematerialise” the building into its environs.

Dematerialising architecture may sound like killing for Jesus, but as an idea it has gripped the profession ever since Sant’Elia and the Futurists first ranted about the need to “render the world of things a direct projection of the spirit” in 1914. However seductive an idea, this anorexia of the aesthetic organs, replicated en masse, leads only to acute sensory deprivation, as the history of modernism has resoundingly shown.

Thankfully Piano, for all his modernist rhetoric, is too much the builder’s son to let us starve completely. The smaller, residential building on Macquarie Street in particular is reassuringly tangible. It, too, is glassenwrapped, so that balconies, protected thus from street and weather, become pleasant all-season conservatories. But in this case the glass skin is made porous, with patches of opening louvres where appropriate. Beneath this raincoat, the building proper comprises very material terracotta, set in an elegant steel frame.

The ideas are enchanting. Can they be realised? Of the residential building one can feel reasonably confident, since Piano’s Lyons complex is very similar, notwithstanding the odd climate-driven amendment which will surely be needed for the transplant to take.

With regard to the tower, though, the skill of realisation will be the real test. Will the sheer steel tonnage required to hold a six-storey glass sheet, 34 storeys up, in an even halfserious Sydney storm vitiate, Piano’s dematerialising dreams?

More glass, too, at ground level, with huge glazed canopies up to 20 metres deep projecting from both towers. Contrary to all fashionable City Plan notions of street-hugging atriums, the Piano towers sit amid a sea of undifferentiated pedestrian space, for all the world like a new-age Australia Square.

For any skyscraper, the ground-level public space is the hardest thing to get right. In this case, despite the rhetoric, it is also the scheme’s weakest point. When Australia Square was first proposed by Lend Lease in the early 1960s the architect argued, and everyone agreed, that Sydney’s ground-level congestion, pedestrian as well as vehicular, was so execrable that the only answer was to amalgamate many sites (in that case 24), obliterate all boundaries and laneways, and build on tippy-toes in the centre in order to minimise building footprint and maximise “space”. The building should be as transparent as possible at ground level, further enhancing the sense, if not the fact, of openness.

This is no longer accepted as the guiding doctrine of civic building, because people came to miss laneways and felt unsatisfied with the notion that the pinnacle of civic space was openness with a few kiosks scattered about. Australia Square is still one of our best buildings, but its success at ground level depends on the fact that it is the exception, not the rule.

The current proposal for 155 Macquarie obliterates no laneways: this was done already. And the buildings themselves are captivating, formally and intellectually. But it remains to be seen whether Piano will be able to get away in the 1990s with a ground plane that consists of little more than slowradiating steps a’ la MLC, a couple of kiosks and battalions of space-defining potted shrubs.


Two illus: Renzo Piano’s designs for the State Office Building site propose a tower open to the elements.

The smaller building will be residential.


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