Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
The Full Monty Carlo
Summer Times – Architecture
E. M. Farrelly
HOWEVER you cut it, a billion-dollar building project has to be an opportunity to do something pretty special. Sadly, though, when the future archangels of history draw up their consolidated list of Architectural Favours to Humanity, it is unlikely that Philip Cox’s Star City casino will sit conspicuously near the top. It’s not even expected to make the shorter list of Cox’s finest work. Biggest, sure, but not best. Not even close. Was it just a bad day in the office?
Cox has always wielded two distinct architectural looks. White, light and breezily nautical, on the one hand, and big-footed gravity-conscious polychrome masonry, on the other. The former, Cox’s signature style, animates his Darling Harbour triumvirate (maritime museum, aquarium, exhibition centre), as well as the Sydney Football Stadium and the Olympic buildings (aquatic centre, athletics stadium and main showgrounds arena). Together, these represent Cox’s shed collection – be they large, small, multiple or hollow-centred. And there’s no doubting it; on a good day, Cox does a fine shed.
For buildings too large or complex for this basic shed format, however disguised and mutated, Cox applies Look 2. Much of his housing (Redfern, Glebe, Marrickville, Darlington) falls into this category, as do the UTS library on Quay Street, the UWS Macarthur buildings and two economy-size office buildings, the Mercantile Mutual building on King and Kent, and No 1 Pacific Highway.
Sometimes Cox contrives to blend the styles, perching light, expressive roof forms (stretched fabric at Uluru, curved metal on UTS’s architecture building in Harris Street) over a heavy base, as foreshadowed in some of that early Woolloomooloo housing. Call this Look 3.
It is not immediately plain which of these styles Cox alluded to when he wrote, in his recent book of himself, that the work was rooted “in the environment, both natural and built, and in the Australian vernacular . . . the early woolsheds and barns . . . Our architecture is an intuitive response to this unpedigreed architecture, recognisable as having an innate spirit of place . . .” Nor is it clear why, in that case, the buildings are so distinctively consistent, in style terms, from Darling Harbour to Uluru.
Pretty hard to argue, though, that Star City has any genuine relationship with its environment – unless you call brute dominance a relationship.
Comparison with Melbourne’s Crown casino is instructive here. The Crown sits neatly along the Yarra, participating exuberantly in the urban design ambitions of its host city by reviving a moribund stretch of the south bank and providing a lively waterside streetscape for north-facing public activity. Star City, by contrast, dominates land and seascape without engaging either.
Already distanced from the bay by the suburban devices of road and lawn, Star City rears still further back from the water, commandeering the view with no attempt at participation. Where Crown casino makes a point of easy pedestrian permeability, Star City stands aloof, all promise of active streetfronts forgotten (unless you count advertising niches), and preferring even to re-create its own water landscape, rather than partake of the God-given. Visually, it takes the sore thumb approach to context, dwarfing even that unfriendly row of buildings (Novotel, Ibis, Goldsbrough Mort) which already isolates Pyrmont from Darling Harbour.
Nothing could have been further from the original Pyrmont plan. This was to be a model residential development, with huge government subsidies thrown in to prove that diversity, complexity, density and view-sharing were compatible with a village feel and a friendly scale. Cox’s own vision drawings from the time give Mykonos meets Belgravia: cute and cosy but urbane, busy, smart. The casino blew a big hole in all that.
Despite the rhetoric, the planning process that produced Star City was memorably farcical, even by Sydney standards. The ghost chimneys of the old Pyrmont Power Station, long-since demolished, were first invoked to more-than-double the standard height limit on the site, then neatly morphed into a massive wall of building. And when it was pointed out that to drop the biggest casino this side of the equator plum in the middle of intended des. res. territory broke every rule in the (admittedly slim) book, the then minister, Robert Webster, simply gazetted himself a new rule. Planning is so easy.
Now that the product is finally up and glittering we can expectantly ask: do the benefits, architectural or otherwise, justify such means?
In terms of Cox’s oeuvre, Star City is clearly an exponent of Look 3 – a heavy masonry base with multiple sheds on top, decorated not only by mural polychromy and Olsen’s roof graphics but also by an adjective-defying saturation of curves. Roofs, balconies, canopies, cornices; curves in plan and elevation; curves of every size, type, dimension and description.
The authorised narrative tells us what the unassisted observer might easily miss, namely that these “organic” forms “relate to the cliffs and the water-edge forms, coves, bays and promontories” of Pyrmont. Never mind that Cox’s 1993 design for the Melbourne casino was comparably curve-encrusted, and offered a similarly terraced mid-activated rooftop as quasi-public domain. I guess it must have been inspired by the coves and promontories of the Yarra.
The curved building forms also “reduce building bulk”, apparently, while providing a distinctive skyline, preserving views across the site, offering two public through-site links from Pyrmont Street to Foreshore Road and providing active street frontages at heights “appropriate” to each street. Beat that.
Trouble is, there’s so much visual hype, and so much of it falls on the dampish side of pyrotechnic display. Casinos today, like the atmospheric cinemas of yore, inhabit the twilight zone between architecture and pink-elephant land. That’s fine, and comparatively easy to pull off – inside, where shameless vulgarity is de rigueur. In this case it’s the themed carpets (so eco-conscious), the faux palms, the big rock, the dry ice, the escalator “waterfall”. Tacky but, as casinos go, tolerable.
Populism is much harder to externalise, however – especially, perhaps, for an architect steeped in the maxims of taste. Where Melbourne’s Crown casino settled for a fairly standard shop-till-you-drop frontage of food joints and gucceries, topped by some sassy neons and extravagantly theatrical fire-and-waterworks, Cox has attempted not only to bring the fantasy outside but to tip it bubbling all the way down the front steps, over the road and into the sea.
It’s an audacious idea. The kind that, to work, really has to work. The grand stair must be as grand, the water as outrageously seductive, and the whole ensemble as irresistibly populous as Cox’s characteristically succulent watercolours had promised back in 1994. Otherwise, in the unforgiving light of Sydney day, you could end up with a faceful of baubles.
In fact, the grand stair is confused and under-disciplined; too many stairs, on too many clashing axes, with too little purpose. The water features are also too many and too ordinary, the through-site links obscure and the entire spatial experience, which ought to be unforgettable, something of a damp squib – an effect only heightened by the dozens of photocopied “no entry” signs at the top.
In theory, you can walk up and over the roofscape, just like Parliament House in Canberra (and with similarly wishful symbolism). In fact, though, the only doors that actually open are on Level 1. Anyone who climbs higher can wander about on the art and then climb down again.
Eventually the dime drops: the “grand stair” isn’t about architecture at all, or even populism. It’s all an exercise in code compliance – evacuation space for the multitudes in case of fire. This puts the building’s primary gesture in the realm of furphy. Disappointing, but apt.
Inside, too, after the come-ons of the big glass cones and whatnots, is a bit of a tease. Cox had help here, of course – compulsorily supplied by specialist American casino architect group Hillier. But the big rock is so plastic and fine chlorine smell so pervasive (more municipal pool than glam) that disbelief refuses to depart. Nothing here that Segaworld’s funny little jungle bar doesn’t do rather better. Shame, really.
Certainly the two theatres are hugely welcome, handsome additions, both to Sydney’s cultural family and to the otherwise humdrum acres of slot machines. But the best moments, to my mind, are cylindrical. These are the twin drum-aquariums, designed to develop their own internally-balanced ecosystems (shark eats shark?) and the three-storey glazed drum bar, caught within its own elegantly suspended helical staircase and attached to a corner of the Lyric Theatre.
These, too, are audacious ideas, a tad gimmicky but no less apt for that. The aquarium (and the fish) could be bigger. The bar would be better if its hours were longer and its walls vertical. But both provide glimmers of sorely needed panache amongst the relentless sparkle.
Teams and teams of designers worked on this building. Regrettably, it shows. There are some interesting ideas – too many of them, arguably, derived from the work of the late James Stirling – but too little overall coherence. These days casinos are emphatically more Alan Bond than James. This much is unavoidable. But the surest way to combat these inherent leagues-club tendencies would be to create a strongly self-possessed building. Sure, it might never have been a silk purse, but one might settle for very fine pigskin.
The item is empty.
Two illus: When curvaceous isn’t bodacious . . . .
Star City’s visual hype falls on the dampish side of pyrotechnic display.
Photographs by DEAN SEWELL