Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: News And Features
What would you save?
Some of Sydney’s modern buildings leave much to be desired and their conservation worth is debatable. But E. M. FARRELLY picks a baker’s dozen whose disappearance would be Sydney’s loss.
MODERN architecture is in vogue again, among architects anyway. But how many of Sydney’s modern buildings would you, a representative consenting adult, stop to pass water on in a fire? After the Opera House, can you name any?
It is more than a decade now since the Prince of Wales, endlessly well-intentioned, caused a ruckus by claiming that modern architecture had done more to destroy the City of London than the Luftwaffe. In fact, few European cities fared better under modernism (the occasional gem notwithstanding), including cities such as Berlin, Athens and Paris which can claim to have assisted at the birth.
In America it’s a different story. The great American cities are synonymous with great modern architecture. Think New York, think Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building, Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s Lever House, Edward Durrell Stone and Phillip Johnson’s Museum of Modern Art, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, Marcel Breuer’s Whitney and so on. Chicago has Daniel Burnham’s Monadnock building, Adler and Sullivan’s auditorium, Mies’s Lakeshore Drive, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park and Unity Temple. Los Angeles was studded with fabled treasures by the Greene brothers, Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, Charles Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gordon Drake, Craig Ellwood and Pierre Koenig before all those wacky assemblages by Frank Gehry and the boys were even thought of.
Modern architecture? America’s guidebooks are full of it. But not Sydney’s. The latest thing in heritage circles is to argue that current perceptions deprivilege and endanger modernism just as modernism endangered the whole of preceding history. Thing is, if modern architecture were extinct, would anyone really honest-to-God miss it?
The Earnest Fieldperson’s Guide to Sydney gets little further than The Rocks, the OH and Centrepoint tower before running out of architectural puff. Understandably perhaps. Much of Sydney’s charm lies in the collective response of built form to landscape, and the banner in which slow-built accretions establish a genius of place. One thinks of Paddington, Darling Point, Double Bay, Neutral Bay, Milsons Point, Millers Point, East Sydney, Mosman, Glebe and even raddled old Pyrmont.
This is drip-by-drip material, not the stuff of architectural stardom. Our design culture, too, while supremely star-conscious, is still, and possibly therefore, largely derivative. This does little to mar the place for either locals or visitors but does rather slim the guidebooks.
Much early Sydney modernism, while locally significant at the time and still quite rightly adored by the profession, now fails the time test either as livable architecture or as discernibly original thought. Ador ation is all very well, but must it – and can it? – translate into preservation. The heritage push to force conservation of, say, an early Sid Ancher or Arthur Baldwinson house for the sake of some nostalgic cultural significance, unsupported (for the sake of argument) by persistent architectural merit or usability, seems to me to be as pointless as it is impracticable.
Thankfully, it is the Minister’s job to compile the fateful list. It is one thing to list an unused government building such as the Customs House, which, even so, required massive public subsidy to restart. It is quite another to prohibit change in a house or office building in private ownership.
It is one thing to list a low-rise traditional building, such as the Capitol Theatre or the MCA, which can be persuaded to accommodate some other public function. It is quite another to find an alternative use for a modern building – be it church, school, house or high-rise – which, in accordance with dogma, is so carefully formed around function.
One thing, too, to admire the ground-level transparency and sombre bronze-clad columns of a Ken Woolley office block; quite another to ensure by mere legislative means the vivacious reuse of a midtown tower saddled with oppressively low floor heights, an embarrassing asbestos problem and windows that face only north and south when the main views are east and west.
For all that, however, there are a dozen or so modern buildings without which Sydney, to my mind, would be the poorer. My list is neither definitive nor exhaustive. It includes some buildings for their significance (the first skyscraper, for instance), others for their clarity in diagramming a particular mindset and some for sheer charm. Some I have admired for their architectural adroitness (but would not live, work or play in for quids) while others are simply a pleasure to pass by.
* Culwulla Chambers (near cnr King and Castlereagh streets) 1912
Modern in the sense of being Sydney’s first “tall” building; a competition-winning design by Spain, Cosh & Minnet. Described in Parliament the same year as a “brickstack” and an “eyesore”. Blamed for the 150-foot statutory height limit which blanketed Sydney for the next 50 years.
* Qantas building, Chifley Square, Rudder, Littlemore & Rudder architects, 1957
Nothing more than a curtain wall, admittedly. Certainly no space to speak of. But what a curtain wall. Nice to be near.
AMP building, Alfred Street, Circular Quay, 1962
Firsts. Peddle Thorp and Walker’s first AMP building. Sydney’s first skyscraper. First building approved under Sydney’s Skyscraper Act of 1937. First evidence of Sydney’s new postwar confidence, and of its burgeoning view mania.
* Australia Square, Harry Seidler, 1964
Both a superlative exemplar of architectural skill and an icon of the urban design mistakes of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. A supremely self-centred tower-in-the-round; amalgamating sites, obliterating laneways, eroding the street, trading ground-level openness and low-efficiency office space for more, and more and more views.
* Wentworth Memorial Church, Fitzwilliam Road, Vaucluse, Clarke Gazzard architects, 1965
One of the few modern churches anywhere which contrives to feel other than flatly secular; the use of light to impart a sense of otherworldly mystery, within a pristine exterior. Unexpectedly charming.
* Rydges Wentworth Hotel, 61 Phillip Street, Skidmore Owings & Merrill architects (San Francisco) 1966
By no means unmissable, but as an urban building still a cut above most, with two strong street facades, interesting throughways and a truly memorable copper street canopy.
* Fisher Library, Sydney University, Government Architect (Ken Woolley), 1967
The forbidding, vertically composed bronze-clad stack and glassy horizontally arranged library proper offer a pleasing visual counterpoint on the hill above the park.
* Art Gallery of NSW first extension, 1971
Andrew Andersons’s first extension shows a response to the existing sandstone fabric which is at once disciplined and poetic.
* Harry Seidler’s own office, Milsons Point (pre-addition) 1971-73
Epitomising the charm of brutalism, Seidler’s own office has lost nothing to time. Clarity without insistence, control without domination. World-class.
* Philip Cox Exhibition Building Darling Harbour, 1988
A magnificent display of externalised structural pyrotechnics. Much more fuss than is strictly necessary, but the exuberance is its own justification. Quintessentially 1980s Sydney.
* Hyde Park Barracks interior, Tonkin Zulaikha 1991
A delightful abstraction of historical interpretation. Subtle play of ideas, imagery, material. A small work of consummate skill.
* Glenn Murcutt, Magney House, Paddington, 1992
A sophisticated study in the poetics of old-new dualism. Traditional cottage front becomes steel-and-glass Mondrian back with a magical spatial unfolding in between.
* Governors Phillip and Macquarie towers, with the Museum of Sydney, Denton Corker & Marshall, 1994
Modern in the stylistic but not the puritanical sense, these sibling towers deal confidently with the toughest problem in tower design, how to meet the ground, the street, the city. The shared foyer space is one of Sydney’s most majestically proportioned, offering a transparent axial connection between streets. Sandstone and stainless detailing, both at street level and above, combines visual interest with immense dignity. The diminutive museum at its base, protecting even tinier remains, is similarly masterful, holding its own effortlessly in the giant shadow.