Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Elizabeth Farrelly, Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.
Phallic monuments to ego, or the modern city’s ultimate Good Thing? For a hundred years Sydney, like New York, has boxed with the shadows cast by skyscrapers, writes Elizabeth Farrelly
Phone rings, in the new blue morning or the after-lunch torpor. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to design a skyscraper for downtown Sydney or New York, pinnacle of the Western world. You: (a) panic; (b) eat your shoe; (c) dial Amazon for a book on Freud, phallocracies and the modern menhir.
In 1896, the successful Chicago architect Louis Sullivan faced the same problem. “How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark exclamation of external strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions?”
Sullivan was a believer and a romantic, writing, for instance, that “life and form [are] absolutely one and inseparable”. He is remembered as a father of modernism, largely for his invention of the famous dictum “form follows function”, although his writing was more complex than that and his architecture in many ways more staid. Bringing to architecture a curious mix of Coleridge, Emerson and Nietzsche, Sullivan was committed to the idea of the skyscraper as a soaring, organic whole. His Schlesinger and Mayer (now Carson Pirie Scott) department store in Chicago (1899-1904) was a sophisticated mix of modern technology and classical principles.
When it came to towers, however, Sullivan was constrained as much as assisted by his traditional beaux arts education, treating the buildings like magnified classical columns, cloaking their essential nature as piles of workaday storeys behind dominant verticals (quasi fluting) and topping them off with a decorative cantilevered cornice. Sullivan and Adler’s Wainwright Building in St Louis, Missouri, and their Guaranty Building (1895) in Buffalo, New Jersey, are primary examples, dismissed by the 1930s English critic Alfred C. Bossom as “the packing case type of building”.
Having tried and failed to influence the main determinants of tall buildings, namely structure and money, Sullivan began to despair that the architect could ever be more than “a mere decorator” of skyscrapers. But he was a little harsh on himself. A downtown composed of Guaranty Buildings (as Sydney was until the 1960s) might well be a very civilised place. For his sins against authenticity, Sullivan was reviled by the hardline modernists and largely dropped from architectural history (although his writings lived on) until the postmodern thaw, when Michael Graves and Philip Johnson rediscovered the bedroom-furniture look for skyscrapers and made it OK again.
Sullivan’s insistence on “unity” in design was a deeply familiar diktat, drawn from Aristotle’s advice to playwrights that wholeness, or unity, was the basis of composition. “A whole,” advised Aristotle, “is that which has beginning, middle and end.” For further clarification he added: “A beginning is that which is not necessarily after anything else, an end is that which is necessarily after something else and with nothing else after it, and a middle is that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it.”
It sounds obvious and for more than a thousand years had been taken as such, establishing the first compositional rule for music and painting as well as architecture. Aristotle worked from classicism in the flesh, but his thinking sustained it through subsequent revivals from the renaissance onwards. Sullivan and others were groping heroically for the forms of modernity, but trapped in the stuffy mental space of classicism.
By Sullivan’s time that century’s battle of the styles had settled into a rule-of-thumb that allocated Gothic to aspirational pursuits such as schools and churches, and classical for worldly activities such as banks and offices. But, as New York began to outstrip Chicago in the skyscraper race, a dramatic stylistic shift was imposed from without not by compositional, intellectual or financial forces, but by politics.
About the turn of the century, New York, like Sydney, was caught for a decade or more in fierce debate about whether the skyscraper was a Good Thing. Many argued that tall buildings were dangerous, not only for fire reasons but morally, since they blocked sunlight to the streets and warped the spiritual development of children and adults alike. In fact, there had been no life-endangering fires in any buildings of more than 12 storeys; the worst fires by far were in low buildings like theatres and warehouses.
But the fears were vivid. Sydney’s highest building was the 12-storey Culwulla Chambers on King Street. Our most headline-grabbing fire occurred in 1904 in the four-storey Hordern’s Emporium in the Haymarket, which impelled one man, Harry Clegg, to leap to his death in front of open-mouthed lunchtime shoppers. New York City, by contrast, was dense with slum tenements, loft warehouses and rag-trade “manufactories”, and already faced the prospect of 40- or 50-storey buildings rising straight off the street. Ernest R. Graham’s (New) Equitable Building of 1915, for example, rose 496 feet, covered almost an acre, and in 1.2 million square feet housed 13,000 workers. It was the world’s largest office building and, in Sydney as well as New York, came to symbolise the horrors to be averted. In both cities inquiries were held and learned tomes produced.
Eventually, Sydney in 1912 enacted a statutory height limit of 150 feet (often supposed, wrongly, to be the height of the longest available combination of fire hose and ladder). New York, however, already bristled with towers. Torn between compelling evidence against tall buildings and the yet-more-passionate desire to embrace them and their huge dollar yield, New York settled for adroit compromise.
The famous 1916 New York Zoning Resolution allowed unlimited building height, but required setbacks for every x storeys of height, ziggurat-fashion, in a manner intended to ensure adequate daylight, if not actually sunshine, reached the wee ground-level humans. Coinciding as it did with New York’s rise to commercial and cultural primacy, this simple rule changed the look of the skyscraper as a type. No longer could tall buildings ape renaissance palazzi. The new stepped form was unavoidably aspirational, Gothic even: no prizes for guessing how art deco became the next big thing. Hugh Ferriss’s graphic series The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929) shows the new shape; similarly William Van Alen’s famous Chrysler Building (1929) and Schulze and Weaver’s Waldorf Astoria (1931).
Meanwhile, somewhere between 1600 and 1914 (depending on your scholarly persuasion), modernism was fomenting vigorously, questioning every durn thing and turfing all the old nostrums. Unity implied boundaries, edges, definition, identity. Modernism, on the other hand, tended to universalism.
Suddenly continuity, not definition, was the thing. While the new scientific priesthood sought the essential and the generic, structuralism saw a universal order under disparate cultural systems, socialism fought to erase boundaries between persons, classes and nations, and Esperanto pushed for global
connectivity. Now it seems barmy, even quaint. But beneath it all lay a vast, irrational optimism a belief that the human problem was essentially soluble.
In architecture, the continuity thing spread like cane toads, with aesthetics expected to carry not just symbolic but moral weight. The “international style” was a term coined in 1932 by the critic Henry Russell Hitchcock and the New York architect Johnson to describe the minimalist, functionalist work of such architects as Le Corbusier and Gerrit Reitveld in Europe, and the ex-Europeans Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in America.
The mere fact that the term “international style” was accepted without question or ridicule shows the extent to which the particular was eschewed in favour of a universal, transcendental architecture based somehow on “essences”. Puritanically free of colour or decoration, international style wasn’t the only form of architectural modernism, but it was, at the time, hugely persuasive. Anything that responded to particularities of climate, culture, place or function was out, as was any element that constrained or interrupted spatial flow (corners, rooms, corridors, pitched roofs) or articulated such interruption (frames, architraves, cornices and decoration of all kinds).
In the compulsory abstraction that followed, schools looked like factories and hospitals like office buildings. Architects struggled to make a habitable world out of intersecting, or preferably not-quite-intersecting, planes. Windows and doors were replaced by full-height “openings”, rooms became spaces and, wherever possible, walls became screens, movable partitions, floating planes or, best of all, glass.
Australia, at the new, nether end of the new world, was modernism’s perfect home. Rose Seidler abandoned the velvet-brown, deeply interior interior of her Viennese apartment for the bright, blasted landscape of 1940s Turramurra, to live in a house that barely touched the ground, where the walls didn’t meet (except where absolutely
necessary) and even the furniture tiptoed on skinny legs. This was the look; discrete objects, continuous space. It hit Australia like a religion. Harry Seidler, who for many personified the new style, was described by People magazine in 1950 as a “high priest of the 20th century dazzling all with his shiny American ideas”.
Seidler’s Australia Square, completed in 1964, embodies the same essential idea. It wasn’t Sydney’s first skyscraper (the 1962 AMP Building was) but it was, and remains, the most clearly diagrammatic. Spinning off Le Corbusier’s injunction “We must kill the street!” (in favour of the limitless space of motorways) the development obliterated not only buildings, but an irregular hive of existing laneways (defined space) and, with its singular, radiant geometry, placed itself firmly in the centre, untouchable, the ultimate object-in-space. At the point of convergence, the origin where you might reasonably expect to find God is the lift core, symbolising modernism’s overriding values of convenience, technology, movement.
Australia Square is a fine sculptural entity, but cities need streets and you can’t make streets out of round objects, however finely wrought. The semi-outdoor food hall at its base thrives, its sunlight protected as a quasi-public space, but the space on the street is kept empty by the building’s unapproachable convexity. It remains a point in space.
If the ideal modern geometry, then, was the Cartesian plane, an infinite spread of gridded points in space, the ideal modern material was glass. The combination of these two, glass and grid, with the flexibility/anonymity ideal, produced that thoroughly modern symbol, the glass curtain wall.
The ultimate product of these elements, the ideal modern city, was gridded in plan, gridded in elevation. Perfectly non-specific as to place or function, limitlessly extendable in any direction. Atonal and amorphous, textureless and odourless, this ideal urban space turned out to be the same dreary continuum inhabited by the luckless crew of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The French modernist Le Corbusier yearned to replace the centre of Paris with just such a graph-paper city, which he called La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City), no irony intended. Seidler’s ’60s plans for parts of Sydney reflect the same mania, writ smaller. Le Corbusier insisted that humans would learn to love it. They didn’t and in 1961, before the known world was entirely razed, the American journalist Jane Jacobs blew the whistle.
Her famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was subtitled The Failure of Town Planning. In it she argued for diversity, intensity and mixed use; for neighbourhood, locality and linkages where there had been windswept sterility. The seminal modernist treaty signed by the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in 1928 had declared, “Town planning is the organisation of the functions of collective life [it] cannot be conditioned by the claims of a pre-existent aestheticism: its essence is of a functional order. This order includes three functions: (a) dwelling, (b) producing, (c) relaxation (the maintenance of the species).”
Jacobs pointed out that cities were not simple exercises in billiard-ball causality, but complex, highly interdependent organisms, incapable of the kind of reductivist analysis proposed above without huge loss of vitality. That was a year before Australia Square was approved. Much less distinguished designers followed suit and the Sydney City Council, immune to changing intellectual currents, went on approving, even demanding, destructive modernist developments right through the 1980s.
Two other books, along with Jacobs’s Death and Life, changed the face of architecture. Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960) analysed the look of cities as a problem of importance for the first time in decades. Then, in 1966, Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture came out. Venturi, a US critic, argued eloquently that humanity was more complex than the reductivist schema allowed and that architecture needed to encompass the essentially plural, diverse and perverse nature of life. To Mies van der Rohe’s famous “less is more”, he countered “less is a bore”. Again, obvious. You wonder what took them so long.
And how did complexity look on the ground? There was the rub. In domestic design it was easy, even facile postmodernism meant a return to articulation, decoration, colour. But the skyscraper was more difficult. Towers had never left much room for architecture, being so hugely predetermined by marketing, structural and planning constraints. Floor size and shape, core location, window area, building height all are generally preordained. Buildings that break the rules, such as Norman Foster’s proposal for Hunter Street in Sydney, seldom get past gravity these days. How, then, to paraphrase Sullivan, do you persuade a skyscraper to convey anything other than dull corporate monotheism?
Postmodernism increased the play space for corporate architecture by persuading the bean counters there was more to it than just floorspace and view miles. Suddenly there were hard-to-quantify ideas like civics, address and streetscape to take into account. Modernism had produced the skyscraper as gorgeous object, but its manners at ground level were lamentable. Postmodernism inverted this, reviving the Aristotelian expectation that buildings should not simply drift off into nothingness like a popular song, but should have a clearly defined bottom, middle and top: unity.
So, while postmodern buildings as buildings quickly became facile, trapped in the same neo-classical stuffiness that ensnared Sullivan (only without the scholarship), they tended, as players in the urban game, to be better citizens than their modern counterparts. The new manners were especially apparent at street level: maintaining the street wall, articulating the front door, using scale and colour to make people comfortable, stuff like that.
Take Sydney. Although the Sydney office tower is not on the whole a distinguished breed we have a few prime examples. Darling Park, for instance, which houses the Herald, came in on the turning tide. Conceptualised and objectified by Seidler, but “foyered” by the American architect Eric Kuhne, it combines, perhaps, the best of both. Its ground level treatment defining the street wall while providing near-as-possible continuous public space throughout; inviting the unwashed into its cool marble world of artworks, flowers and decorative gardens; connecting city to harbour while offering latte-in-a-fat-leather-chair to all comers oozes unexpected charm and generosity.
And then there’s the golden triangle. From the corner of Bent and Phillip streets you can just about touch the three current top seeds on the downtown rent ladder which, as it happens, are also three of our most notable recent architectural additions: Chifley Tower, Governor Phillip Tower and Aurora Place. Comparisons are odious so let’s.
All three arrived trailing clouds of contextual rhetoric, but relate more to other places and traditions. And all three, like ships at anchor, swing to the north, allowing the tower to salute harbour and Opera House while the base twists to suit the street. Beyond that, though, the three show different mixes of stylistic attitude and influence.
First built is Chifley, an ’80s building (think Bond, think ostentation, think power dressing) completed in the early 1990s. Designed by the New York firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, Chifley harks back to early-20th-century Chicago, all pin-stripes and double-breasting. Then came Governor Phillip, won in competition by the black-shirted (and black-Porsched) Melbourne firm Denton Corker Marshall. Governor Phillip is very straight, very handsome, very serious. Palpably Melbourne intellectual in its sombre colouring and rigorous linearity, the building is multi-award-winning and (or but) one of Sydney’s classiest pieces of architecture. Renzo Piano’s Aurora Place, in some ways the perfect foil, is refreshingly graceful, understated, feminine. After all the marble and stainless steel of the other two, Aurora, with its matt surfaces, undressed edges and surprise translucency, brings something almost like innocence to town. It is noticeable, though, that the two most sophisticated objects are the least successful at ground level. And vice versa.
Chifley is pompous and overdressed, very counter-reformation. Its facade is knee-jerk and ill-composed; its interiors amount to a ponderous affirmation that the world of mammon is alive and punching the air. Ozymandias architecture. The original Chifley would reach for his beacon. For all that, though, Chifley Tower’s achievements on the street are remarkable. With immense civic dignity it contrives to unite two completely separate foyers one for the suits, one for the shoppers as well as defining the street, enriching the square and providing a strong and truly habitable colonnade. Not quite the GPO, but it works and that’s rare.
Governor Phillip, with his significantly shorter successor Macquarie, is by contrast rather let down by the colonnade at his feet. The columns change pace and material in a sprightly fashion now granite, now sandstone, now stainless steel. But a colonnade needs an active inner wall: here we have a few deathly historical displays and a sad little shopfront run by the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning (no, really). Not quite up to the lofty drama of that wonderful street-to-street slot that is the foyer.
Aurora, for all her sparkle, is also weakest at the bottom. Piano, who despite his intuitive lyricism is deeply rooted in modern traditions, happened onto Sydney when, as the US critic Jonathan Lerner recently noted, a modernist revival was in full swing. Glass, of course, is the modern material, the immaterial material, allowing extension and enclosure to coexist. Aurora is virtually all glass.
It took all Piano’s charm to realise Aurora as a fully glazed freestanding object when all the rules forbid glass curtain-walling and require street walls. The smooth-bellied white ghost that resulted is a gorgeous thing, especially in the morning sun. Aurora’s foyer, too, is a delight real materials, doors you have to open with your hands and the old frisson of juxtaposed masonry and glass. But it’s the old problem: convexity in the city leaves amorphous space on the street.
Piano’s recent, competition-winning proposal for the new New York Times building develops the same profoundly modernist theme. Paying homage to various New York landmarks, including Skidmore Owings and Merrill’s famous Lever House (1952), the tower rises from a floating-slab atrium through forty-something storeys of smooth translucency to dissolve, Aurora-like, into the white Northern Hemisphere sky.
So what is this thing that architects have with glass? Why is this most material of the arts so recurrently obsessed with dematerialising? What drives these “apostles of glass worlds”, as the German architect Erich Mendelsohn described his colleagues sometime in about 1920? Is the ultimate architecture a fully serviced transparent bubble, as in Reyner Banham’s unforgettable 1965 “Un-house” image, in which we sit naked, all needs fulfilled by technological means? Is this utopia?
So, back to the future. Daydreaming aside, how will your skyscraper go? Complex or cool? Earth-bound or aspirational? Solidly reassuring or transparently seductive? I’d aim for another adroit compromise, in the Venturi-esque belief that it’s possible to solve the urban and the architectural problems. Design me a building that’s as confident at ground level as it is heroic in the sky; as responsive to local climate as it is to world stylistic currents; as efficient with energy as it is with capital; as uplifting to enter as Governor Phillip, as delightful to inhabit as Aurora and as nice to be near as Chifley. Then I’ll take my hat off.
Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.
Five Illus: Bigger, higher, faster …
clockwise from left, Norman Weekes’s 1929 vision of St Mary’s Cathedral and Hyde Park 50 years on, the sky crowded with personal aircraft; Renzo Piano’s sketch of Aurora Place and the Opera House; Louis Sullivan’s 1895 Guaranty Building in Buffalo;
and how Le Corbusier saw the modern city.
Courtesy of the State Library of NSW.
Illustration: Greg Bakes.