Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Accessible style is key to the gate
An uplifting new design profides an entrancing doorway to Centennial Parklands, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
It’s pretty basic, really. Given an open field, the best way to get people across it is build a wall. Big wall, small opening. Suddenly, they’ve all got to see what’s on the other side.
Marking passage is one of those quintessential human things. From the gilt picture frame to the bar mitzvah, articulating the transition between modes of being is one of the things we do most, and best. Wringing order out of flux or scribing it in.
We’re not alone in this. What nature does with valves and guard cells, we do with gates, doors, arches and portals. At a strict utilitarian level it’s about flow and anti-flow; access and denial. The control thing. Which is why the architecture of portals reveals so much about a society’s structures and ritual values.
But doorways breached barriers are about other stuff, too. Life and death; our fear of change, and our craving for it. The need to sustain an illusion of control by defining and redefining things that exist anyway.
Mycenae had its famous Lion Gate (1250BC) and Babylon its Ishtar Gate, glazed with golden dragons on a blue ground and rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II, 605-563BC. Sydney, too, has a history of gates, and not just the penal kind.
Most of our portal splendours, though, have been of the temporary variety; canvas and plasterboard jobs, topped with fireworks to impress miscellaneous monarchs or their offspring, or mark the birth of commonwealth. We always did a good do.
But now, after a hundred federated years, we are building a new grand gate, permanent this time, introducing the Old Grand Drive, original entrance-way to Centennial Park. Sure, the park has fancy gates already. Eight sets, if you’re counting.
But this symbolic entrance to the Centennial Parklands (as the 385 heritage-listed hectares of Centennial, Moore and Queen’s Park are now collectively known) is the Big One. And it opens on Sunday.
Designed by Alexander Tzannes and Peter-John Cantrill of Alexander Tzannes Associates, the new gateway resonates with millennial significance.
Not only was the park beatified in 1888 on Australia’s transition to white settlement, but the new gate is funded as a Centenary of Federation project. In addition, as luck would have it, it’s from the same design-hand as the Federation Pavilion, also in Centennial Park, which was a bicentennial project and itself to be renovated under a Cent-Fed grant. Confused?
Of course Centennial Park is more than a hundred years old, having been designated as common land by Lachlan Macquarie in 1811, drained by City Surveyor John Busby in 1834 and slowly transformed from coastal scrubland by Sir Charles Moore, director also of the Botanic Gardens, from 1848 on.
The gateway is one of Centennial Park’s three Federation-funded projects the other two being the Fed Pav job, and the replanting of Henry Parkes Drive as a multicultural avenue. Whatever that means.
These days, the Old Grand Drive now to be known (yawn) as Federation Drive is an unremarkable asphalt path that runs, buried in trees, along the top end of Moore Park South to the Robertson Road gates. Its intentions, though, were rather grander.
The original, uncompleted design was for a triple carriageway comprising an in-out loop for vehicles flanking a central walkway. But even in its new life, while much of the grandeur is being reconjured from historic mists, the road will be strictly pedestrian, with its third leg remaining grassed-over.
The project involves replanting the existing avenues, reinstating their strange, syncopated fairisle of Holm oak, Norfolk Island pine and Port Jackson figs (with a few miscellaneous ficus thrown in along the street). More dramatically, the Anzac Parade end of Federation Drive is transformed from scruffy gravel car park to public square, paved in porphyry and defined by figs. And the transition, from square to avenue, is marked by the new, gleaming, triple-height Federation Gateway.
This is where it starts to get exciting. The gateway is a handsome structure, almost oriental in scale and dignity, whose symbolic function far outbalances its utility.
This is unusual, even in public buildings, in our spiritually impoverished times.
Architects are trained in metaphor but mired, more often than not, in the dominance of praxis. Nor, as Alexander Tzannes points out, do they often get to build in cast bronze, ironbark and copper. So the chance to work more loftily brings a certain joy.
Not that it’s the first time, for the Tzannes practice. But its Federation Pavilion and Federation Gateway could hardly be more different.
It’s the difference between point and line. Where the pavilion is round and still, the gateway is tall, airy and linear; where the pavilion is replete with gravity, the gateway is light and open-ended; where the pavilion establishes an exquisite centre for the valley around it, the gateway speaks to a wider world, inviting movement, change and transition.
This is geometry as metaphor. Although its text, Manning Clark’s “mammon or millennial Eden?” implies unfinished business, the pavilion, in formal terms, made federation an accomplishment. The gateway, in contrast, proffers endless opportunity.
The reason for the difference lies partly in context. Despite their symbolic roles, the ideas for both pavilion and gateway, argues Tzannes, are, and must be, rooted strongly in the nature of place.
At six kilometres Anzac Parade is perhaps the world’s longest fig-lined avenue. The new square is conceived as a clearing within this avenue, welcoming the traffic and business of city life. Its defining figs run along the other side of the road, consciously including the frantic intersection in its space.
With this transition comes an abrupt and unexpected change of scale. The gateway that looms from the street all but disappears, here, into the trees, its copper roof set carefully at canopy height and its branching bronze-and-ironbark columns mimicking the marching trunks. In time, as the copper greens and the timber greys, this arboreal vanishing act will be complete.
Then there’s the attention to detail. The bronze column-casings taper slightly, as pseudo-trunks should; the roof will oxidise more quickly than the soffit, leaving a softer, gleaming underside to the human presence; the under-eaves rake upwards, slightly, in an old entasis trick to counteract illusory planar droop; and the ironbark ‘branches’, angled asymmetrically in response to structural exigency, are detailed to preclude end-grain saturation.
At the core of Tzannes’s commitment is the notion that, personal preconceptions notwithstanding, design arises anew with every job each brief and context generating its own, untransferable response.
This is so obvious that schools of architecture should put it in the drinking water, but it isn’t happening in Sydney.
Seems our culture of transition has a way to go. Send more gates.
ILLUS: The Big One …
the natural beauty of Centennial Park had a strong influence over the new Federation Gateway’s design.
Photo: George Fetting