Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: News And Features
E. M. Farrelly
FOR ULTIMO, it must seem like the cavalry’s arrived – the advance party anyway – and just in the nick. With no open space to speak of, the engorgement of Harris Street slated only to worsen, local streets closed and traffic-calmed to the point of paralysis and a near-terminal dose of Meritonitis, it was beginning to look like the game was really up.
Then came the new Ultimo Community Centre, designed by Lawrence Nield and Partners for the City Council. Rising heroically from the footprint of the old and undeniably daggy Sid Fegan/Esme Hackett duplex on the corner of Harris and William Henry streets, the new Nield building is one of the better pieces of public architecture to hit town for some time.
Not that it is exquisitely detailed, expensively finished, or finished at all, for that matter. It isn’t any of the above. Stage I is just open; Stage II is about to start. But the building is stylish, airy, confident and mercifully – blessedly – unpatronising.
The sliding scale between civic pomp and church hall is long and slippery. Most community centres wind up guddling about right down the basket-weaving end of it – well-meant but irredeemably worthy. Discreetly shrubbed and signaged, they squat cautiously back from the street, tugging the tiled forelock in a perpetually losing attempt to be municipal but homey.
In Philadelphia and Melbourne there is even a fashion, decades after Ruscha, for parodying populism in community buildings. This is a style wherein the architects (very sophisticated) ape the noble vulgarity of the building’s users (not very sophisticated) with such wit and rib-tickling aplomb that other architects (and publishers) are terrifically impressed, but the users (a bit thick) don’t notice.
Not so Ultimo. Nothing condescending or shamefaced about it. The new Community Centre sits smack on the street line, hailing all comers with a jauntiness and scale that makes you wonder why the macrame’ mentality ever caught on in the first place. Sure, there’s yellow sand mixed into the blockwork, giving the building that honeyed look that stamps natives of the yellowblock peninsula. But that’s about it for contextual gestures. From there on in, it’s straight, modern aesthetic with a rakish Parisian edge.
Even on Bulwara Road, always one of Ultimo’s prettier, cottage-scale streets, the new Community Centre runs a fearless giant order colonnade, unadorned yet infectiously optimistic in its determination to celebrate community without deprecation.
Purists aver that quality architecture results only from the time-honoured method which has the architect design and detail the entire package upfront: a complete set of drawings, a single lump sum contract, a building. Step by step, in that order. It’s more expensive but (they will tell you) it buys certainty.
In these terms, the new Ultimo Community Centre is a classic example of how to break all the rules and still deliver a very respectable result. It was designed on the run, to an ever-changing brief (the top floor was a medical centre, then offices, then a child-care centre), on a site dwarfed by the wish-list it was expected to accommodate, tinkered with by both committee and user group (the
William Henry Street entrance was inserted during a council meeting) and fast-tracked to billy-o. The resulting building should, by rights, be the worst sort of camel. Its contrary success in turning such misfortunes to advantage indicates a robust design philosophy and adept project management.
The obvious first move in designing a community centre on a busy street is to shove the tennis court in the centre and call it open space. Nield, reluctant to dedicate precious ground to a single user group, argued instead for rooftop courts. These now appear, netted and veiled against the sky like some great eccentric aviary, atop the lot.
The determination still to provide a central protected space, however, stacked the building up to its full 3« storeys. In height terms, this positions the centre somewhere between the two traditional building forms which have long distinguished the district, great Victorian warehouses and tiny workers’ terraces. This height, while not overwhelming the cottages, is sufficient to strengthen the street corner, give presence to the building and leave the courtyard free for babies and playgroups.
Having walled the garden, thus, the next question was how to reconnect the centre to the community it services. The result is the series of huge oriel windows which puncture the front wall of the building, and which Nield calls miradors, as if William Henry Street were a laneway by the Bosphorus. This sounds, at first cut, like first-rate architectural fairyfloss. But the way in which these glassy projections reveal the building’s inner life to the street, and vice versa, so adroitly extends the Spanish/Moorish tradition as to justify the metaphor.
Printed on the glass, in huge Love Story letters, are the names of activities within – Library, Crafts, Seminars, Courses. There’s a pottery room, a language room, meeting rooms large and small, and even a place – the “tele-cottage” in municipal twee-speak – for people to go and test-drive a PC when the fancy strikes. The roof courts cater for basketball, volleyball, netball and tennis, all with upmarket city views (and sheltered spectating, from the outdoor miradors).
The handsomely equipped gym, named for the city alderman Jack Byrne who, in the ’50s, single-handedly saved Ultimo from the satanic mills, dispenses with convention in opening directly onto the courtyard through huge glass doors. Since the community hall is similarly expansive, the entire ground floor becomes a single space system, as and when desired.
Stage II, due to finish in the first half of next year, will complete the picture. It will house half a dozen shops along Harris Street, some of them opening also to the courtyard, and a child-care centre for casino workers (no car park jokes, thank you). A public child-care centre will occupy the top floor of both stages. There will also be a third entrance to the centre, linking Harris Street directly to the courtyard, so that each of the building’s street walls is appropriately permeable to the public it serves.
The council, as well as its architect, deserve hearty congrats for having pressed on through the flak surrounding closure and demolition of the old. It could easily have become just too hard. All Ultimo needs now is a couple of decent parks, and some genuine traffic management, and the place will be almost habitable again.
Illus: The Ultimo Community Centre …
“stylish, airy, confident and mercifully unpatronising”.
Photograph by SAHLAN HAYES