Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
WORLD SQUARE TOWERS
THE END OF LOCALISM?
CITIES are shaped by many things – greed, food, fear, transport, water supply, and even, occasionally, human wisdom. Sydney, increasingly, is a city shaped by the View God. All over Sydney, property values are measurable in terms of distance from the sea and for years – perhaps for ever – the only place to be, commercially-speaking, has been the northern CBD, near the water; not because the stuff is clean or even warm most of the year, but for the sake, solely, of the view.
More than any other single factor, this craving for view has turned Sydney into a high-rise city; rental rates for offices with views are twice or even three times those without. Nor does this local sense of priority look like changing in a hurry; it’s part of Sydney’s culture, and it’s here to stay.
So what about the rest of the city – is it, as popular wisdom has hitherto held, unsellable?
Jim Barrett, managing director of Ipoh Garden (Aust) Ltd, and of its purpose-formed subsidiary World Square Pty Ltd, is prepared to take the risk. He doesn’t regard himself as a risk-taker – what developer does? – but he took on the Queen Victoria Building when nobody else would touch it, and found he’d struck gold.
Even so, the 0.8hectare World Square block, bounded by Liverpool, Pitt, Goulburn and George Streets, and surrounded by what might best be called slow-rise real estate, stands well south of desirable commercial terrain. It is the biggest single development in Sydney’s – and possibly Australia’s -history, and there are no guarantees that it will work.
On the other hand, nobody’s saying it won’t – especially since the advent of Darling Harbour, at roughly the same “latitude”. Of course Darling Harbour was no more than a vague twinkle in the eye of a few City aldermen when Ipoh Garden bought the World Square site in 1979; now it attracts a ready flow of tourists and is served by a monorail station to boot. But then, as Jim Barrett rightly points out, “luck often favours the brave”.
Ipoh Garden is a Singapore-based company, and it was the Singapore connection that led to the choice of Japanese maestro Kenzo Tange as architect for the World Square project.
Tange, now 76, and known reverentially as “The Professor” by clients and associates alike, has headed an international (but still, wisely, not vast)practice since 1942. He has worked latterly in Singapore and the Middle East but is still best known for the unprecedented brilliance of his gymnasiums for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics which, forging single-handedly a Modern Japanese tradition, demonstrated against all reigning opinion that buildings did not have to be Western to be Modern – or backward to be regionally responsive.
Ironically, though, these buildings marked the end of the “tradition debate” for Tange, who went on to the fantastic high-tech drama of his Osaka Expo pavilions of 1970, and to become, on the strength of his breathtaking 1960 plan to extend Tokyo city out across Tokyo Bay, a focus for the megastructural dreams of the 1970s Japanese Metabolists.
He has gone on record, since then, as believing that local traditions must be overcome if creativity is to flourish. More recently still, the overt, over-scaled post-Modern gesturing of much of his latest work (in, for example, the Yokohama Art Museum, or even his first, 1981, scheme for Sydney’s World Square) may be taken either as further testimony to this cultivated disdain for localism, or to indicate yet another change of tune.
The regionalism argument is a difficult one – how far, and in what ways, should a building strive to reflect the peculiar idiosyncrasies of place? Does neighbourliness demand slavish imitation, or can differences increase mutual respect? What price conformism – especially when, as in the case of World Square, the buildings in question are as much a part of corporate-capitalist super-culture as of the particular streets in which, like space-ships, they happen to land.
In this instance, Tange’s hand has been gently forced by other, local influences. His representative here, architect Norihiko Kudo, is resident for the duration, and “The Professor” himself visits occasionally, but any architect, in order to work here, is required to choose a NSW-registered architect as associate.
Over the 10-year history of World Square, Ipoh Garden has employed various firms in this role – most recently, Peddle Thorp and Walker, whose job, over the past year, has been to work with Norihiko Kudo and local planning authorities, to make the building more (in the argot) “place-specific”, and help turn it into fact.
The site was acquired piecemeal. At first it included little more than half the block, then occupied by the old Anthony Hordern department store. The store – or, more properly, the New Palace Emporium – had been built in 1906 to replace the Horderns’s earlier building (slightly further south) which had been gutted by fire in 1901.
After World War II, Anthony Horderns’s business began an unstoppable decline. Eventually the building was sold, and spent several increasingly derelict years housing parts of the NSW Institute of Technology, a car park, and sundry other activities.
The building was beginning to suffer visibly from a chronic lack of maintenance, but – for reasons, no doubt, of historical and sentimental as much as strictly architectural value – it was covered by an interim conservation order, which preserves pending further decision.
Tange’s earliest proposals, therefore, attempted to retain the building, keeping its facade, but placing three aluminium and glass towers in the centre.
This is the worst sort of facadism, an approach which has lately found increasing favour with planning authorities (although not with serious conservationists) the world over. It is even encouraged by the recent Central Sydney Strategy, despite the implicit reduction of architecture – and of history – to mere surface appearance, and the gross indignity that all too often results.
Fortunately, however, the idea, “couldn’t be made to work. For a while,”says Jim Barrett, “we thought we’d made a mistake in buying the site,” but eventually, with permission from the authorities (and in view of the building’s now serious structural delapidation), it was demolished.
The ensuing proposals, between 1983 and 1986, showed three and then (as more of the site was acquired) four angle-topped towers rising more or less sheerly from a plaza.
The reigning architectural wisdom, however, holds that tower blocks in the classical manner (and in the interests of the ordinary human way down below), should have a bottom, a middle, and a top. In response, the World Square proposals progressively came to include a degree of peripheral architectural activity at street level.
By April 1987, when the initial Development Application (DA) was approved, there was a detectable if embryonic platform around the base of the towers; since then, it has developed into the real thing – a fully-fledged five-storey podium covering the site, ghosting-in the vanished bulk of the Hordern Emporium.
Above the podium, the four towers will rise in a radiating pattern, each to a different height, and facing a different direction (heights are measured not in floors but in “usable floors” since the buildings’ peaked caps make the upper several part-floors uninhabitable).
From the beginning, these towers have been seen very much by their architects as forming a single sculptural entity, opening “like a flower in full bloom” to the sky. Whether the metaphor is quite so clear to the non-architectural viewpoint is another question, but Norihiko Kudo seems confident that “some sort of spiralling, rotating movement” will be legible, even from the street.
The two shortest towers, on Pitt and Goulburn Streets, will be hotels and/or “all-suite apartments”, at 550 rooms and 300 units (25 and 30 usable storeys) respectively. The other two will be office buildings. George Tower, the highest, will rise to 214 metres (or 47 usable storeys) above podium level. In a nice twist of fate, this tower, on that north-west part of the site where the redoubtable Mrs Hordern’s fine drapery shop first stood in the 1820s, will be the last built; proceeding only to podium level before awaiting developing patterns of demand.
The podium itself will house primarily shops, banks, travel agents and the like, and foyer space for the hotels; because the site slopes in two directions, the podium has, in effect, four ground floors – a blessing for any developer. But it gives as much as it takes; reinstating the street wall, cutting wind speeds, providing shelter all round and public pedestrian routes diagonally across the site from each of its four rather fanciful corner”gatehouses”, through a full-height top-lit central atrium.
In the initial DA scheme, the street frontages of this podium were coolly aluminium-clad and cantilevered over the street. Now, with massaging from both the planners and the associate architects, they are colonnaded, granite-faced, and articulated with imitation pilasters at roughly 20-metre intervals, to echo the bay rhythm of surrounding streets. “Just like a row of terrace houses,” says Jim Barrett: and while the simile may be uncharacteristically far-fetched, the idea itself is a good one, diminishing the apparent scale of the building with the masterful detailing of fine materials (three shades of grey granite, both rough and polished, separated by tinted grey glass, and elegant mirror-finish stainless steel strips).
Andrew Andersons, representing Peddle Thorp and Walker on the job, believes that the building should make every effort to fit its context. He points out that “all the best buildings in Sydney – the QVB, the GPO – are stone-faced and finely articulated.” The changes (aluminium to stone, sheer tower to podium, cantilever to colonnade) are to him all ways of making the World Square more responsive, more of a Sydney building.
At the same time, however, World Square is clearly something of a cultural hybrid. The rhythmic facade modulations, for example, and the subtle refinements of colour and material, Andersons regards as “very Japanese.”
“Our cultural establishment,” he says, “hasn’t cottoned-on to the massive cultural change that comes with this large-scale Asian investment. Sure, property prices are rising, but that’s not the main thing.”
This very diversity, of course, itself reflects Australia’s putative”multiculturalism” and, by that gentle subterfuge, may be taken to place World Square firmly within the local cultural matrix.
But does this mean the building is becoming impossibly compromised – part Australian, part Japanese, part master-work, part committee design? Not necessarily.
“The Professor” travels little these days, but he keeps a clear eye on proceedings, with drawings, models, and architects commuting regularly between Sydney and Tokyo. We are assured that he is “thrilled” by the changes that have been effected in his building.
Which of course is one of the reasons why the project – which demolished a heritage building, slightly exceeds recommended floor space ratios for the area, and includes seven floors of underground carparking when the Strategy’s stated policy is to
encourage the use of public transport in the city – has been not only permitted but encouraged by the authorities.
As Barrett points out, the 2,000-2,500 car spaces will still accommodate only a fraction of the 12,000-14,000 people expected to work in the building, not to mention guests, residents, shoppers and clients. Further, the car park is the only thing that made the Queen Victoria Building financially viable. The car, he says, is simply part of our culture; people need parking and will pay for it.
The same peremptory dismissal greets any romantic ideas of responding to the peculiar benevolence of Sydney’s climate with a building which uses fans, sun-shading and opening windows instead of air-conditioning. The result, he says, however “Australian,” would be suicide – like trying to sell a building in Sydney without views. Jim Barrett may be a risk-taker, but he’s not that much of a risk-taker.
Now, of course, the risk looks fairly minimal. Already Qantas have earmarked 40 per cent (25,000square metres) of George Tower as their world headquarters, and Pitt Tower has been pre-sold to Pan Pacific, a Singapore-based hotel chain which will act as its own developer. Even so, Barrett is not in the business of flouting cultural norms. Who can blame him?
Although all that’s visible so far is a hole of positively Egyptian dimensions, the signs are that World Square is something to welcome. Enormous it may be – as was the New Palace Emporium in its time – but the building has elegance and panache, provides vitality and shelter, and deals civilly with the street.
True, there is a danger that the Pan Pacific tower, which will be built separately (to the existing design, but with different architects), may compromise the project’s unity, on which all sculptural impact depends.
So far, though, the design has only improved with time. If that direction can be maintained until completion (first stage 1992) Sydney will have a multicultural monument to be proud of.
Illus: The planned World Square building.
Lacking top-dollar water views, such a vast concept is a real risk.
But “luck often favours the brave”.