Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Aunty gets a severe dressing down
The new ABC building lacks the dignity, light and space promised on paper, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
OK, I admit it. I was wrong. Not 100 per cent wrong. Maybe 80, 85 per cent.
“Understated, urbane and impeccably mannered,” was my verdict at the time. Following through with “interesting and evocative, stylish and contemporary … strongly scaled, adeptly modulated and friendly”.
Blah, blah. It does sound atypically benign. It was almost two years ago. And since then they have built the thing (so often a mistake). Philip Cox’s new ABC building, buttock-to-buttock between UTS and Ken Woolley’s old ABC on Harris Street, Ultimo, is not his most glorious hour.
It’s still a good idea. Consolidating Aunty from the rambling dishabille of her Gore Hill establishment, that collection of micro-fiefs, onto the vacant Ultimo lot was an obvious strategic move. Its upsides range from economies of scale to discomforting the denizens. And no doubt the dowager herself is corporately delighted, reaping yields from both Gore Hill land sales and Ultimo office space. In the end, though, the missed opportunities weigh more. Why?
Start with the street. Ultimo’s south rump is a needy part of town, replete with major cultural institutions (UTS, Sydney Institute and the Powerhouse, as well as the ABC). Crawling with pedestrians, choked by traffic and palpably underfunded, south Ultimo craves the one thing it can never have, space. This makes it morally obligatory for any newbie on the block to contribute, in lieu of space, whatever dignity imagination can deliver. ABC II, though, is sadly reduced in the dignity department.
Sure, Woolley started it. Him and Eugene Goossens. Woolley was a fine modern architect in his time, confident and well-tuned. But ABC-I dates from his late-’80s collapse into the post-modern wallpaper syndrome all punched windows, eclectic forms and material used to hide structure, not illuminate it. His decision, similarly affected, to place the Goossens concert hall on the street, instead of burying it safely and sanely in the centre, is one of the enduring mysteries.
In each case, the ramifications are still with us. ABC-I divided itself linearly, stacking radio-studios along the eastern wall (facing the old railtrack), the Goossens on Harris Street and a central top-lit “street” through the centre. This arcade paradigm has always enchanted architects, indulging their preference for virtual street (ideal, internal, controlled) over the grubby and unpredictable reality. And maybe that’s fine. Architecture being after all, you might argue, an exercise in built metaphor (very postmodern). Hence, in Ultimo, the central row of Louis Poulson streetlights and Corbusier Grand Confort chairs. But it was the real street that took the brunt. Concert halls need to be soundproof as in serious acoustic isolation so putting one on the most fortissimo streets in town killed any chance of linkage between inside and out. Harris Street got the deathmask colonnade, all asphalt and precast, with even the corner greasy spoon veiled by acres of agapanthus.
When, in the early ’90s, Cox came to do the UTS building, though, he wisely eschewed this model. The Peter Johnson Building (PJB) housing the UTS architecture faculty but named, ironically, for the long-time head of the University of Sydney’s architecture school inverts Woolley’s “street-tude”. Where ABC-I was aloof and standoffish, the PJB street-greets with a slap and a flourish; where ABC was dour, PJB offers dramatic welcome; where ABC was squat and blocky, pinned with that crusty space-age campanile, PJB was all uplift, proffering a stair of Roman proportions and a fat internal court. Between them, still in its loveless car-park phase, sat the ABC’s empty lot.
The big urban-design question for Cox, then, in interposing ABC-II, was which way to lean; towards ABC-I, the sibling building? Or to his own PJB? Quite reasonably, Cox chose the former. And perhaps, had ABC-I offered a stronger template, this might yet have proved the better path. As it is, though, the new building stands as a warning against the dangers of genetic fatalism.
Parroting ABC-I’s unfortunate mix of flesh-pink precast and green-glass curtain-wall, ABC-II similarly duds the street with a clutch of TV studios, producing an equally lifeless streetwall tricked up with square columns (to Woolley’s round) and a way-too-subtle play on the textural contrast between polished and matt concrete. Behind this sits the commercial high-rise, at 15 storeys not tall (though 40 per cent higher than the City planning scheme allows) but awkward, a semi-conscious massing of zincalume planes and green-glass boxes. Counting perhaps on near-invisibility at ground level, it brattishly boosts its own confidence with a wee priapic tower with which to poke the sky.
The saddest moment, though, comes just where a building should be most assured right at the front door. A fully glazed library and rehearsal complex beneath choppy, undulating roof, this is the main formal element of the whole, spanning between Woolley’s old colonnade (round) and Cox’s new one (square). Last time, I described it thus: “The compositional sprightliness here raking glass facade capped by a roof-froth of white-horse wavelets is more delicate than anything we’ve seen from Cox in a while and touches both building and institution with a
welcome signal of transparency.”
What has changed?
Light, for one. Where the drawings promised compositional sprightliness there is a cavernous melancholy, all butts and sputum on the asphalt. Where a celestial brilliance was imagined, like some brave broadcasting beacon in the urban wastes, smokers loiter palely against yick-brown columns and daylight declines to enter. Where delicate transparency was trothed, cheapish green glass is hung with daggy, outsize posters of Tony Eastley and Jacinta Tynan.
And attention to detail. At the front door of our premier public institution, utility pipes zag unchecked across open waffle ceiling and fire exits irrupt at random. Was a design-mind actually running this show? Or do we blame the budget/client/project manager?
The real test lies not in form or detail but in spatial sequence. Here too, though, disappointment is the take-home product. Porte cocheres (covered entranceways), so often required by councils to cajole traffic off-street and supported by clients as an elegant arrival stratagem, generally turn out to be a bad idea fumy, joyless, and spatially profligate. This one is unusually unsuccessful, being three times as deep as it is high and underlit (three different lighting systems notwithstanding).
Within too, in the atrium that was once the ABC’s most amiable spatial event, airiness has been gloomed over by the office tower’s sudden bleak presence. The promised compensatory delight of an interactive TV-news studio has evaporated; everything is shut and under security. A glimmer of connectivity does appear with a back door to the newly pedestrianised railtrack, but for the ABC unlike UTS, which bothered to provide escalators this is strictly exit only.
Lost opportunities abound. Of course, organisations need to be secure, and of course, Aunty’s main public face is in the ether, not the street. No doubt, too, the budget and project management situations have a lot to answer for. Even so, the physical home of Australia’s flagship cultural institution should be every bit as lively, ingenious, unpredictable, imaginative, friendly and full-blooded as the culture it manifests. Anything less is a damn shame. It is our ABC.
ILLUS: Something lost in translation …
an artist’s impression of what the new ABC would look like, left, and the reality, above.
Photo: Jane Dyson