Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
A building for the public, but it’s hardly open house
There are good ideas in the latest refurbishment plan for the Sydney Customs House but it is not as friendly as it looks, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
“Public” is probably the most overloaded and underdefined word in the lexicon, covering everything from open title and access (as in street) to public use strictly at private pleasure. As in pub.
This ambiguity, so handy in ideological debate, is just one of the problems still besetting the Sydney Customs House.
In the 1880s, when James Barnet was devising the Customs House as one of several ornate facades intended to establish Sydney as a global city, publicness meant something else again. According to Sydney theorist Peter Kohane, Barnet’s facades also including the Garden Palace, the Lands Department and the GPO used sculpture, depth, horizontality and an overwhelming sense of address to engage the public and generate, at different
distances and scales, a sense of participation in the great urban theatre.
Now, as Sydney City Council prepares Customs House Refurb No. 6, the P-word is stirring the possum again.
In 1994 the deal was a three-cornered job which had the council make East Circular Quay roadway available (so the building could fatten out above a colonnade), reducing its price from $28 million to $5.5 million; the developers (CML and Mirvac) lower
the building by half a dozen storeys; the Commonwealth would donate the Customs House, plus $24 million refurb-dowry, on a 60-year lease to the city.
This allowed the Feds to massage the outcome without having to endure epidermal intimacy with developers. God forbid. It also allowed them and here’s the real eucalyptus rub to set conditions. The overriding one required at least 70 per cent of the building for public use. But, duh, what is public use, exactly?
The fact that it never went to court didn’t signify lack of dispute. Until well after construction, lawyers all over town made unnaturally merry. Can public uses make money? If so, how much? Or does profit define a use as private? Is a cafe public? A bar? A food hall?
Trouble was, all the non-money-making proposals looked suspiciously needy in the subsidy department. Worse, they were a dreary lot, infected by a worthiness that promised no match for the sheer vigour of the building. The proposal with most legs kicking hardest, that is, and longest was Musica Viva’s plan to gut the House and create a recital hall. Spearheaded with terrifying intensity by Tony Berg and Jennifer Bott, and designed by Peddle Thorp’s Andrew Andersons, the proposal was public only in the sense of soaking up Commonwealth dollars.
As a minority cultural use, though, it astutely pitted that tine of cultural correctness against another: it was chamber music versus heritage. Eventually, heritage won, despite Bob Carr’s wishes, mainly because of the scheme’s evisceration of the architecture.
Designed in waves by half a dozen architects, Customs House is basically a dour office building in fabulous fancy dress. It is scarcely surprising that conversion into a vibrant centre of public culture proved ticklish, especially given the constraints. Three main constraint-sets presided: financial autonomy, heritage conservation and the 70/30 rule imposed by local, state and commonwealth governments respectively. One result was that the ground-floor space, which should be the best, has proved intractably vacant despite its vivid and exciting architecture. And despite the nation’s most torrential pedestrian flow being just an expressway away.
The latest proposal, also designed by Andersons and yet to gain heritage approval, has three main parts: softening and opening the facade; moving the City Library from Town Hall House; and converting two full floors to private commercial use. Offices (gasp).
Opening up the front is a good idea. It involves re-replanting the square to quadruple the number of trees (tick) with a 15-strong grove either side of the square (tick) and moving the cafe seating away from the facade (tick) and under the trees (tick) so they’re out of the way but also
shadier. It also involves converting the ground-floor double-hung windows, within the colonnade, into French doors, removing a square-metre of sandstone from beneath each sill (gulp).
It sounds scary. This is, after all, a top-drawer heritage item and the Conservation Plan does require retention of all Barnet fabric. But I think it’s OK. It is pretty hard to get purist about a building that’s been chopped about as rhythmically as this one, and the series of tall openings, as proposed, lends the facade a dignified, outback-Palladian quality that feels bizarrely apt.
Inside, though, dignity succumbs to populism. Don’t get me wrong. Moving the library downtown is also a good idea. It would have been good last time around. But then back when libraries still had books it would scarcely have fitted. Big heavy things, books. Especially compared with the glorious airiness of e-knowledge. To say nothing of all that bums-on-seats entertainment e-value.
For the current proposal is governed, informed and facilitated by the popularity principle. Just as the headlong quest to woo, not teach, has seen museums like education itself shed anything difficult or challenging to become glorified games parlours, so libraries are morphing into information stores. As votes are to politicians, bums on seats are to the modern institution. Patronage equals power.
The new City Information Store (CIS) will leave its stack as is, in Town Hall House’s car park. Already shrunk by regular “de-acquisitioning” of non-popular material, it can there be further reduced as and when the cars need more space.
The rest, with its international newspapers, databases and cookery books already one of the most popular libraries in Australia will reawaken within metres of that magnetic pedestrian flow. Never mind that they’re mostly tourists, idly seeking what’s-on info. Bums are bums, even in shorts.
Customs House has six storeys: subtracting three for the CIS and one for Cafe Sydney leaves two levels three and four. The City Exhibition Space, from level four, will squeeze its sterling program of intelligent city-based talks and exhibitions down into the CIS. Level 3’s Object Gallery which through an unfailingly sophisticated exhibition program has failed the bums-on-seats test is out in the street.
And lo! This leaves two extra floors for commercial use. To make the space more viable in this regard, Tonkin’s fabulous criss-cross escalators always the building’s most dramatic signal of total public access will be dragged off their great glass wall. Collapsed into the centre, they will serve only the first two (internet and audio-visual) floors. Anyone seeking something so extraordinary as a book will need to leg it to the third floor, or summon from the stack.
Also in the interests of lettability, the horseshoe floor-plate becomes a doughnut, with floors extending across the atrium (now light well) on every level. Perimeter walls, once open to the atrium, will be sealed. (Further twisting the tale, a rumoured contender for the office space is the Institute of Architects, formidably figureheaded by Paul Keating architect, so to speak, of the initial deal.)
All of which turns a glorious public space with a forbidding facade into a friendly face with a go-away interior. Sure, it sweetens the financial pie especially if you count the vacated library floor in Town Hall House. But to write home about?
Then there’s the 70/30 rule. Three floors Information Store plus three floors commercial looks more like fifty-fifty to me. Are we reverting to a 19th-century ideal, where publicness is strictly a matter of appearance? Or has the Commonwealth stopped counting?
Then again, maybe we’re just siding with Ambrose Bierce’s definition of “public” as “the negligible factor in problems of legislation”.
TWO ILLUS: Major refurbishment plan number six will do away with most of the escalators at Customs House, below.