Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
To foster goodwill, shortcuts and all
A famous architect for the Regent site; sounds a match yet all is not right, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Norman Foster is known for the intelligence and clarity of his architecture. But if he can bring either intelligence or clarity to Sydney’s hirsute and gnarly development system, I for one will be astonished. Especially if he can do it on the old Regent Theatre site.
It’s 40 years since Foster and Richard Rogers and their wives co-founded the radical chic Team 4 in London. Now, with a themed symmetry that suggests their PR persons ski Aspen together, they (sans wives) are Lord Rogers of Riverside and Lord Foster of Thames Bank, twin pillars of Britain’s architecture establishment. And they’re good, both of them, Rogers typically playing the romantic to Foster’s chilled classicism.
To that extent at least Rogers, part-Italian, is the more British, while Foster’s vast planet-wide practice, a modern miracle of quality control, counts among its countless decorations the Queen’s Award for Export. Even so, the antipodes can boast only two Fosters, and embryonic at that: 126 Phillip Street, under construction, and the yet-unnamed 485-501 George Street. It may be some time before we call it anything other than the Regent site.
Since the Regent’s loud-lamented demolition in 1989, the black hole so dug, right beside the pomp precinct, has been an embarrassment to all those instrumental in its demise, notably developer Leon Fink, then planning minister Bob Carr, next premier Nick Greiner and lord mayor Jeremy Bingham. The argument, if you remember, was that either the Capitol or the Regent had to go, since Sydney couldn’t support two lyric theatres clearly no one told Star City that and since the Capitol was owned by the Sydney City Council, well, what could I do, yer honour?
In the years since, the Regent site has sustained a litany of design abominations, failed planning consents and inscrutable offshore owners, hot-spudding it from one to the other. It would be nice to think all that was over, now, and Foster could start clean. But not so. In William Faulkner’s immortal words, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.”
Of seven planning consents since 1990, three still live. Only two are relevant, though, since the third valid until November this year is for an office tower: wrong part of town, no market, end of story. The two residential consents, dating from 1995 (Crone Associates) and 1998 (Nettleton Tribe), are uniformly horrible, in true Paddy’s Market pastel-pastichery style, and permanently valid. With floor space ratios of 16.5:1 and 16.2:1 they are substantially more than the 14:1 allowed under the current city plan, and even the absolute maximum of 15.5:1 pertaining at the time.
Why so favoured? The strip was the city’s entertainment precinct. Cinemas, game zones, pubs, clubs. blue-movie shops, brothels and the odd weaponry retailer. Kind of place every parent-of-teens needs. Plus it was the old days, when land use was seen to be controllable. So developers were required to trade; entertainment venues, and other public benefit, for development rights. In the Regent’s case it came to seven cinemas and an underground pedestrian link to the Town Hall arcade.
But planning is a negative business; it can stop things, maybe shape them, but not make them happen. By 1998 the Olympics and the Regent’s black hole both loomed large. So desperate was the Central Sydney Planning Committee for a filling that it rewarded the then-owner, Genting, with the absolute maximum possible floorspace without the usual heritage contribution and exempting the cinemas from the count. Promises were made but the Olympics came and went, and the hole got only deeper, blacker. Sucked in, the City.
Good deal, though, from the developer’s end. Which is why the current proponent, Singapore’s Greencliff Development, bothered litigating an 18-month extension. Then, just as the consent was to lapse for the final time, it dug a little hole and poured a little concrete. Not much. Just enough to keep the consent alive for ever, casting its 16.2:1 shadow across all future dealings. But still Greencliff wasn’t happy. It had no interest in cinemas; residential was the yielder. Enter Lord Norm, winged and haloed, deus ex machina. Greencliff’s managing director, Dr Stanley Quek, didn’t even own the site when he first popped his favourite Foster-figure on the table. Theory being that, facing a sufficiently glorious archi-aura, planning rules and other minor blemishes would fade politely away. It’s worked before (think Aurora Place). And it worked here, if a little more slowly.
Quek, needing a redesign, wanted to convert the existing consent into an envelope, within which Foster’s redesign could simply “oops! no cinemas” in a blaze of architectural genius. The City, though, insisted on a competitive process; not a full five-architect competition but a mini, three-architect job, complete with jury. So Foster competed with Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF, of Chifley Tower fame) in association with Peddle Thorp, and Johnson Pilton Walker (JPW), token locals.
Lo. And, in fact, behold. The six-man jury, comprising half-Greencliff (including Quek), half-City (including Paul Keating, who must surely by now be regretting his anointing as the latest thing in architectural committee sitters), picked the Foster unanimously. They liked its urban scale and articulated form. They liked its balance between “restraint” and “iconic character”. They decently failed to notice the absence of cinemas which, after all, weren’t in the brief and were silent on underground passages. They gave it 8/10 for architecture, 8/10 for urban design and 8/10 for compliance with city plans even though at 16.2:1 in a 14:1 area, that’s a longish bow.
But how good is it really, Sydney’s second Foster? Well it’s not Swiss Re (aka The Gherkin), City Hall, London or the British Museum’s Great Court. Not the Reichstag, the Carre d’Art at Nimes or the Sainsbury Centre, East Anglia. Not, that is, one of Foster’s most strongly imageable works. There’s no succulent driving idea, and little of the seductive simplifying intelligence that vintage Fosters famously exude.
From where Quek stands the Foster tag may do the trick maximum floor space without cinemas but a blind tasting might leave us less impressed. Where’s that famed quality control now?
Does Lord Norm know he’s proposing bathrooms off dining rooms and three-metre main bedrooms? Does he even know he’s doing the job?
Still, as a six-week design product, it’s elegant enough. Two glassy egg-crate towers one residential, one serviced-apartments soar above a five-level retail podium. The towers are described as “floating” and the podium as “sandstone” (deference to St Andrew’s Cathedral, Town Hall and QVB, get it?). In fact, sandstone only lines the arcades doglegging-it through, while the street gets five storeys of naked glass, exposing shoppers and weights-doers like this is voyeursville, Darlo.
And the towers “float” only in so far as their detail and massing deliberately distances them from their base.
But architects live or die by deeds, not words. The building, as modified in a 24-hour play-off with the KPF team during the judging process, is an assured piece of design, slenderised by adept modelling and cooler, more refined than either the slabby offering from the KPF team or JPW’s proposal. It is elegant although to be fair, it doesn’t take haute design to come across elegant in that heartsinkingly Meritonised neck of the woods. Then again, haute design could be just what this seedy part of George Street needs.
So far, then, so plausible. But the real test is survival, over the months of nip and tuck to come. Much will depend on the good doctor.
Quek says he wanted “signature” towers and perhaps, in Sydney terms, he has them. The next questions will be of the practical kind. Are 11-a-floor units capable of providing a signature more Rembrandt than Warhol, even with naturally ventilated lobbies? Is the already declining residential bubble going to tolerate such gawky internal planning? And how much of the transparency increasing towards the sky, of course will vanish during translation to reality?
There’s more. Is anyone really going to buy four floors of retailing (including an entire level of convenience shopping, still floor-space-ratio exempt), south of city hall? Can five-storey arcades through to Kent Street car parks spell anything other than retail death, sandstone notwithstanding? Will Quek in fact fund the inefficiencies of capital-A architecture: what price intelligence (and actually, is this it)? It’s his call.
THREE ILLUS: After the Toaster, the egg crates .
the plan for the old Regent Theatre site, a mix of residential and retail.
; A regal touch .
the Regent Theatre (left of picture) before demolition, and, above, Lord Norman Foster, the architect whose plan will transform the site to the towers illustrated at top.