Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Too much sacrif iced at the Cross
As lifestylers move in, the area will lose a precious asset its rough heart, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
The tyranny of the majority takes many forms. For J. S. Mill and De Tocqueville the dangers were bedded in democracy. These days, though, it’s the market god that threatens to swamp dissenting adults in aspirational majority rule. Nice for the majority, but for underbelly precincts such as Kings Cross, death-by-hygiene is in the air.
And there she is, shouldering cleanly between (The World Famous) Love Machine and Hot Pink XXX, the City of Sydney’s brave new Kings Cross neighbourhood service centre, all sheet glass and air-con among the ageing neon, glue-on tudor and doll-pink paint every bit as sorry as the flesh it advertises. That it takes a space the size of three adult love-shops to showcase a half-dozen blurblets on the joys of city residency is beside the point. This is symbolism. New boundaries, new broom, new look. Bringing free-market openness to an occult world, the lifestylers have arrived, their cheek-shine alone enough to banish the shadowy traditions of the street. Move over, sleaze; wheat grass has come to the Cross.
The Cross has always been a crucible of mixed messages; ever since the first Euro-style apartments were built here early last century, it has cheek-to-cheeked Australia’s tightest-packed burb with its most leathery netherworld. For generations of visitors GIs, backpackers, dirty weekenders and assorted wandering businesspersons the Cross was their Sydney portal-of-choice, its noirish street sleaze an essential ingredient in the city’s tasty urban grit. Now, though, as the lifestylers continue their relentless spread, all that is fading under a uniform consumer glaze.
Many, including most existing residents, might think this a “good thing”. Cleaning up the Cross has, after all, been a political winner and now, with a new lord mayor and new political boundaries, the temptation is stronger than ever, bringing fresh (or at least freshly dusted-off) promises of paving, footpath widening, graffiti removal.
Even this could be a worry, judging by the fate of Kings Cross station, where those improbably gorgeous burnt-orange glass mosaic tiles, specially imported for the ’70s supergraphic, have lately been sicklied over by cheap acrylic paint in a nauseous
combination of milk-white and baby-poo.
But the real changes are more profound. As site after site converts to highest-and-best-use residential, Australia’s densest moment gets denser still. Already we’ve had the Horizon and the Altair in Darlo, the Grid in Rushcutters Bay and two major blocks proposed to flank Blacket’s pretty St John’s, Darlinghurst.
Now it’s coming pincer-style from the north as well, with major redevelopments strung out along Macleay Street at the Rex (a Burley Katon Halliday conversion), Mirvac’s Ikon (ex Nikko), Winten’s Pomeroy and the old post office site. And from the east, with the Manhattan (Multiplex out of Richard Huxley architects), Mirvac’s Sebel Townhouse (now Encore) and the Gazebo (another BKH conversion).
The residential revolution is scarcely peculiar to the Cross; after a decade it continues to transform the city and in-burbs, surfing the coincidence of council policy, commercial glut and market readiness with a gusto that defies prediction. And in many ways it is a good thing; there’s nothing like massed residents for enlivening streets, supporting retail, using public transport and generally enhancing the environment.
Another spin-off is architectural. Whereas Australian architecture’s self-image has always put huge store by the single suburban house plus the odd public building we are finally developing a new strand of expertise in high-density residential, which is surprisingly hard to get right. At last some developers at least have understood that you don’t just put your homebrand house hack onto it and hope for the best.
Take two of the Cross’s latest, the Encore and the Manhattan. The Encore, with something of the cubist look that Bruce Eeles trialled for Lend Lease/Mirvac’s Olympic village at Newington, was designed in-house. The site, though, could hardly be more different from that quasi-greenfield. The old Town House, built by Harry Sebel in 1963, was the first Australian hotel to accept credit cards. It soon became a Sydney icon, hosting Liberace and Bob Dylan, Bette Davis, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Elton John, a place where the best stories are even now unpublishable and people still joke about selling the carpets for their cocaine content. It was cool, sure, but no one pretended it was clean.
Today’s look is both clean and cool. Glass-fronted and solid-backed, the Encore’s 18 storeys sit within the bulk-and-view outlines of the old Sebel, a study in black, white and shades of grey. A three-storey curved screen white with Rietveld-esque flashes of red and yellow air-kisses the street. Described by the ex-NYC project architect Michael Wiener as a sculptural, whimsical element, it is also a handsome-if-blatant exercise in conflict resolution, mediating two current design orthodoxies: the cross-ventilation insistence on through-units, which sets a maximum tolerable depth, and the council’s requirement for contextual street walls. “I really abhor symmetry and stasis,” explains Wiener. “My work is based on light and movement.”
But through-units also produce walls of windows bit of a problem, compositionally speaking. Wiener’s solution, which he likens to a Jackson Pollock, is to inject spirit in to the significant acreage of white paint with fine black sunscreens and staggered openings. “We had a lot of fun with the street.”
Inside, the architecture carries through into the planar foyer (with red and yellow accents), glassy pool and gym, smart white-and-grey apartments and an attention to detail that produced specially designed door handles, towel rails and (square) escutcheon plates.
The lower units are two-storey product or loft apartments, weetie-box sized but stylish and, at $480,000 to $570,000, priced to ensure owners keep to the five or six possessions allowed for. Higher up the building, as age and wealth increase with view and apartment size, the composition begins to lighten up, with the odd curved wall and glazed pop-out space or balcony. It’s not Michelangelo or even Pollock, but it’s visually interesting and in this attention-deficit world, it’ll do the trick. (Like it matters, since all are sold but three.).
The Manhattan is another value-adder to smartsville Elizabeth Bay. Architect Richard Huxley summons not Pollock nor Corb in his defence but Gehry’s Bilbao, Utzon’s Opera House and Piano’s Aurora Place, as well as A. M. Bolot’s 17 Wylde Street, always something of a cult object for architects. Otherwise, the story’s much the same. Fab site, previously underexploited, now stacked with cross-over apartments aligned like iron filings to the view and selling for a motza.
The curve is dramatic, the mock drystone base fashionable and the views to die for. There is something a little derisory in the great curve, playing, as it does, to a gallery far grander than humble Greenknowe Street, but this will do nothing to prevent the stacking of this once-Bohemian pocket with superior model bipeds.
So the Cross is cleaning up its act, and there’s a problem with this? Well, yes, actually.
In five years, no fewer than six Kings Cross hotels have been converted to luxury apartments (Top of the Town, Chateau, Landmark Parkroyal, Gazebo, Manhattan, Sebel). A number of factors are at play here, all of them handed down by the majority market gods: Sydney’s post-Olympic hotel drift to the city-centre, the global downturn in tourism and the city’s huge residential swell.
So far so wholesome, perhaps. Already, though, round midnight, the Cross’s once-throbbing streets are noticeably quieter, saner, more predictable. Already, its astounding, appalling, enchanting, wizened, lachrymose, itinerant-dependent culture has begun vanishing into memory.
No doubt the sleaze will persist, dissipated through our vast city sprawl. But pretty soon the mighty Coke sign, thrilling it down William Street, will proclaim nothing more than another collection of high-net-worth individuals frantically substituting lifestyle for authenticity.
The dudes might be richer, but the city will be the poorer. Screw wheat grass, I say. Bring back the underbelly.
TWO ILLUS: Glassed over .
the clean look of the Encore, once the Sebel Town House.
Photos: Sahlan Hayes
Derisory curve .
Elizabeth Bay’s Manhattan.