Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The ripples flowing from Seidler’s pool
The City of Sydney finally has a plan for a new recreation centre in Ultimo.
It’s so hard to get decent architecture these days. (Sigh just audible above the tink and clatter of bone china.)
You hold an open competition, for Godsakes, and six months later what have you got? A room full of crap.
So, you start over with a limited competition, rewrite the brief, hand-pick a few known-and-reliables, and another year down the track the resemblance between proposals and budget is still so approximate you have to get the thing rehashed again before going public.
Certainly it wasn’t meant to happen like this. When the City of Sydney launched the Ultimo Aquatic Centre and Public Space Design Competition in late 2000, the intention was to have a clear winner, and begin construction, in 2001.
Now there’s a winner, at last Harry Seidler and we’re talking completion 2005. Maybe.
To some extent, that’s what happens when you demand a $25 million design in six weeks, including Christmas.
Small wonder the Institute of Architects declined to endorse the competition.
After the fiasco of Stage I, when 100 or so entries some of them quite promising were exhibited anonymously and then dumped, the three invitees to Stage II were Harry Seidler, Stutchbury and Pape, and Johnson Pilton Walker (JPW).
A tame six-person jury, including only one architect not in the city’s employ, selected the Seidler scheme, with its conspicuous wave-form roof, which the Lord Mayor, Frank Sartor, already portrays as “a landmark building of the 21st century”.
The site is the corner of Harris and William Henry streets. The warehouse walls still standing there are heritage-listed but assumed in the brief to be self-demolishing luckily for Seidler, whose disdain for historic fragments is legendary. But the little Edwardian pumping-station functions and must be incorporated.
The new building’s neighbours include the Powerhouse, the light rail and an Australand residential development on the corner of Harris and Quarry streets.
Not that the Seidler building is that fussed by context. The roof is its big gesture, but why the wave?
While the Seidler submission says it “reflect[s] the topography of the Ultimo-Pyrmont peninsula”, the Lord Mayor describes the roof as signalling “aquatic and leisure facility”.
The casual observer, on the other hand, noting the Aquarium, Powerhouse, Maritime Museum and Darling Park towers, all within spitting distance, might be forgiven for thinking the wave-roof a Darling Harbour planning requirement.
In fact, Seidler’s roof form probably says as much about the architect himself as about place or program. He has used it before, several times, in topographies as diverse as Birchgrove, Hunters Hill and clifftop Joadja, NSW.
Whereas early Seidler was strictly orthogonal, he gradually lightened up, evolving first his now-signature habit of establishing a grid then breaking it, here and there, with a semi-random overlay of voids, or balconies, or sunshades.
Then the curves. Gradually canopies, walls, roofs, even whole buildings began to describe arcs, quarter-circles and sine waves, becoming slowly more playful more baroque, in Seidler terminology.
This might look like increasing confidence, over the years, if you could only imagine Seidler lacking confidence to start with.
Motivation aside, though, the Ultimo pool combines both tendencies the curves and the randomisation in plan, as much as form.
The roof itself is comparatively regular, as curves go, cresting along Harris Street (above the main pool) and flattening out towards town, over the cafe. It comprises a series of eight external, wave-form trusses, triangular in section and each supporting a sheet roof-ceiling, material yet unknown but similarly curved.
The trusses, intercut with clear day-lighting strips, are supported only at each end.
This brings the great advantage of a free span across the entire building, but the equally significant disadvantage of concentrating structure along Harris and Pyrmont Streets, resulting in a phalanx of hefty, branched, pre-cast buttresses along each
street edge, not unlike the Pitt Street side of Australia Square.
So, while the Lord Mayor may applaud the building’s transparency, its “great views from the street into the swimming hall”, as well as its “expansive views of the city”, are compromised by these serried concrete behemoths.
By contrast, the runner-up scheme, by JPW, took a lighter, less polemical approach to the roof problem, lifting its gently curving metal and fabric roof on slender steel trees that rise centrally within the space.
More cloud than wave, this roof includes a translucent, sun-resistant quilted foil cushion, under constant low inflation, which has been widely used in Europe and is so light that the main structural task is holding it down, not up.
Another virtue of the JPW scheme was its assiduous integration, in plan if not in form, with the neighbourhood.
The Ultimo Pedestrian Network on the old goods-rail corridor already links Central Station with UTS and TAFE; next stages will see it connect with the Powerhouse, Darling Harbour and Chinatown, as well as the light rail and monorail systems.
Any new institution in Ultimo, you would think, would automatically take this on board and link up.
The JPW scheme did exactly this, welcoming pedestrians from all sides into the main entrance on quiet Pyrmont Street; providing a ramp from Harris Street and steps up from the light rail, and much-needed green space, on the way.
But the jury chose the Seidler.
By 2005, or thereabouts, there will be six pools in the locality, the fastest-growing residential area in the country.
The Ultimo Pool ($25 million, constituent heartland); Cook and Phillip ($22 million, big end of town); Andrew (“Boy”) Charlton (gay lobby, under renovation, $7 million); Victoria Park (South Sydney); Sydney University pool; and Prince Alfred Park (local kids and schools, $0).
By 2005, moreover, they will all be well and truly gym’n’latte equipped except for Prince Alfred. Owned by one council but servicing another, it has been neglected for years, allowing the Lord Mayor to present it as needing maintenance, losing numbers and operating at a loss.
Well, yes, pools do need to be maintained. What would you expect, leaving one unheated, closed more than half the year, underserviced and ringed by rusting barbed wire?
Last summer, for instance, the toddlers’ pool remained green and slimy throughout because no-one bothered to make it usable. If the look is Guantanamo Bay Special, the strategy is death-by-neglect.
But it’s all very cloak-and-dagger, this pool-strategy game, with secret public meetings, public denials of intent, secrecy agreements and a marked disinclination to return calls. It’s called the public interest.
The obvious thing, you would think, would be to maintain and upgrade existing 50-metre pools before building expensive new ones all of 10 minutes away.
But these decisions are not about commonsense. They’re about numbers. Dollars, votes, influence: numbers. And the kids of Redfern-Waterloo are not blessed in the numbers department.
THREE ILLUS: Making waves …
Harry Seidler’s winning design, top, and, below left, how it might look in place.
The Johnson Pilton Walker proposal, right, was runner-up.