Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Upside is all at the down end
The new Seidler tower defies convention and puts its best asset at ground level, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
It’s official. Harry Seidler, 80 next month, is re-vogued, living proof of the feline adage that if you keep your spots long enough, they’ll eventually come cool again. But Seidler’s constancy is in audacity as much as design. Famously dismissive of official planning machinery, Seidler has always worked from the Deity Principle, arguing not that the rules should change, but that they shouldn’t apply to him. And however feeble this might seem morally, the new Cove Apartments in The Rocks make you wonder whether maybe he has a point.
Not that The Rocks has planning rules. Oh no. Far too explicit, darling. Take all the fun out of it. Indeed, as the city council noted in its formal comment-to-Government on Seidler’s 1999 proposal, “there are no specific planning, car-parking, urban design and [sic] heritage rules applicable, other than the ‘approved scheme’ “. In designing this 44-storey residential tower on the pocket handkerchief behind St Patrick’s Church on Grosvenor/Harrington streets, therefore, Seidler was forced, instead of flouting the rules, to flout the approved scheme. Of which there were two.
These approvals by Peddle Thorp (1994) and Kann Finch (1997) were uniformly undistinguished, as both urban design and living environments. Each had a tower rising 124 metres above Harrington Street; 40 storeys of bare-minimum apartments, small, low and densely packed Rocks meets Hong Kong.
Luckily for the developer, Grocon, Seidler has never been that way inclined. Throughout the 40-odd years since he triumphantly exacted for Australia Square a floor space ratio of almost 21:1, despite a 15:1 limit, Seidler has been championing quality over conformity. And while, ironically, some of his most interesting buildings have been the most intensely constrained (such as Capita on Castlereagh), the new Cove Apartments may yet make built justification for the deity approach.
It goes something like this. Towers rely on getting as much space as possible as high as possible. Anti-gravity. All marketing parameters views, light, air, security support this strategy, making street-level space virtually worthless while penthouse is, well, penthouse. With towers, value is in the sky. Ground is something you stand on, period.
Urban design, on the other hand, demands more of a ground-hugger mindset, mandating street walls, aspic-wrapping funny old buildings with a distinct absence of market value and deeply distrustful of height. Solution? Beat ’em on their own turf.
Rather than haggle over value, the Seidler team couched its argument entirely in terms of public benefit. It’s manifold. In return for a mere 34 metres of extra tower height, the city would gain a public “galleria” or link from Gloucester to Harrington streets, exposure of the north face of the old St Patrick’s hall and school, a slenderer tower, light-flooded lobby and higher ceilings. Oh, and many, many more view-metres. As it happens.
The city grumbled but the State Government, as consent authority, bought it. So the building, now nearing completion, stands testament to the take-me-then planning and deity-principle architecture.
Broadly speaking in design as well as audacity terms this is out-of-the-box Seidler, developing a number of familiar motifs: the stickleback balconies of the Horizon, the eye-plan of Grosvenor and the break-out window geometries of just about every
Seidler tower since Blues Point. But there are newbies here too, the least successful of which is colour.
Seidlerism, true to its modern roots, has always been profoundly monochrome black, white, the occasional shade of grey. At Cove, though, Seidler has ditched the standard schema for a two-tone paint job. Initial drawings show the podium a combo of sandstone and off-form concrete, and the tower heroically white, endowing that sculptural crispness you might see as a Seidler tower’s birthright. Now, built, the tower is deep-mushroom over a spray-on deadflesh podium. Not a good look.
What happened? The story from Seidler’s office says the stone fell to pragmatics (sheets large enough to “look” [sic] structural would have taken too much thickness from the columns), while the tower went brown to distinguish itself from Grosvenor, just over the street. Personally I’d make the kneejerk contextualism of planning committees equally culpable, for assuming that sandstone colour has any connection at all with the real thing, and that sprayable pseudo-stone can be anything other than tacky. (The Central Sydney Planning Committee recommended, for example, that the podium receive “a painted cement render finish . . . complementary to the streetscape” whatever that might mean.)
Whoever’s to blame, though, colour is the building’s weakest moment, followed by high-rise composition. Seidler is known as an urban sculptor, moulding his towers for the distance-view of an international, as much as a city stage. This one, though, with its too-flat curves, paper-thin pre-cast, clip-on rococo balconies, chickenleg sills and equivocal use of symmetry, is just not up there. The bits are there, but the trademark confidence the glue is missing. Sure, it’s unmistakably Seidler and sure, Cove talks to Grosvenor, Australia Square and even, if you squint, MLC. But it emerges less than victorious from the exchange.
Equally atypical, though, is that it gets better as you go down. The streetwall podium Seidler’s first, since he has so adroitly avoided them to date is surprisingly successful. Constructing a language all its own out of Corb, de Stijl and a playful dollop of post war British Brutalism, this dynamic hybrid is attractive and vital. There are, though, some decidedly un-Seidler moments, where structural authenticity vanishes in the face of visual whimsy allowing columns, for instance, to land on mid-span beams or cantilevers. Whether you blame them on bright young employees or endless planocratic haggling, these curious and curiously likeable facades have the Seidler look, but not the true Seidler spirit.
The same cannot be said, though, of the space within, which has Seidler’s absolute mastery of the third dimension stamped all over it. You may not swallow the arguments for a pedestrian link between Gloucester and Harrington streets, for instance, or for a grand four-storey lobby. Even the heritage stuff seems a bit suss coming from Seidler, who has so vociferously resented its impingements. And yet a space like this needs no justification.
Credo time. Architecture real architecture is about not form, but space. This makes it almost impossible to depict in any medium language, photography or line and every bit as hard to do. Seidler is known as a formalist. But here, with a virtuosity scarcely seen (except, embryonically perhaps, in his own house in Killara) he is revealed as a master sculptor in that most rarefied of media, space. Complex yet profoundly ordered, muscular yet serene, grandly dramatic yet entrancing and explorable, it is sophisticated, lyrical and absolutely under control. It is a space that is like no other in town. Unwrecked by committee, this space is the real argument for those extra 34 metres.
It will go down as one of Sydney’s most memorable, and one of Seidler’s best. Ever.
TWO ILLUS: An artist’s impression of Cove Apartments .
the tower grew, but the pay-off was amenities on the ground.
Recurring theme .
Harry Seidler and his Horizon building at Darlinghurst.