Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
All in the Foster family
ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN
It is time to judge whether 126 Phillip Street meets its famous creator’s lofty standards, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Finally, it’s up. Sydney has its first Foster. Deutsche Bank Place, originally known as BT Tower and generally as 126 Phillip Street, is the first of two towers designed for central Sydney by British guru Lord (Norman) Foster of Thames Bank. Now it is formally complete and part-occupied, the big question can begin to be answered. Is it any good?
Well, yes, it is. 126 Phillip Street is by any standards a good and confident building. Certainly, by Sydney CBD standards, it’s up among the few – Aurora Place, Grosvenor, Australia Square, Governor Phillip – commanding top-o’-the-market rentals and still stealing tenants from the others, as it should. Its presence on the Sydney skyline, further, is both distinctive and engaging; our little downtown cluster is richer with 126 Phillip than without. But, for all that, there is a hint of disappointment here, not to do with the question of whether it’s any good but is it what we expect from Foster? And that’s a whole other deal.
Norman Foster has been “reinventing the workplace”, in the argot, for decades. His 1975 Willis Faber Dumas office building in Ipswich, Suffolk, pioneered ideas in the commercial arena. With its undulating dark-glass skin, Willis Faber has the look of an early blob building. At the same time, its deep plan, turf-insulated roof and solar-tinted glass make it comparatively energy-efficient, while the suspended curtain wall, supported only by internal glass fins, was an early and influential use of stainless-steel patch fittings instead of mullions. Willis Faber was designed for maximum flexibility; now, in a paradoxical gesture of recognition, it has been Grade I listed and can never be altered. That’s greatness for you.
Since then Foster has trademarked this remarkable blend of faultless rationality and unquestionable significance, making him one of the most admired and emulated architects. Subsequent projects include the 1978 Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, which put a gallery in what is effectively an aircraft hangar, and the breathtaking Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters (1985) which used giant mirrors to direct sunlight down through its full-height atrium and seawater for cooling and flushing. Then there was the world’s first naturally lit and ventilated eco-tower, the Frankfurt Commerzbank (1997); the refurbished Berlin Reichstag (1999) and the world’s highest road bridge, the Millau in southern France (2004).
Despite the usual robustness of British critical debate, it has been pretty much bad form to say anything rude about Foster. Lately, though, the baron’s godlike immunity from criticism has worn a little thin, with critics firing phrases such as “meretricious shapes and effects” and “slick and splashy architectural commodity” at Foster’s Greater London Authority building, aka City Hall or “the testicle” (2001), and his extraordinary “erotic gherkin” otherwise known as the Swiss Re building, London (2003).
They could be off days, of course. Everyone has off days, even Foster. And with a staff of 660, including 50 partners, there can be no foolproof quality control. But with someone of Foster’s stature, not to mention his reputation for purity and principle, the temptation is to see a trend rather than a blip and to read that trend, further, as possessing more than personal significance. To see it, in short, as representing the crisis in architecture itself.
What crisis in architecture? It’s a story of cultural revolution, really, and it goes like this. Despite (or because of) their classical training, the great early 20th-century modernists rejected classicism as fusty and oppressive. Having burned the books, though, they failed to pass on anything much to the next generation, except ashes. A generation or two later the postmoderns, receiving nothing but an empty urn and rejecting modernism for its bleak austerity, tried to revive classicism, then modernism itself. Without scholarship, though, these revivals were reduced to interchangeable retro “looks”.
And that’s where we now sit. Unequipped with either the moral strictures of form-follows-function modernism or the arcane rubric of classicism, we waft this way and that like so much kelp caught in the currents of fashion. Similes one week (gherkins, testicles, toasters), blobs the next.
So although a progressive warming and loosening is pretty standard through an architect’s oeuvre – Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, is often seen to exhibit a similar trajectory from the muscular to the toothless – in Foster’s case it’s easy to see the trend as a sort of rake’s progress parable of world architecture. The question for Sydney becomes: is our first Foster an authentic one, lean and disciplined? Or a flabby and forgettable in-the-style-of? Is there a driving idea here, generating the whole-of-building discipline in that classic Foster way, or just its trappings? Did we, for that matter, actually receive the maestro’s attention for more than a nanosecond?
The authorised answer is yes, absolutely and affirmative, in that order.
It’s certainly not a bad building, let me repeat. The central idea, in response to a narrow site, is to take the lift core from the tower’s centre and link it by a series of bridges to one side. This gives the building large open floorplates (and views) and allows the dark-glazed lift core to serve as a west-facing solar “buffer”, so minimising cooling needs. On Hunter Street, the building’s great four-storey, semi-outdoor, semi-public anteroom – christened the Assembly – is strong, if somewhat oddly proportioned. And the adjoining full-height transparent lift lobby on Phillip Street, where all 16 glass lift cars travel at between six and seven metres a second, is dramatic to the point of vertigo. The transition, further, from the grandly horizontal Assembly to the grandly vertical lobby offers a further adrenal moment.
All this I like – as I like the way 126 Phillip sits in the cityscape, adding its own twin steeple to the assembled spires of Capita, Aurora and Chifley, playing the contextual game with an alacrity and sweetness that are surprising from the ultra-modern Foster.
So where’s the quibble? First, the emptiness of the great triangulated headdress. To be fair, it’s not really Foster’s fault. The vegetation-filled “biosphere” atop the original scheme was cost-managed out of existence. Sydney’s height regulations, further, prevented the building reaching its proper visual height – about twice what’s built – which would, if built, render the headdress’ emptiness insignificant. From almost any other architect such cosmeticism would be fine. From Foster, though, whose every gesture can normally be expected to solve half-a-dozen problems at once, the emptiness seems a little, well, empty.
My second quibble is the sheer sombreness of the interiors, dramatic though they are. Deliberate or not, the refusal to admit a few rays of old-fashioned sunshine to an almost fully glazed tower does seem a waste of potential exuberance. And third is a detail thing: an uncharacteristic weakness in the facade detail, where the equal weighting of horizontal and vertical members gives a limp-wristed politeness that is far from Foster’s classic muscularity.
But these are quibbles. 126 Phillip is still a damn good building, if a few neurons short of the full Norm.
PHOTO: PHOTO: DOMINO POSTIGLIONE