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customs house

Forbidding face no longer the custom


Elizabeth Farrelly.

Plans for Customs House raise questions about the role of the facade, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

Suddenly, it’s all on the surface. Surface, as the skin between inner and outer, is what divides “truth” from the passing show of everyday life. Or so we habitually think. But what if this order were reversed? What if we were to see surface as the real, and the underlayer as the supporting act?

It’s not a new idea, having been kicked around by German theorist Gottfried Semper in the 19th century and by a dozen post-modernists since, but it formed the core premise of the talk by Professor Mark Wigley, of Columbia University, at the Town Hall two weeks ago. The hall, that pile of high-Victorian pomp, Wigley redrew as a communal garb of wild eccentricity, whose structure existed solely to keep the wackiness in place.

We may like to think we care only for content, not surface, but the attention we lavish on surfaces of all kinds from fashion to facelifts, packaging to public relations suggests otherwise. We are, in large part, a surface-dwelling species.

The Sydney Customs House is another case in point. Being a customs house, of course, it was all front; both as Victoriana and, more interestingly, as symbolic threshold to continent Oz. The very idea of a continent, after all, is a thing contained and continuous, threshold intacta. And the Customs House, traffic-controller between the Dark Interior and the World, was impenetrability made manifest. Now, though, with help from no fewer than three firms of architects (Peddle Thorp , Lacoste Stevenson and Howard Tanner), the symbolism is being painstakingly unpicked.

It’s a bit of a long story. The last revamp, completed in the mid-’90s after the building leasehold was given to the City by the Keating government as a sweetener in the East Circular Quay deal, failed. It failed not for design reasons, but precisely because of the impenetrability issue. The building may have brimmed with excitement but, because of its closed and forbidding face, the numbers never made it.

The closedness was a given, at the time, since a Schedule 1 Heritage listing made the facade untouchable. Now, due to either a change of blood (the Heritage Council now being chaired by property man Mike Collins ) or, as Peddle Thorp’s Andrew Andersons believes, infectious architectural enthusiasm or both the straitjacket has loosened. This means that the latest, $10 million refurb (council’s own money this time) has approval to enlarge the ground-floor front windows to form half a dozen pairs of French doors, opening from the square, and to remove the heritage balustrade.

Sounds minor, but as any skin-owner knows, a small hole can make a big difference. In this case, a front wall that is entirely pedestrian-permeable could mean the difference between a city library that works and the usual sort. Reinforcing this overt gesture of welcome, the square too will be retouched, aligning the cafes either side to flank the entrance, rather than obscuring it.

And inside? Under the quirky design-hand of Lacoste Stevenson , the building’s lower half will become a dedicated “information store”, blending the relocated City of Sydney Library (from daggy old Town Hall House) with other public-information uses. Serious book-type stuff will be found on floors one and two, while the notoriously unusable ground floor will house Library-Lite (newspapers, coffee, and a much-shrunken City Exhibition Space ) as well as what’s on listings, tourist information and Ticketek. Under a transparent floor so much for the heritage parquet the magnificent city model will at last be easily visible. Just hope, for the building’s sake, they don’t decide to expand the model to take in its newly swollen boundaries.

Above, floors four and five will be 100 per cent commercial office, glassed-off from the central atrium; while the top floor, Cafe Sydney, will not change. Sounds simple. Plausible even.

But there are two caveats: first, it may not work. The City of Sydney Library, daggy or not, is one of Sydney’s most used. But even the library may not save Customs House just as it didn’t save the QVB (then seen as a white elephant) from calls to demolish it for a car park during the 1950s.

Moving the library to Circular Quay drops it into a new demographic tourists and Big-Enders doing coffee over the global dailies rather than track-suited suburbanites who’d sooner borrow books than buy them. Wish ’em luck. They’ll need it.

And how, secondly, did they get past the Federal Government’s 70-30 public-to-private use rule? Simple, really: by regarding definition as an exercise every bit as elastic as city boundary-making. Bit of a stretch, you reckon, to make “public-cultural” include a commercial ticketing venture and a privately owned profit-making restaurant? Not if you morph “public” from publicly owned into publicly accessible (for anyone wishing to pay). And . . . well, food’s kulcha, innit? As I said, you penetrate the facade and all you find is more surface.

Which is a phenomenon noted by Glaswegian artist Nathan Coley in this year’s Biennale. Propped jauntily in the Botanic Gardens is Coley’s take on the unbuilt 99 per cent of Harry Seidler’s 1957 proposal to demolish not just Blues Point but the rest of McMahons Point as well, and replace it with International Modern. No one is saying it’s Seidler one has to think of one’s sponsors. But Coley’s half-size model is a faithful copy of the original black-and-white model-photo. Except that it’s a facade, not a building, made in timber, not concrete; and miniaturisation bestows a cuteness not immediately apparent in the real Blues Point Tower.

Coley chose Seidler as an Australian exponent of International Modern though Coley would have been hard put to find a less “Australian” architect, or one more vehemently opposed to facadism. The layer of ’70s-orange wallpaper on the inside of Coley’s facade, and the accompanying fake house plants, offer whimsical commentary on the nature-nurture tension inherent in the botanic garden principle.

If there’s one name synonymous with architecture as surface one architect who will not get all moral about aesthetics it is Frank (Bilbao) Gehry . And if there’s one city immortalised for its sham-glam, it’s the original Emerald (aka Kansas) City. Now, with help from a Sydney firm, the two surfaces are coming together. Our very own Crawford Architects , having worked on a number of stadiums in Australia, America and New Zealand, is collaborating with Gehry, an arena virgin, on a proposal for Kansas City’s new $250 million, 20,000-seat sports arena.

Many cities would be delighted, but Kansas is home to several top sports arena specialists, including HOK Sport+Venue+Event , Ellerbe Becket , Heinlein Schrock Stearns and CDFM . And this particular proposal has put quite a twist in their collective knickers. The four locals normally sworn rivals have banded together to fight it off. The locals argue their bid will be “much more Kansas” than Gehry’s. They may be right. But you can bet your Silver Shoes the Emerald City will find it hard to go past the Wonderful Wizard and Oz. Eat your hearts out, boys. The magic is all in the surface.


ILLUS: Welcoming note .



the front of Customs House will be made more appealing to visitors.


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