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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 16-Jul-2005

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum

Subsection: Books

Page: 27

Wordcount: 1181

Storeys with a happy ending



The long-overdue redesign of the Hilton hotel addresses its flaws with spectacular results, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.

If architecture captures the defining flavour of its time, which broadly I doubt, there’s a new development in town that should make us feel pretty sweet about ourselves. For just as the old Sydney Hilton – box-jawed, brown-suited and pig-eyed – seemed to embrace the smudged morality of the Askin era, the new Hilton, open yesterday, reverses all that.

Designed by the Sydney firm Johnson Pilton Walker, the $200 million renovation was intended to reconnect with the world, exploit the fabulous midtown site and, above all, let the light in. Which it does, with a flourish.

The story is a Sydney classic. Next time you’re grizzling about Sydney and how much better the shopping is in Melbourne, remember this: it’s cultural. We get the cities we deserve. Melbourne’s arcades and laneways remain because of a CBD height limit sustained through a crucial decade by a fortuitous power axis between Victoria’s then planning minister Evan Walker and city planner David Yencken. In Sydney, by contrast, the constellations took a different shape, with the architects pushing Joe Cahill to lift the latch on building heights in 1957 and Bob Askin, bless him, opening the gates – wide.

So the Askin decade, 1965-75, became the decisive one for Sydney. Particularly frenetic were the 22 months between 1967 and 1969 when, after one of the government’s ritual council sackings, the third city commission rampaged through the town. The commission, chaired by Sydney barrister and former Liberal Party leader Vernon Haddon Treatt and derided in Parliament as pro-development puppets, simply approved “whatever was put in front of them”, recalled architect-planner George Clarke. This amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of development over the few short months, and up to $20 million or $30 million worth – that is, two or three Hiltons – at a sitting.

The “Hilton people”, as then chief secretary C. A. Kelly called them, had been sniffing around Sydney for a decade, getting the local politicians all hot and bothered. But the proposal, when it came, was extreme. Even the government’s own custom-designed, skyscraper-friendly Height of Buildings Advisory Committee recorded serious doubts. With 500 car spaces, 38 storeys and almost 600 rooms, the new hotel would be Australia’s largest, and Sydney always has been a size queen.

But the committee thought the access was awkward, 500 cars was too many, there was too little natural light, and the double ramps on Pitt Street – you do remember those dag-brown pebblecrete horrors? – impeded pedestrian flow too dramatically. In fact, the committee said, unless some other access could be found, “no car parking whatsoever within the site should be allowed”. The commissioners, however, insisted. They took legal advice on their powers to monster the footpath and approved the design as drawn.

Nobody was much concerned about the buildings already on site. There were two: a pretty little Italianate arcade, the Royal, designed in 1882 by the very accomplished Thomas Rowe (who also designed the handsome St George’s Castlereagh of 1857, the ornate Elizabeth Street Synagogue, 1873, and the Imperial Arcade, 1891). And, next door to the Royal was George Adams’s hotel, owned by Erwin Graf’s Stocks and Holdings Ltd (now Stockland), which had been attracting attention since its 1873 opening for the ornate confection in tiles, mirrors, brass and seven different types of marble that is the Marble Bar. The committee recommended the two sites be amalgamated and the Royal’s redevelopment architects, Frank Kolos and J. H. Bryant, got to do the lot.

It was eventually decided to keep the Marble Bar, with its 14 Julian Ashton nymph-and-goddess fantasies, and delete the rest in order to produce the double layer of gloom-ridden two-dollar shops, the dead-faced hotel accessible only by narrow escalator and, of course, those ramps, diverting all Pitt Street pedestrians deep into the retail badlands. The head of traffic police in 1969 told the committee the parking and traffic arrangements were “excellent”. And they bought it. That’s city planning.

Now, thank heavens, all that has changed again. The Marble Bar is still there, glowing, fully intact in the basement, having been cocooned in concrete through the building process. Ironically, perhaps, the car park itself is also largely unchanged. Above that, though, everything has changed.

To Johnson Pilton Walker, which won the job in a “design excellence” competition in 2000, it was clear that no tart-up was going to be adequate. Its initial precept, which remained the guiding conceptual diagram throughout, was beguilingly simple. Unfurl the po-faced, pebblecrete death-mask that was the podium, leaving the tower standing on its forest of columns and letting light flood in all round. Run a broad, open-air public walkway and vehicle drop-off zone from George Street to Pitt Street along the Galeries Victoria boundary. Restrict retail to two spots on George and two on Pitt, maximising transparency throughout. Stack all public bars and restaurants vertically on a single glass lift up the George Street face of the podium. Collect the huge, 3000-delegate, state-of-the-art convention facilities within the podium’s Pitt Street side. Divide the tower similarly: run 8000 sqm of offices in 12 storeys up its Pitt Street face and have hotel rooms in the rest. And set the great, complex, day-lit foyer right where it belongs – in the heart of it all.

That’s the diagram. And the architecture that makes it real is every bit as simple and sophisticated. This is unusual. Most architects who can do the clear, simple diagram can’t do on-the-ground warmth, while most who can do the warm, fuzzy thing with space and material can’t pick the underlying analysis clean in the first place. Here, Johnson Pilton Walker do both: a crystalline diagram and a fleshing-out that is at once grand and intimate.

Take the facade, for example. Irregularly spaced oval sandstone columns dance at tipsy angles along each street frontage, screening the interior, sustaining the street wall, opening to the street (there’s real air in the Zeta Bar – that’s special) and linking the QVB’s florid succulence to the inanity of the Galeries Victoria without the slightest compromise of its own Doric integrity.

It’s the same in the foyer-cum-walkway space, where the ovoid columns are replicated in light within a space that, in its subtle mastery of form and material, is strongly reminiscent of one of Harry Seidler’s finest moments: the Cove Apartments foyer in The Rocks. This is how modernism should be; should always have been: clean but not puritanical, clear but embracing, ennobling but intricate.

Want my theory? The Sydney Hilton bomber of 1978 was really a failed urban design genius attempting a little therapeutic demolition.


FOUR PHOTOS: Simple and sophisticated … the newly refurbished Hilton (left and top) and the Marble Bar (above). The hotel’s Pitt Street frontage before the facelift (below). PHOTO: MARTIN VAN DER WAL. PHOTO: STEPHEN BACCON. PHOTO: JACKY GHOSSEIN. PHOTO: ROBERT PEARCE


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