Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
On the cliff-edge of contention
Nice design for the Luna Park building, not so the process behind it, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
The thing I’d be wondering, if I were Harry Seidler, is how much smaller Luna Park’s new cliff-top office building might have been had the Big Dipper stayed. Because that’s what it’s all about, of course, money. Traces of urban design, aesthetics, equity sure. But mainly money money as form-giver, and as form taker-away. Money, in a word, as power.
Nothing new in that, you might say. And nothing surprising, either, about the lather you get when the other standard soap ingredients are thrown in: passion, nostalgia, rage, beauty, power, intrigue, surprise, revenge. Fat and potash. But don’t even think about cleansing. It ain’t that kinda soap.
Luna Park had been Luna Park for almost 40 years by the time Seidler built his office above it in 1973. In the 30 years since then, due to a series of fiery and legal misadventures, it has been operational for a total of 13. Since the 1988 completion of Seidler’s apartment building, next to his office, Luna Park has had less than one working year. And now it’s about to rise from its knees once more, Seidler is at it again, calling the new proposal “outrageous contemptuous and utterly inappropriate”. Calling its supporters “the lowest form of life”.
Of course, none of that other stuff is relevant. That Seidler has made an art form of protruding shamelessly into other people’s views (think Blues Point, Dover Heights, Horizon) has no bearing. But it does add an enchanting irony to Seidler’s whatever-it-takes determination to defend his own amenity, be it visual or aural.
Leaving aside for a moment, though, the quaint and even comic emotional issues, what about the size question?
The facts are these. First, although the land is Crown land, Luna Park Sydney, a private company, has an agreement to lease, a $100 million investment to recoup and a right to build. Second, views are not legally protected. And third, no height or bulk controls apply on this cliff-top, since the two council plans (that imposed a two- and four-storey limit respectively) have been repealed.
It might sound like a developer’s dream, but it simply enforces planning-by-furore. May the loudest win. And there’s more.
Luna Park is public property in two senses: as occupant of Crown land, and as sacred cultural heritage. But there was no chance of government money. Government isn’t something governments do any more. Most of what we lightly call planning, for instance, has been delegated to industry; developers do their own masterplanning and certification, frame their own policies and chair their own regulatory bodies.
It was in this spirit that the Government saw its way to supporting Luna Park in kind, if not in so many dollars. For while Luna Park is way too minor for public funding, it is major enough, and cultural enough, to be declared an item of state significance under schedule 1 of State Environmental Planning Policy 56; Sydney Harbour Foreshores and Tributaries (1998).
The ostensible purpose of SEPP 56 is to maximise public access, blah, blah. But its effect, at least in this case, was to remove planning control from the council (who, being local government pissants , were inclined to impose such “dull, dull, dull, darling” notions as planning controls) and place it in the hands of the minister. Letting said minister sleep at night, confident at last of getting enough building up on thecliff to ensure Luna Park would never-never-never need government money. That was February 2001.
They didn’t tell anyone about this. Good Lord, no. And when the nice minister gave Luna Park its development consent last month, it was only for stage one, the fun bit. There were a few commercial props the vast for-hire big top, the strata-office building against the cliff face, the crystal palace as function/party centre. But no cliff-top towers. Not a murmur.
So far, so strategic, then. But stage two was always likely to hit the fan. Designed around the need to kick a cool $10 million into Luna Park’s $100 million cost-pot, the new strata-titled office building was subject to a limited three-firm competition. Judged by a five-architect panel, not including the developer, the comp-let was won by Denton Corker Marshall, designers of Governor Phillip Tower and the Museum of Sydney. And a cheeky little thing it is.
Displaying DCM’s signature graphic facility, the proposal is a study in grey and yellow. All glassy double-storeys, triangular canary-beak balconies and rakish diagonal props, it wears its great cantilevered penthouse slung high over the cliff-top with a panache reminiscent of the glass pool DCM did for the Adelphi, that’s been hanging out over Little Bourke Street more than 10 years now. Sprightly and energetic, the new Luna tower could hardly distance itself more emphatically from the vulgar-yet-stodgy North Sydney norm.
Slender, airy and generous, the new building slips its pint-size floorplate gently between the ficus and, bringing only the yellow lift shaft to ground, devotes almost the entire, double-height ground floor to public use. Admittedly, it’s as much stratagem as altruism, since lifting a “14”-storey buildings two storeys above ground makes all the floorspace that much more valuable. You might quibble, too, with the box-girder look, echoing the Harbour Bridge. But all things considered, it’s still a long way in front of the Joneses.
Perhaps this is part of the problem. So adroitly does the building separate itself, in space, scale and style, that in this neck of the woods it invites criticism: too close to the bridge, too conspicuous, too clever (small building with giant scale), too stand-apart, like the dreaded
Curious thing is it’s all voluntary. Two sites were available; sites B and C. B is next to the Seidler office; C next again, nearer the bridge. All three competition schemes left site B as parkland, with a freestanding tower all alone on C. Why? Building on B would, in completing the street-wall, satisfy urban design expectations and almost certainly be less controversial. So why go with C?
Peter Hearne shrugs innocently here, deferring to his architect. Architect Bill Corker says, “we didn’t want to be a bookend at the end of the row of buildings on Glen Street. We liked the idea of a tall, slim tower in the park. We thought it was a nice thing to do.”
Nice dice. I think Glen Street could use a bookend. I’m surprised they didn’t make an ambit claim; two towers, say, with an option to lose one. Could the silent subtext simply be that no one was prepared to Seidler-side? No one wanted the litigation seat?
Not that such delicacy has paid off, exactly. Smooth and sweet are not descriptors of the process so far. But who is it hoist on their own petard: Skyscraper Harry, who, with other local residents, killed the Big Dipper and precipitated the tower he now abhors? Or Luna Park, who strove to let sleeping neighbours lie, but managed only to provoke?
Sounds like outside-the-square time to me. Scrap the tower. Inaugurate a money-spinning ride, in which you pays your money and you gets three goes at using your own skyscraper to knock everyone else’s off the cliff. Call it Son of Big Dipper; call it Little Dipper. Call it, maybe, Double Dipper.
Elizabeth Farrelly will join a panel discussion tonight at Sydney Town Hall on the future of the harbour, with Paul Keating as keynote speaker, jointly presented by the City of Sydney and The Sydney Morning Herald for the Year of the Built Environment. The event has sold out.
ILLUS: Eye of the storm .
the proposed tower to be built behind the fun fair has drawn fire.
Photo: Edwina Pickles