Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Curtain rises on high drama
ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN
There were grand plans for World Square, but instead it became a black hole – with parking spaces – for a decade. Now, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY, the real square is standing.
I was three months’ pregnant when I first wrote about Sydney’s World Square. This may not be the most significant aspect of the development, but it sticks in my mind because Jim Barrett, representing the site’s then developer, Ipoh Garden Australia, picked my condition and offered me a seat. (I was, at the time, oddly unaccustomed to developers behaving well; now it would probably seem commonplace.) The child, though, turns 16 in September. That’s how long this thing’s been cookin’.
Back then, in 1989, World Square was to be a huge, four-tower development from the late Japanese master metabolist Kenzo “The Professor” Tange, assisted by PTW’s Andrew Andersons. Tange had done everything, from the city plan for Hiroshima in 1950 to the Yokohama Museum of Art in 1989. He’d won the Medal of Honour from Denmark’s Royal Academy (1968), the Thomas Jefferson Medal (1970), Japan’s Order of Culture (1980) and the 1987 Pritzker Architecture Prize. He had also written a slim volume entitled Eulogy for Michelangelo as an Introduction to a Study of Le Corbusier, of which more later.
For World Square, on the old site of Anthony Hordern’s store, Tange designed four rake-topped, curtain-walled office towers, set into a low retail podium that occupied the block like a birthday cake with candles; all underslung by 2000-plus car spaces. It was a big risk at the wrong end of town but, with 14,000 workers in top-quality space, it would have tipped the city’s balance, and I for one was curious to see how it would turn out.
But it didn’t turn out. Instead, undone by both timing and industrial warfare, World Square turned into a decade-long black hole, with car spaces.
Now, a full boom and bust later, the real World Square is standing up. And an altogether different bunch of candles it is. No longer one site but three, World Square sports three-and-a-bit towers, each with a different function (hotel, office, residential), a different architect and a different developer, and all still uncomfortably joined at the podium. Sound like a mess? Well, yes, actually. But while the shreds-and-patches look may be deliberate, the ground-level mess is more serious and less voluntary.
First, the worst. The Avillion Hotel tower is an embarrassment in what looks like reconstituted dog food from the Malaysian developer OSW Properties (architect unspecified). Its most distinctive characteristic is the direness of its supposedly “public” spaces, which, in linking to the rest, sully by association.
Diagonally opposite, the Ernst & Young Centre, aka “Latitude” (and no, they didn’t just misspell “altitude”), was designed by Crone Nation, which may sound like an old Indian tribe but is in fact a local architectural firm. Latitude has three parts: a tower on George Street, a low-rise shoebox along Goulburn Street, and a 20-storey rump, yet unbuilt, on the corner of Goulburn and Pitt streets. All three are competent, out-of-the-box glass architecture. But again, the public spaces – both streetside (surely they could have lost those wretched footpath ramps?) and within the site itself – are the kind of sunless, godless SLOAP (space left over after planning) I rather hoped we’d grown out of.
This is especially ironic considering that pretty much the only height rule left in the city is designed to protect sunlight in public spaces. (I am personally implicated here since it was my idea, as a councillor in 1994, to base height limits on something measurable.) World Square complies with the solar-access rules, but “public” spaces don’t count if they’re on private land. So, unlike Tange’s World Square, with its tallest tower to the south and central court glazed to create a series of soaring atria, World Square now places its cloud-prickers on the north side of the site and leaves the central arcade uncovered (read “cheap”). In so doing, World Square protects the sun’s access to under-used Belmore Park, while creating a lightless chasm on its own windy turf. See what I mean? Developers behaving selflessly.
And just to extend the irony, the principal shadow-caster, World Tower (on George and Liverpool streets), is easily the square’s most interesting visual moment. The winner of the Design Excellence competition that followed Meriton’s purchase of the site corner in 1999, World Tower is a clear leap ahead of Meriton’s usual suburban red and yellow. Ascertaining authorship, though, is more complicated. The competition was won in 2000 by the Melbourne firm Nation Fender Katsalidis, against PTW’s Andrew Andersons and Harry Seidler. And many people, even now, regard World Tower as a Nonda Katsalidis classic, in the multilayered-and-textured tradition of his building at 51 Spring Street and the Republic Tower in Melbourne. In fact, it was designed by Bob Nation – and, yes, he is the Nation of Crone Nation – who is now national president of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and has teamed up again with his partner from 30 years ago to form Nation Viney architects.
Either way, and whoever designed it, the vigorous and contrapuntal facade modelling of this 73-storey structure – the tallest residential tower in the southern hemisphere – is an intriguing exercise in what can only be called composition. The elements are the half-dozen different materials and motifs that appear, variously configured, on each building face, and the result is a sometimes glorious game played in light and glass.
By contemporary standards, it’s interesting and complex, but by the standards of Renaissance composition, it’s child’s play. Why? Because composition, once the backbone of all architectural design, is no longer taught. It’s not taught because, despite a revival of interest that parallels the fine arts’ current aesthetic revival, no one knows it. The books were burned a generation or so ago and the art is, broadly speaking, lost.
What, then, do they teach students of architecture? Students, these days, are taught to find a design concept. Any concept will do. It needn’t relate to site or function or client. It can come, as I was taught, from the chewing gum on the bottom of your shoe. What matters is that the designer remains faithful to the concept’s purpose and is thorough in enacting it. It’s an approach that produces the occasional Gehry but condemns the rest to eternal pursuit of the gimmick.
How should it work? Well, says Professor Tom Heneghan of the University of Sydney, “the architect’s motto used to be ‘Commodity, firmness and delight’. Now it’s ‘Forget delight. Forget firmness. Forget commodity, too, for that matter. Just focus on the concept.’ If you’ve got a few moments to spare and you want to know just how bad we’ve got, read the Campidoglio chapter in James Ackerman’s little book on Michelangelo.” What this will reveal, in Ackerman’s elegant prose, is just how many problems – social, symbolic, political, processional, economic, functional – the great man was solving with that simple three-sided square around a low-domed oval.
All of which returns us to Tange. Like most great moderns, including Mies and Aalto as well as Le Corbusier, Tange grew up with this stuff. Nevertheless, his was the book-burning generation. They used the knowledge, but didn’t pass it on. Originality, they taught, was everything. The postmoderns bravely tried to make it up as they went, so at least there would be a few rules to break. This left deconstruction, impelled by the same deep urge to transgress, to decompose what hadn’t been composed in the first place.
Will it change? Probably. The talk has begun, the questions are bubbling up and sooner or later the knowledge itself will be found, dusted off, translated, digested, redeployed. Heneghan is threatening to offer such a course just as soon as someone can be found to teach it. Watch this space: it could get exciting.
PHOTO: Tall tale . . . World Square’s towers and (left) World Tower’s architect, Bob Nation. PHOTOS: DOMINO POSTIGLIONE, QUENTIN JONES