Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Champagne, not beer, key to a new Pav
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I know. Ask Prague. There’s always a false spring before the real one. But these soft, sky-high days make me crave champagne and, with it, some lovely eyrie in which to sip the meretricious bubble.
Yet each spring I am surprised, like some slow cuckoo, by how few such nests Sydney offers. There’s no shortage of pubs and bars, or of seaside parks and rocks if that’s your preference. But there’s an astonishing lack of culture-made crannies that are just exuberating places to be.
At least, I’ve always thought it astonishing. Always wondered why Sydney wasn’t festooned with the signs of our delight in it; slung beneath the Harbour Bridge, threading through the colonnade at Central, cantilevering glassily over Martin Place, encrusting the cliff-tops at Bondi.
Now, though, I see my error. I see that to offer an ordinary, elegant space for the delight and dignification of the human is simply unAustralian. It’s as though we’re still ashamed of being here. Still substituting apology for optimism and bureaucracy for chutzpah. Still committed to the dull and predictable – or we wouldn’t be having this ridiculous bunfight over the Australian pavilion in Venice, for a start.
Examples? Two such exuberant spaces leap to mind. Both glassy and linear, high and prospective, though these may not be essential traits. Both, like the best of Australianness, are honest, dry, transparent, modern, dynamic, underdressed and straight. Yet both, as happens, are in London.
One is the lovely champagne bar – Europe’s longest – that Alastair Lansley, last vestige of British Rail’s architect’s department, slotted into the revamped St Pancras. There, high under George Gilbert Scott’s grand glass vault and at lamped tables that are more British Library reading room than railway cafe, you can quaff your Dom or Roederer by the glass and bless the Eurostar before it hightails to Paris.
The other is the bar in Herzog and de Meuron’s Tate Modern, where the sippers line up above the Thames like birds on a wire, silhouetted against St Paul’s and the City and looking down on Foster’s fabulous bridge.
Neither is exclusive or even especially expensive, but both are visually and spatially enchanting. It’s the ultimate in spatial good manners; elegance that, far from making you feel your clay feet, lifts you effortlessly to paradise. So why can’t we make such places to please ourselves in Sydney? Or to represent ourselves in Venice? Why is that verboten?
Of course, they’ll say that’s exactly what they’re doing. But if that’s what they want, they’re going a mighty peculiar way about getting it.
The Venice pavilion may be small – roughly the size of a modest weekender – but it matters. As David Parken, the Institute of Architects CEO, reflected memorably this week, “this is not the Sydney Opera House. This is an important building …”
Too important, it seems, not to screw up. Too important for us not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in time-honoured Aussie tradition.
The crisis is hardly unforeseen. The existing Pav’, designed pro bono by Philip Cox in 1988, was always temporary. Just as well, since it is indelibly stamped with that moment in Australian architectural history when we thought everything meaningful could be encapsulated in the wave form.
It was probably fine for a minute, and there’s still a nice open feeling on the (added) verandah under the trees. But the cramped and charmless interior seems especially perverse in this leafy, canal-side location.
So a replacement is needed. No question. What, though? The recent Melbourne competition, run by Café di Stasio, produced a stable of unremarkables, little different from the rubbish that currently litters the Giardini.
Yet a couple are good: notably Sverre Fehn’s breathtaking Nordic pavilion from 1962, a single, tree-centred square space in fine white concrete, and James Stirling’s Electa Bookshop (1991), the last built work before his sudden (and, for many, earth-shattering) death in 1992.
With Fehn a modern puritan and Stirling a post-modern roué, the two had little in common except their genius, which was in both cases wild, funny, brave and deeply rebellious. Stirling, an enormous man and renowned curmudgeon who, on our first meeting, wore a Venetian straw boater with a long, lolly-pink ribbon hanging down his back, grudgingly accepted a knighthood because it might be “good for the office”.
What does this suggest in terms of how to represent Australia? Does it say to you, let’s make it really exclusive, not to the best, but to those with a track record?
Our existing public buildings are so shudderingly brilliant that no improvement is possible or necessary so let’s select not on design but on capability. That way it’ll be really fast and really, really predictable.
Let’s, in other words, treat the Oz Pav’ just like a civil engineering project. Is that what it suggests?
Or does it suggest something more like this: here is a rare opportunity, a building of relatively small budget and simple program on a glorious site where symbolism is paramount. Here’s a chance to remake Australia’s international face, a face that will last decades. Let’s therefore seek the very best, ideas that, however simple, are truly stunning. Let’s get it right.
Well you know what I’d do; I’ve pretty much told you already. I’d do something spare, graphic and thrilling. Something that lets you hang over the water, tickle the treetops and explore the spatial magic of life.
I’d appoint a genius jury – Murcutt, Leplastrier, Johnson – with a very tight brief. Then I’d simply throw it open. We have plenty of architects who do this stuff, and do it brilliantly. They’re just not amongst the half-dozen usual suspects who fit the Australia Council’s bureaucratic prescription.
This is not about being fair, or kind, or giving young talent a chance. Young designers are no more intrinsically interesting than old ones.
This is about seeking out that high, wild card, about not leaving the nuancing of life to some committee, about wanting Australianness to look more like Assange than Murdoch.
DRAWING: BY EDD ARAGON