Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Disappointment the result when Harry met Harry
Harry Seidler left us two posthumous works: the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre in Ultimo and the new Meriton Tower on George Street. The aquatic centre – its wavy roof now frolicking alarmingly with all those other wave-topped literalist metaphors around Darling Harbour – is a story for another time. But the tower is up and running. Next door, on George and Kent streets, is Fraser Suites, stage one of Lord Norman Foster’s second Sydney commission.
The two towers make instructive comparison. Each houses serviced apartments (Fraser’s term is “all-suite hotel”) and comes from a world-class architect via a “design excellence” competition. Yet the buildings could hardly be more different. White, curvy and playful on the one hand and soberly brown and rectilinear on the other, they sit together as if proving that, even within the strictures of residentialdevelopment, architecture remains a mysterious and unpredictable beast.
Of course, Foster and Seidler are very different architects. Foster, the lifelong modern-classicist, is famed for his intense technical rationalism. Seidler, also a committed modernist, nonetheless toyed from the 1970s with sinuous geometries and with the baroque game of creating a visual pattern, only to break it. Most Seidler towers, from Australia Square to Horizon to the Cove, are choreographed thus.
Lately, though, Foster has drifted noticeably down the Seidler end of the gene pool. Dubbed “Lord Wobbly” after the Millennium Bridge (2000) needed stabilising, Foster took the curve thing to heart. Famous examples include London’s cross-gartered, cigar-shaped Swiss Re and its lopsided testicle City Hall. But there’s also the great snaking lakeside of the new McLaren Centre in Surrey and a wave-roofed house in Corsica which, like the undulatingfacade of Albion Riverside in Battersea, is straight, as in curvy, Seidler. Next to which the cool linearity of Foster’s own Thames-side office, a decade earlier, underlines how far he has shifted. Chesa Futura in St Moritz is a shingle-clad, kidney bean of an apartment building, designed to sell tight urban living and described by Foster as a “mini-manifesto”.
None of that for Sydney, though. No clever compound curves, funky materials or breathtaking eco-ingenuity here. Many blame this on the B-team syndrome, whereby Foster’s office, like so many large corporate offices, fields team A or B depending on the prestige of the job. Both Sydney Fosters, they say, are B-teamers. But – and this indicates both his design strength and his people-selecting skills – they’re still fine, confident buildings.
For the user, entering a piece of architecture is like starting a novel: you trust the creative mind to take you somewhere worthwhile. And Foster does, even with his A-team behind his back. Fraser Suites is strong, handsome and inventive, its square shoulders and chiselled jaw softened just enough by lofty ceilings, day-lit corridors and the immense blessing of proper, opening windows, giving cross-ventilation throughout.
Fraser is balcony-free, largely because jury member Paul Keating believes city balconies are underused and over-trashed. But even the smallest suites are a pleasure to inhabit and the glass-bottomed pool, suspended over shopping, is a real, surreal delight.
The Meriton is a different kettle of fish. Most people’s first question, imagining the meeting of the Harrys, Seidler and Triguboff, is: “Did they get on?” Did these two notoriously pugnacious silverbacks, with such wildly divergent agendas, clash? If not, why not? Seidler is known, after all, for his unswerving commitment to compositional principle; Triguboff for an equally unswerving dedication to the bottom line.
Peter Spira, Triguboff’s lieutenant, smiles benignly at the question. “Many people thought it impossible. But it was fine. They had similar-ish backgrounds, I suppose, and they met like old friends.” No tantrums, then? “No, not from either one.”
Looking at the building, though, you can’t help wondering whether a tantrum or two might have helped.
Unlike the Foster towers, which, sitting square on the site, partake neatly of the street wall, the Meriton is weirdly triangular in plan, with curved balconies plumping each apex. This single decision, which Spira describes as a genius moment since it maximises space around the tower, generates insoluble problems, both internal (how to run a narrow internal corridor around a triangular lift core without serious nastiness?) and external (how to square up to street and on-site heritage without looking crass?)
Sadly, these problems remain largely unresolved. From the curve-meets-curve canopy catastrophe on George Street to the cramped rear foyer on Kent; from the awkward angularity to the cheap materials and the claustrophobic, gloomy apartments. In a flagship building you might expect a little more architecture, a little less bottom line.
There are trademark Seidlerisms: the smoked glass canopy from Capita, the veined alabaster from Cove, the passion for geometry, the baroque balcony games. But none of the trademark control, the signature quality. Sure, Meriton room rates are lower. But the interiors, compared with Foster’s light-filled freshness, barely compare and the shopping arcade is a horror. As for the great curved coxcomb on top, Harry (T) may happily hang his hat there but for Harry (S) a more sophisticated monument is necessary. Fingers crossed for the super-fish pond in Ultimo.