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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 31-Oct-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features


Page: 7

Wordcount: 521

At 90 degrees, Sydney’s in the shade


Elizabeth Farrelly

IT’S not a competition, of course not, no way. So it doesn’t matter that of the 27 gongs to Australian buildings at last night’s Australian Institute of Architecture awards, 14 went to Victoria and only seven to NSW. Who cares that Western Australia, South Australia, the ACT and Tassie got just one each, and Queensland two? Or that of these six, two were taken by a Melbourne architect who happened to be working in Brisbane and Adelaide, bringing Victoria’s total to 16 (and South Australia’s to zero)?

And since we’re not counting, what doesn’t merit a second thought is that, either way, Melbourne trounced us. In fact it barely even registers. But what – if it did register – would it signify?

Not jury bias, at least not in the normal way, since the jurors were drawn as evenly across seven states as five jurors can be, and were chaired by the Sydney architect Alec Tzannes, the new dean of the built environment at the University of NSW. So, what?

Fashion, largely. Fashionable architects, fashionable styles. It’s quite a turn-up for Sydney to be stuck wearing the sensible shoes while Melbourne gets to party all night in blue vellum stilettos. Usually, as cities, their characters are seen as vice versa. But in architecture, for at least the past 20 years – since Edmond and Corrigan, then Denton Corker Marshall, then Ashton Raggatt McDougall (now ARM) and LAB started going all rakish and garish and puckish and stickish – that’s how it has been. It’s the look. You have it or you don’t. We don’t.

Which is why Melbourne’s main point of difference now sits somewhere between 30 and 70 degrees. Sydney remains loyally, even regally, with the perpendicular, but Melbourne eschews 90s and even 45s as way too regular and dull – positively the bank managers of gradients. Melbourne likes thing more acute, obtuse or reflex, not to say kneejerk.

Compare the winning houses: James Stockwell’s Leura house, with its strong landscape format, and McBride Charles Ryan’s Klein Bottle beach house on the Mornington Peninsula, which won the Robin Boyd. The architect, Rob McBride, says he wanted to evoke the local fibros, not make the house too precious. So he designed a house with all the normality of lysergic acid for morning tea, where the flatness of the floor comes across as some sort of oversight because the whole is like some metallic fungi-form zeppelin flung from outer space.

We can’t compare the winning public buildings because, again, there are none from NSW, but we can compare the sober, square-jawed handsomeness of Tonkin Zulaikha Greer’s Eveleigh CarriageWorks with John Wardle’s Nigel Peck what-we-no-longer-call-library for Melbourne Grammar.

Wardle won no fewer than four awards (including those in Adelaide and Brisbane) with buildings that consistently reuse tricks he practises in the new University of Sydney architecture building on City Road: tilted glass, patterned windows, raking concrete, flat-colour interiors. But the spaces themselves – where the people go – are as banal, fluoro-lit and low-ceilinged as ever. Which makes you wonder: is the look worth the angle?


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