200 years in a Day: Sydney Open 2010

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Skylight, National Mutual Building (1891-95). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

(la forme d’une ville/Change plus vite, hélas, que le coeur d’un mortel)

— Baudelaire, “Le Cygne”

Sydney Open is one of the best things you can do in this town. Organized by the Historic Houses Trust every two years, the event allows access to more than fifty important Sydney buildings, many of them normally off limits to the public. A City Pass allows access to dozens of buildings in downtown Sydney, as well as properties run by the Trust, which are well worth visiting at any time of year. I purchased a City Pass and planned my route carefully, like a marathon runner at a free buffet, to take in as much as possible, from sandstone Georgian to High Tech and beyond. The buildings covered virtually every period of Sydney’s post-1788 history, and present a golden opportunity for a cheap and cheerful romp through the history of the city’s architecture.

Glover Cottages (1820-23). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Sydney is often described as a Georgian city, and I would argue that a Georgian tendency can be detected in many city buildings, at least compared to Melbourne, a town so steeped in all things Victorian that a hyper modern eclecticism continues to the present day. The Glover Cottages (1820-23), built by a free settler and stonemason, make you realize just how stark and primitive a Sydney Georgian house, of which few unaltered examples exist, can be. The two sandstone cottages sit on a cliff, above busy Kent Street, which drops away just outside the front door. The lack of ornamentation allows an appreciation of the modest cottages’ pleasing proportions and solid stonework, quarried right in front of the house.

Stair in King Street Courts (1819 and later). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Amidst Sydney’s current mismanagement, the administration of Governor Lachlan Macquarie has enjoyed renewed and wistful attention. As colonial governor from 1810-21 he oversaw the construction of the infrastructure and public buildings which began to establish Sydney as a city rather than a penal colony. The public buildings of the Macquarie era, especially those, such as the Hyde Park Barracks (1819), designed by colonial architect Francis Greenaway, are cherished heritage items today. The King Street Courts (1819, with later additions in 1859-62, 1865-90, 1895-96 and an ongoing current restoration) are one of only two Macquarie-era buildings which retain their original use. The tour of the courthouse, which is apparently haunted, gave insight into the current state of the art in heritage conservation. The various layers of the building have been carefully unpeeled to allow visitors (though presumably not those in the dock) to interpret the building’s history.

Sydney Harbour YHA (2009-09). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Another successful example of heritage conservation is the Sydney Harbour YHA (2008-09), a polite but undeniably contemporary building which floats on steel columns above an important archeological dig in the Rocks, a neighborhood which narrowly avoided total annihilation by the juggernaut of 1970s urban renewal. It is heartening to know that, thanks to the preservation movement, a place which not long ago would have been bulldozed is now treated with such painstaking care, but the perpetually grasping dynamic of Sydney is such that the battle to preserve the city’s heritage will long continue. Many beautiful and important buildings which aren’t obvious superstars still lack protection, and the fertile land of the Sydney basin, some of it continually farmed for two hundred years, is still, insanely, resown with dead crops of McMansions.

Richmond Villa (1849). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

In Sydney the Georgian era lingered. The Merchants House (1848) in the Rocks is a far more elaborate example of the style than the Glover Cottages. Its austere Greek Revival facade makes an interesting companion piece to Richmond Villa (1849), which Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis designed for himself. In the villa a most restrained Gothic revival creeps into the architecture, visible mainly in the building’s asymmetry and the timber work which supports the verandah. The house, now the home of the Australian Genealogical Society, is modest in size, but has the generous, informal grace of the best Australian colonial buildings. The strangest part of the building’s story came in 1977, when it was dismantled and moved across town, from the edge of the Domain to its current site right next to the Glover Cottages. As an alternative to demolition, it was an admirable undertaking for the time, but the move ruined the Villa’s carefully conceived relationship to its original site.

Sydney lacks its younger sister Melbourne’s plethora of wildly ornate Victorian buildings, many of which sprung up to display wealth won in the goldfields. With some exceptions, a more classical, Georgian mentality colored buildings through the nineteenth century and, I would argue, up to the present day. History House (1872) is a nearly unique remnant of a time when Macquarie Street was lined with gracious terrace houses. The terrace is Sydney’s characteristic urban dwelling, and Georgian, Victorian and Federation (Australia’s version of Arts and Crafts) examples can be seen stepping up and down streets across the inner city. If all the terrace houses in Sydney were arranged in order from the moldiest single storey worker’s cottage to the richest sandstone pile, History House would most certainly terminate the latter end of the lineup.

Chief Secretary's Building (1869-75). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Around the corner and nearly contemporaneous are the glorious sandstone palazzi of Bridge Street, the Chief Secretary’s Building (1869-75) and the Lands Department Building (1876-94), both designed by James Barnet. Both are certainly ornate, but present an overall impression of restrained civic dignity and visual symmetry. The latter building, in what could be considered an absurdly early example of high tech, features deep inter-floor spaces which accommodated an early ventilation and heating system, as well as the city’s first reinforced concrete floors. I know this building all too well, and spent several months of sensory deprivation working in the nearly windowless “vault” at its heart, where precious deeds once were kept.

The Great Synagogue (1878). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

One Victorian pile with bells on is the Great Synagogue (1878), won in competition by architect Thomas Rowe. Rowe was not Jewish, but his research into the synagogue typology led him to devise a confection of Byzantine, Gothic, Romanesque and even Middle Eastern elements which, because of the fine proportions of its central space, retains a feeling of serenity. Unfortunately photography was not allowed inside, but the tour guide, a member of the congregation, was excellent, and answered many questions about the building’s construction and current life. For those interested in seeing this delightful and peculiar building, tours are available every Tuesday and Thursday at noon.

Sandstone at Glover Cottages (1820-23). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

All but two of the buildings described so far are made of Sydney sandstone, most of which was quarried from one of three holes — named Heaven, Purgatory or Hell to indicate the quality of the stone — in Pyrmont, the peninsula to the west of the CBD. That Sydney happened to end up on a bed of this particularly gorgeous building material is yet another example of the city’s dumb luck. Though poor quality sandstone can be impossibly friable, the best of it is easily carved and oxidizes after quarrying from near white to a characteristic reddish honey color. The buildings already mentioned, and therefore the city itself, would take on a completely different feeling if replicated in Melbourne’s dark bluestone or Boston’s Deer Isle granite. Sydney sandstone bestows lightness, almost wit, to the stodgiest pile. Because a number of natural and man-made rocky outcrops are still visible in parts of the CBD, the sandstone buildings of Sydney retain a more intimate relationship with their origins than exists in most cities. It was a major, and under-acknowledged, rupture in the city’s architecture when sandstone became too expensive to use as anything other than a potato chip veneer. Underground, the bedrock makes building tunnels a cinch; the Boston’s Big Dig would have been done in a year in Sydney.

City of Sydney Fire Station (1888, 2003). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Sydney Trades Hall (1888-95 and later). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Buildings from the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries represent both continuity and a foreshadowing of the very different downtown which was to come. The Sydney Trades Hall (1888-95, 1902-17, 2001), and the City of Sydney Fire Station (1888, 1912, 2003), are Victorian buildings of moderate scale which have been adapted through time to retain their original function. The fire station, centered on the original, freely classical building by James Barnet, is an especially pleasing ensemble. The twenty first century additions knit the complex together into a state of the art facility. The contemporary glass facade on Castlereagh Street, which I admire whenever I pass, is a good example of the way an almost-Georgian restraint, for better and worse, still influences Sydney architecture. Both the fire station and the trades hall are built mainly of brick, with sandstone used around door and window openings.

The Goldsbrourgh Mort (1883). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

As in most cities, the industrial buildings of the past often appear most modern to our eye. In Sydney there is a great tradition of delicate finger wharves made of hard native timber, the best examples of which are at Walsh Bay. The other relics of the time when Australia ‘rode the sheep’s back’ are the enormous woolstores where wool was displayed in heavy canvas bales. Woolstores are normally about ten storeys high, with external walls of solid brick well over a meter thick at the base. Their internal structure is formed by a grid of hardwood columns, often of the aptly named Ironbark, with wooden floors. If a child were to draw a city building it would look like a woolstore. One of the biggest surviving examples is the Goldsbrough Mort (1883, converted to apartments in 1995) in Pyrmont. In 1935 the building caught fire and, because of the lanolin soaked into the floorboards, burned for two weeks. The obligatory apartment conversion is thoughtful, with an airy atrium cut through the middle of the building which allows the apartments to be naturally ventilated.

Stairwell, National Mutual Building (1891-95). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Sydney commercial buildings of this era expressed their striving in various ways. A highlight of Sydney Open was the National Mutual Building (1891-95) on George Street. One day several years ago, after catching the merest glimpse of its magnificent full height stairwell, I was unceremoniously denied access to the building by a security guard. The building, built as the headquarters of the American Equitable Life Assurance Company, is an unashamedly seductive advertisement for an immaterial product. It subtly distinguishes itself from its neighbors; while most buildings along George Street open directly onto the footpath, The National Mutual Building draws its customers up a short flight of stairs. Through the front door is one of Sydney’s great lobbies, though there is nothing particularly Sydney about it. The staircase is clad in Belgian marble and the vestibule in white Italian marble. The entry sequence maintains a sumptuousness which draws the eye in from the street and culminates in a view of the the glowing stained glass ceiling six floors above. The exterior is designed in a solid Romanesque style which vaguely recalls H. H. Richardson while inside, following American precedent, the structural steel frame is expressed, adding to the visual lightness of the stair. In summary, a fine old building from New York or Chicago has been plonked down on George Street.

Tallest then and now, Culwulla Chambers (1911-12) and Centrepoint Tower (1981). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

A more familiar sort of striving is represented by Culwulla Chambers (1911-12), a fairly rare example of an Australian Federation style building in the city. At 170 feet, Culwulla Chambers was the tallest building in Sydney when it was completed. It caused a public outcry, leading to the establishment of the 150 foot height limit which persisted until 1957 (coincidentally the year of the Sydney Opera House design competition). Other buildings were built to the height limit or close to it, including two clubs, the New South Wales Masonic Club (1927) and the Royal Automobile Club (1928), both commercial palazzi of startling conservatism when you consider that the Chrysler Building, Villa Savoye and Taliesin are all contemporaneous, and that Louis Sullivan’s unclassifiable tall buildings were completed nearly forty years before! Just as movies used to be released here months after their American premiere, styles came late to Australia and, once arrived, stuck around for decades.

The AWA Building (1939) in context. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

More ‘modern’ are two fine Art Deco buildings included in Sydney Open. The AWA Building (1939) cleverly transcended the city height limit with an enormous steel communications tower. It remains a landmark today, but would have dominated the city skyline through the 1950s. Sydney has a lot of Art Deco, not least the many fine pubs built in the style, but surely one of the very best examples is BMA House (1928-30) on Macquarie Street, formerly the meeting place of the British Medical Association. The building is one of those Sydney buildings which, with infinite charm, re-imagines a style imported from abroad. Art Deco is freely combined with an emphatically Gothic ornamental program (including koala gargoyles!) and the pesky height limit is visually transcended by the relentless verticality of the street elevation.

BMA House (1928-30). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Sydney Open lacked only an example of high modernism. Most of the towers which grew up after the lifting of the height limit were heavily influenced by American precedents. The AMP tower (1962), Sydney’s first skyscraper, is pure International Style, save for its elegant concave facade facing north to Circular Quay. Sydney’s contribution to modernism is generally more evident in residential architecture than in tall buildings. The grand exception is the work of Harry Seidler, who was born in Vienna and studied with Gropius at Harvard before emigrating to Australia. Seidler’s most successful high rises, such as Australia Square (1961-67) combine a sensitive urban design uncharacteristic of the period with bravura structural engineering, often devised in collaboration with Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. Seidler’s sensibility gravitated towards the most expressive moments of Marcel Breuer and even nudged the tamest moments of Oscar Neimeyer later in his career (Seidler always loved a good curve, most famously on the Horizon apartments in Darlinghurst).

View from The Gateway (1989). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Tall buildings which respond to the Sydney climate, as opposed to merely exchanging Sydney views for high rents have appeared only recently as some modicum of ‘green’ building becomes mandatory for high grade office space. Typical of a mercifully outdated approach to tower design is The Gateway (1989, renovated 2010) a mirrored glass prism which could be in Houston or Kuala Lumpur save for the Harbour Bridge to Opera House panorama it captures for its lucky tenants. View obsession is perhaps is what the city has always been about. In colonial times, without the towers which now surround it, even little Glover Cottage would have commanded a view westward along the Parramatta River clear to the Blue Mountains.

With a downtown cooled by reliable summer northeasterlies, Sydney offers possibilities for passive cooling which have not yet been taken up by the architects of tall office buildings. There is still a tendency to rely on technology rather than what one of my professors called ‘thermal delight’ in order to achieve green credentials. This challenge is becoming more acute as office tenants demand enormous floor plates which preclude natural ventilation and, when stacked, produce bulky stumps rather than spires (for example, the latest ‘tower’ planned for Barangaroo is 85 metres wide!). Dealing with these incredible bulks is a challenge in most big cities. No architectural trick has yet been invented which will fool your eye into reading one as a tower, any more than a square will ever pass as a rectangle. These are cheapskate buildings which maximize valuable floorspace while minimizing expensive facade.

30 The Bond (2004). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

A better solution to the problem of designing office buildings with large floor plates (sometimes over 3,500 square meters) is to keep the buildings low. A number of new office buildings on the western side of the CBD have transformed an area dominated by the elevated Western Distributor freeway. With varying degrees of commitment and grace, these buildings attempt to combine environmental performance with a notion of ‘creative’ workplace design which is a very bastardized descendant of the original Soho loft. Some of the new buildings are halfway decent, but from an urban design point of view this part of town feels very dead, and must be perilously under-populated after dark. The American Express Building (2007) and KPMG Tower (2003) use a sensible combination of sun shading and efficient mechanical systems to achieve above average environmental performance. 30 The Bond (2004) remains the most expressive of Sydney’s green buildings. Rather than cover up the sandstone cutting behind the building, the natural rock is incorporated into the lobby, where its thermal mass helps regulate the indoor air temperature. The cliff beats the pants off any public art; water continuously drips down its surface, and ferns grow here and there in the crevasses. What a pity that the building’s tenant and designer, the developer Lend Lease, plans to, at great expense, bury this very same cutting just down the street at Barangaroo!

Sydney CBD from Botanic Gardens, Deutsche Bank Place (2005) is on the far left. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

The most prestigious, and architecturally successful, of Sydney’s skyscrapers tend to cluster near Macquarie Street, along the ridge which marks the highest point in the CBD. Since Governor Macquarie built the first government house where the elegant office tower which bears his name now stands, this side of town has been the respectable civic end of downtown Sydney (as opposed to the western side of Circular Quay and the Rocks, where hangings took place in colonial times). This eastern ridgeline is where clean ocean breezes arrive downtown. A recent addition to the area is Deutsche Bank Place (2005), designed by Norman Foster. In Foster’s oeuvre Deutsche Bank Place seems at first glance a minor work. I’ve come to admire its crisp presence in the skyline, but compared to the work of Foster’s fellow Pritzker prize winner Renzo Piano at nearby Aurora Place, the unrelenting darkness of its tinted glass, and the dingy pseudo-public ‘outdoor room’ at its base seemed to indicate a lack of control or attention. Some more exuberant touches, such as the roof garden which would have justified the open ‘goal posts’ on the roof met their demise under the ‘delete’ keys of the value engineers.

The interior is something else again. The elevator lobby, once you get past security, is pure science fiction. The space rises at least thirty storeys, with the extremely rapid elevator carriages forming a kinetic sculpture as they rise and fall. The ride to the 28th floor was brief and vertiginous (and when was the last time you were thrilled by riding in an elevator?). At the time the building opened, I heard a rumor that Deutsche Bank planned for a certain number of resignations due to elevator phobias, a number doubtless offset by those who would seek out such an experience as a few seconds reliable relief in a dull day. Not dull at all is the view, which stares straight out the heads towards Los Angeles. Capturing views happens by default when you rise high enough and would seem to be one of the dumbest tasks assigned to a tall building, but the three skyscrapers included in Sydney Open offered a parallax view of the city. Height can create not just vistas but odd and unexpected views of familiar street corners and facades. A true champion among flâneurs might seek to visit every room in town in addition to walking every street.

Sydney Masonic Centre (1973). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Though the style came late to Australia, Sydney does boast (and boy is Sydney good at boasting!) some excellent examples of Brutalism. One of the best is the Sydney Masonic Centre (1973, tower added 2002-04). The building achieves that perfect balance between heaviness and plasticity, hard and soft, which unfortunately was all too rarely achieved by this much-derided style. The lobby space really soars, and its corkscrewing stairway extends the feeling of continuously sculptural space throughout the building. Brutalism, rather than 1980s historicist postmodernism, might once have seemed the natural antidote to the antiseptic corporate International Style which infected so many downtowns, but the style was undone perhaps more by its extreme labor-intensiveness than by any aesthetic drawbacks. A visitor to the Masonic Centre cannot help but imagine the heroic timber formwork necessary to create all that curving concrete. It would have literally entailed building a full scale, inside-out wooden model of the building.

Lighting in the Sydney Masonic Centre (1973). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

At the Masonic Centre architectural daydreams were combined with what appeared to be an enthusiastic recruitment drive. Masons in nearly every room patiently and enthusiastically answered the visitors’ many questions (almost everyone is curious about the Masons). Throughout the day Sydney Open did well to combine the cultural and aesthetic aspects of the buildings on display. It ought to be obvious, but was nevertheless surprising to see how many of the city’s best buildings are the work of institutions — trade unions, religions, clubs, government, all now in decline — seeking to express themselves in three dimensional form. In Sydney, as in many cities, the pride associated with naming as well as commissioning a building tended to ensure a certain level of architectural quality.

George Street looking North from King Street. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Sydney Open also offered a glimpse of the future city. With intense media and community focus on Barangaroo, itself included in Sydney Open, the scruffy area around Central Station is quietly transforming itself into a place which could be quite interesting in ten years’ time. The character of central Sydney can be measured along George Street, which is narrower, crookeder and longer than most city’s main streets. As far south as Town Hall, George Street is able to, like a drug lord on The Wire diluting his product, eke out some of the serene aura of the harbor. To that point there are enough objects of fascination — from the north, Australia Square, the General Post Office, the Queen Victoria Building and Town Hall itself — that some sense of permanence (or “Eternity”) is maintained amidst the constantly changing city fabric. South of Town Hall, the city becomes less readable. It is certainly grubbier, less lovely, but livelier and finer-grained. Rents are lower, allowing strange little shops selling bubble tea to coexist alongside mega-developments like World Square. Closer to Central Station the city feels like the surrounds of most big city railway stations, dirty, transient and a little dangerous. In Sydney state of grace between gentrification and decay seems extremely ephemeral.

Urbanest (2011). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

It was only during Sydney Open that I realized how different this area will be in ten years. The University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) which, like NYU, lacks a campus as such, is building furiously and, it seems, well. A new business school, designed by Frank Gehry, will rise on the sort of leftover site on which he excels best. Along Broadway, a traffic-choked artery which is the de facto continuation of George Street beyond Central Station, UTS is building a home for its engineering and IT departments, won in competition by Melbourne architects Denton Corker Marshall and, mercifully, a new curvaceous glass podium at the base of its much-loathed Brutalist tower. These projects have not yet broken ground, but Sydney Open did include tours of a nearly completed student housing complex called Urbanest, designed by architects Bates Smart for a private developer. The project makes good, if limited, use of prefabrication in order to save costs and construction time (with only an eleven month build). Inside, the rooms are comfortable (which they ought to be starting at $309 a week). Though Urbanest fills a niche, students in Sydney face a severe shortage of affordable student housing, a problem which will not be solved by the private sector alone. The problem of designing cheap, comfortable and architecturally interesting student housing sounds like a perfect studio project for the city’s architecture schools.

One Central Park, model, designed by Jean Nouvel. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

The biggest change in this neighborhood will be Central Park, under construction on the massive site of the former Carlton & United Brewery. The sickly smell of hops which used to waft across the area has been replaced by a giant hole in the ground. I am tempted to call Central Park the Jekyll to Barangaroo’s Hyde. Judging from the admittedly boosterish materials provided in the on-site display pavilion (and the words of the developer himself, who was present on the day of Sydney Open), I see good reason to be optimistic. Unlike Barangaroo, Central Park has a logical and urbane master plan with real streets and tall buildings located in the least disruptive position. The first to be completed will be a thirty five storey building designed by Jean Nouvel, containing a retail base and nearly six hundred apartments above. As at Musée du Quai Branly, French landscape architect and artist Patrick Blanc has collaborated on a vegetated facade, which in the available renderings has a post-apocalyptic feel somehow appropriate to the neigbourhood. Behind the Nouvel building, which will be the same height as the UTS Tower (a ‘landmark’ Nouvel apparently likes!) is a large park. A heroic cantilever near the top of the tower hides a heliostat which will use mirrors to bounce sunlight into the park. At the the western end of the site, Norman Foster has designed a lower office building whose corner hovers over an all-important heritage listed pub.

Central Park makes major sustainability claims, and while these can only be assessed once the project is built and running, the planned green initiatives seem to be intrinsic to the architecture, rather than Mr. Potatohead plug ins which can be shed quietly to save costs later on. While Barangaroo makes similar zero carbon claims, at Central Park there is enough specificity to be credulous. In addition to generating energy from solar panels and tri-generation plants, the Nouvel apartments will be articulated to make good use of the natural breezes which are one of Sydney’s greatest assets. All rainwater will be captured and the major sewer which runs under the site will be “mined” and purified to drinking quality in order to irrigate the park and Blanc’s heroic green facade. The former brewery, unlike many of the delicate places in Sydney being ruined by insensitive development, is the sort of degraded but well located site where you can really go for it. Once you start to look around, there are a lot of others like it around the city.

City of the Future. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

The only aspect of Sydney Open one can complain about is that it happens far too rarely. While it would be unreasonable to expect the Historic Houses Trust or their four hundred odd volunteers to organize such an undertaking more often, the popularity of it and the other Sydney Architecture Festival events hints at a latent demand for opportunities to see the familiar city anew (I mean, who could resist anything billed as “An Architectural Adventure?”). Like New York, and unlike Boston, Sydney is addicted to the new, with the result that too much of the city’s history becomes obscured. Over time the illegibility of this history can lead to its being under-valued. Public access to normally private domains allows new perspectives to be revealed and kindles a general curiosity about buildings which I hope leads to more evolved architectural discourse in this city. It is natural to crave new views of the familiar, and Sydney Open reveals how much remains hidden in plain sight.

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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