Into the head of the cove, on which our establishment is fixed, runs a small stream of fresh water, which serves to divide the adjacent country to a little distance, in the direction of north and south.
-Captain Watkin Tench, 1788
No matter how many corners they cut, cities find it hard to outrun their pasts. Early decisions, however casual, however pragmatic, have a way of getting written in stone so that even long after these stones have tumbled, their consequences remain in the correspondence between certain cardinal directions and certain values. However subtle the reality on the ground, north, south east and west take on indelible local meanings. If you stand on George Street and look east down Bridge Street in downtown Sydney, it is easy to perceive the original topography of Sydney Cove, or Warrane as it was known to the Gadigal people. Bridge Street dips down toward Pitt Street and then rises up more steeply toward the Botanical Gardens at the top of the ridge. Along the low point ran the Tank Stream, now covered over, Sydney Colony’s first supply of fresh water and the reason why the city is where it is.
In spite of the bridge which gave Bridge Street its name, the Tank Stream almost instantly became a dividing line between two Sydneys. To the east was the governor, the gentry and the colony’s commissary; to the west, the convict barracks, hospital, observatory and marine encampment. The city’s first hanging was on the west side, its first church service on the east. The first civic building, the First Government House(1788), was really more of a tent, but it did, like the skyscrapers to come, have glass windows. The colonists clearcut the ferny banks of the stream and, in spite of a fifteen metre exclusion zone imposed by Governor Philip as a last ditch attempt to save it, the Tank Stream was soon a murky, toxic drain.
Now confined to a subterranean pipe, the Tank Stream remains a frontier of sorts. Circular Quay transcends its fast food stench and tourist hordes because the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, like Laurel and Hardy, dramatize an opposition between personalities. A person standing under the bridge looks out on a Sydney Harbour which is the estuary of the Parramatta River, while the Opera House feels part of a very different harbour, the harbour as the entrance to a mighty ocean connected to the world beyond.
In the streets behind the water, the difference, not quite a conflict, between east and west is written into the architecture. One plausible reason why Barangaroo is such a fiasco is that the site forms the western flank of the CBD (and I wish we could just call it “downtown” — most people would rather go to the dentist than the “central business district”). In winter the area is buffeted by cold winds, and in summer by a pitiless afternoon sun. Like the nearby tree which formed the city’s first improvised gallows, most buildings thereabouts are cheap and not particularly cheerful. This is the land of fat floor plates, mirrored glass and precast concrete in your choice of beige.
To the east of the former Tank Stream it is a different story. Though only present today as a patch of interpretive paving, the First Government House begat a tradition of grand civic architecture in the area. Three sandstone palazzi housing government departments — the Chief Secretary’s Building (1869-75), the Lands Department Building (1876-94) and the Education Department Building (1915) — still dominate Bridge Street. Their faith in sturdy public architecture has perhaps always been a little brittle in a city which began life as a penal colony. Don’t be surprised if they wake up one day as luxury hotels.
In our time, the market has replaced civic pride as the principal motivation for architecture. The eastern part of the CBD is now the site of several skyscrapers above average both in their commercial rents and, thankfully, in their architectural quality. More interesting than their presence on the skyline are their diverse ways of meeting the ground, and the ways in which the spaces thus created, successful or not, attest to an architectural culture which has overcome the tedious street edge versus plaza dichotomy of the era of corporate modernism. First to rise, on the site of the original Government House, was Governor Philip and Governor Macquarie Towers (1994), which step back from Bridge and Bligh Streets to create two little squares, one along Bridge Street, the other, more lively, facing Bent Street, from which demonstrators can protest at least three state government departments simultaneously. Exposed to the sun, the breezes and the occasional protest rally, these feel close enough to genuine public spaces that the building’s austere lobby feels as private as King Tut’s tomb. From a distance, the white, sail-like form of Renzo Piano’s Aurora Place (2000) is one of the few buildings to successfully converse with the Opera House, but the sunken little south facing triangle at its base, in spite of its spidery glass canopy, is suitable for only the most desperate of sandwich scoffers. Norman Foster’s contribution to the ensemble, Deutsche Bank Place (2005), offers its lucky tenants the best elevator in town, but the barely quasi-public space underneath is a dark, cavernous undercroft brooding in the glow of lights which must be left on day and night. Just try riding your skateboard here, kiddies.
Enter 1 Bligh Street, designed by Sydney’s Architectus in collaboration with Ingenhoven Architects of Düsseldorf. 1 Bligh is the most whimsical of the local towers, which isn’t saying much, but the fun it has with its a north-facing site and three street frontages is fun it shares with the public. To the north, across Bent Street it faces the triangular square in front of the more masculine Governor Philip Tower and the back of the sandstone Education Department Building (remember, we’re upside-down — north is the sunny side). 1 Bligh, which seems desperately in need of a nickname, seems to engage in a conscious dialogue with the aforementioned buildings, particularly Aurora Place.
From the Cahill Expressway, one wonders whether 1 Bligh is not a little stumpy, one of the few Sydney high rises which could stand to be taller. The extruded oval form, so monolithic from a distance, is punctured internally by a curvaceous atrium which runs its full thirty story height. This space, a real knockout, is the most visible of the building’s many green initiatives. The tower is the first in Sydney to achieve a six star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia. Its facade is a double skin system, with computer-controlled sun shades between the two layers of glass. The atrium is naturally ventilated and the rest of the building is conditioned using a hybrid chilled beam and variable air volume system powered by the building’s gas/solar tri-generation plant. Black water is recycled and rain water collected to flush the toilets and water the building’s various plantings, which include a fashionable garden wall on the southeastern side. The success of these systems will have to be confirmed over time, particularly in summer, but all this sounds pretty cool indeed.
1 Bligh soars less into the sky than into the ground. Compared to most office towers, the lobby is welcoming. No one chased me out, even after I started taking pictures (and just try pulling out a camera, especially an Arriflex, inside the Seagram Building…). The building’s full height atrium is an old move but a good one, in this case every much enlivened by the glass elevators which shoot up and down its walls (some of the building’s tenants are already chimping their phones instead of enjoying the ride). The space works because the high louvered windows of the lobby connect it on all sides to the streets beyond. It is not some gesture hidden away within otherwise dark recesses. The cafe which spills outside from the lobby manages to feel like part of the city, rather than a private canteen. The atrium rises to frame a piece of sky through a glass dome. It’s plenty bright in the middle of the day, which makes it a pity that there were so many lights blazing away on the office levels during my visit.
The eastern part of the Sydney CBD, as implied above, offers a lesson in the way skyscrapers meet the ground, perhaps the only aspect of the typology which isn’t completely played out. The minimal public duty of any tower is to hide its car park entrance in a place where people won’t get squished, and to provide enough address to the street that they won’t get mugged or unnecessarily depressed. Since skyscrapers are the epitome of market-driven architecture, whatever usable public space they provide is, or ought to be, a bonus on top of the ample and beautiful public spaces provided in an enlightened and prosperous city. The Chrysler Building is the most gorgeous of skyscrapers, but we don’t expect it to provide us with the Piazza San Marco. In practice, Sydney tends to skate by on the beauty of the harbour and the legacy of its great public parks of the 19th century, leaving the city over-reliant on the private sector’s willingness to provide “public” spaces in the heart of the city in exchange for higher and bigger buildings (and don’t get me started on Barangaroo, which has twisted this quid pro quo into quid+quid+quid…). The results, if not always bad, are certainly hard to predict or control.
Instead of squeezing in yet another plaza, pseudo-public or otherwise, 1 Bligh concerns itself with the time-honored problem of turning the corner, or in this case, corners. The fall across the site has been turned to the project’s advantage. The lobby is on the same level as the high side of the site, allowing it to be entered on the level or via the dark grey stone steps which cascade down the slope, forming a sunny public ‘stoop’ which is the building’s main public gesture. A sunny winter lunchtime is probably the best time to enjoy this space. I suspect it will become an absolute oven in summer, but then again many Sydneysiders are sun-worshipers.
The development industry and its dynamics shape Sydney more than any other city I know. Sydney is the built result of the hierarchy among property developers and the finely diced markets they supply with “product,” from prestige office towers like 1 Bligh to McMansions which look like they’d dissolve in the rain. After the recent change of government in New South Wales, I wrote about the importance of reforming the state’s ravaged planning system. That reform is necessary, but I neglected to mention the obvious point that the quality of building in a city is more the result of culture than laws. No doubt the developers of 1 Bligh could have gained planning approval for a much less imaginative design which cynically ticked all the boxes, but the market in this particular case, in this particular place, demanded something better. Its success, though the result of business decisions rather than altruism, has nevertheless resulted in an actual physical improvement to actual urban space, a bird in the hand much more valuable than a good law or a speech by a politician.
Writing a review of one Sydney building feels misleading. The city’s infrastructural, political, cultural and psychological problems seem so grave that to write about a new building as though it were the latest Woody Allen seems like a violation of the probation this most badly behaved of cities ought to be on. While good architecture is hard enough to come by that it is always welcome, the dynamic by which it is created remains troubling. Law firms in the big end of town see the upside in good buildings, but in most of Sydney architecture is optional at best. In the vast majority of Sydney’s 1700 square kilometres, the culture of good building which exists in this little corner of the CBD shows no sign of emerging. In fact, as housing gets discussed almost exclusively as an economic problem, and the human beings to be housed as economic units, we seem to be regressing, moving away from the poetry of place and towards the world’s prevailing addiction to numbers.
If the result is that more and more of the city feels like hell, the problem is that it is a fresh hell. Sydney is often and rightly blamed for skating by on the beauty of a harbour powerful enough to redeem buildings which would be charmless in Bucharest. Discussed less often is Sydney’s lulling effect, and the way it precludes the emergence of a genuinely self-critical culture not by encouraging indolence, but by perpetually bestowing a false sense of that tout va bien toujours. This is another way of saying that going to the beach or looking at a water view has the strange effect of too many baptisms, of making the bather and the gazer feel pure, healthy and exercised enough to indulge in a full english breakfast like the ones Governor Philip must have enjoyed as he watched the colonists of Sydney emptying their chamber pots into the Tank Stream. It’s a strange phenomenon which, repeated however many million times, leaves the city in limbo, far too ugly to live up to its extraordinary site and unwilling to let itself go enough to become an interesting mess like Los Angeles, the city it resembles in so many ways. If Sydney is, as the playwright Louis Nowra wrote recently, “on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” then it is the sort of place which will be happy to muddle along the edge of the precipice long after we mortals lose patience.
That’s east and west covered, now about north and south…