You might have read recently in the Sydney Morning Herald about the planned demolition of Sydney Convention Centre at Darling Harbour. The Centre’s architect John Andrews is not surprisingly unimpressed that another of his Australian designs is under threat after a mere 25 years of use.
John Andrews was the first Australian architect to create an international reputation. During the 1960s he designed a series of teaching and residential buildings at universities in Canada and the USA which were hugely influential on campus architecture in North America and elsewhere, including Australia. The best-known of these are Scarborough College at Toronto and the Harvard Graduate design school. John returned to Australia during the 1970s as something of a conquering hero, and was rewarded by high-profile commissions including the Cameron Offices at Belconnen, Toad Hall at the ANU and the American Express Tower (now IAG House) at King and George Streets, Sydney.
However John’s reputation in North America has proved more enduring than in his home country. Almost all of his numerous North American designs remain intact, valued and well-used. In contrast, much of John’s Australian work has suffered from renovations and even demolition. An example is the removal of the tinted ‘sunglasses’ which made IAG House a landmark and a leader in green office design.
The Convention Centre is the latest target for ill-advised attention, with the possibility of enlarging or otherwise improving a successful building already ruled out. The building has attracted praise for its ‘strong, precise geometry…and general clarity of execution…it is simply the best building in Darling Harbour’, despite an unpromising site – freeway to one side, shopping mall to the other, parking station and monorail at year. Like many Modernists Andrews respected Classical proportion, the secret of the Convention Centre’s appeal. Even Elizabeth Farrelly, serial critic of all things Darling Harbour, is a fan.
The Convention Centre has also been humanised by Robert Woodward’s spiralling interactive water sculpture (a favourite of old and young kids) and its large-scale commissioned paintings by Brett Whiteley, Charles Blackman and other Sydney artists.
The politics and ethics of selling off public assets are not subjects for this blog, but the potential design outcomes are. It is telling that the Harbourside shopping mall will survive Lend Lease’s ‘world class’ revamp of Darling Harbour. Persumably the development company nor the mall’s owners couldn’t think of a way to profit from its demolition and replacement, so we are stuck with this drab 80s relic but not with proof that the 80s could also do good design. Certainly the generic pr squiggles promoted as replacements for the Convention and Exhibition Centres don’t convince that design is a determining factor; dollars and deal-making are evidently so.
Public buildings were once public assets in the broad sense. Colonial Architect James Barnet‘s work marked out a new society via the creation of its basic infrastructure – post offices, customs houses, courthouses and similar – most of which are still are still in use. Barnet’s building have not become disposable, tradeable assets, even when converted to other uses like Sydney’s GPO. It is a different story for recent generations of public architecture.
Handing the design and construct responsibilities to a major developer like Lend Lease is intended to absolve government of both financial and design risks, but the Barangaroo project – also by Lend Lease – suggests that the public are not always prepared to absolve the NSW government of responsibility for the outcomes.
Charles Pickett, curator.