This article appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure.
Cox Rayner’s West End Ferry Terminal straddles the divide between the Brisbane River’s past and future. It is the newest of Brisbane’s CityCat terminals, but the last of an engineering paradigm that will be outmoded when a new model of terminal is introduced in 2013.
Approached by water, it resembles any of the several ferry stops dotting the serpentine river. Seen from the land, however, the transit hub displays the public address and swooping roofline that will feature in the new line of terminals, for which Cox Rayner won the commission last year. Cumulatively, these eight ferry stops have the potential to redefine how Brisbane’s residents perceive public transportation and to alter how they engage with the river. Meanwhile, as we await the inception of this new river infrastructure, the completed West End Ferry Terminal provides us with an opportunity to preview the architectural style, urban contribution and spatial strategy that will likely feature in the new generation of terminals.
Cox Rayner’s terminal is a handsome prototype for future ferry infrastructure
Ferries comprised the earliest form of public transportation. While not without cost, Charon’s ferry has been operating since the dawn of time for anyone unfortunate enough to cross the River Styx. By the turn of the last century, public transportation had become a critical issue for the dense industrial city. The 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris represented a technological and cultural turning point for the western world, introducing an awed public to inventions that would come to define the next century: the escalator; the diesel engine; the talking film. While Gustave Eiffel’s tower and Théodore Viennes’ wheel dominated the Parisian skyline, the Exposition’s lasting urban contribution was the advent of the Paris Métro system.
Below ground, the Métro rapidly transformed a congested city into a modern metropolis. Above ground, architect Hector Guimard’s winning design for the Métro entrances set the aesthetic standard for transport infrastructure. Combining artistry and technical acumen, Guimard’s mildly controversial design was both instantly recognisable and formally complex. Today, Paris’ remaining Art Nouveau station entrances are a reminder of a period of extraordinary change, innovation and optimism.
The catastrophic floods that raged through Brisbane in January 2011 represent a historical turning point of another kind. Coming so soon after 1974’s devastation, the disaster swept away the ‘100-year flood’ concept, replacing it with something far less stable and predictable. The loss of life, and of public and private property, forced a dramatic rethink of how the city occupies its extensive flood plain.
The tapering promenade seamlessly connects the bus interchange to the pontoon
Twenty-three of Brisbane’s ferry terminals were damaged during the floods, of which eight were completely destroyed.
While various architects have been enlisted to repair or redesign terminals, Cox Rayner’s contribution is arguably the most significant change to the ferry network since privatisation in 1991. The symbolic potential of the new stops is immense, offering hope in renewal and an architectural embodiment of the city’s resilience. Michael Rayner, principal director of Cox Rayner, has been presented with an opportunity equalling Guimard’s in greatness.
Established in the early 90s as an offshoot of Philip Cox’s renowned Sydney practice, Cox Rayner has established its own identity. A recognisably ‘Coxian’ language of white-painted steel members, interspersed with stretched membrane surfaces (embodied in their 1995 Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre), has gradually given way to Rayner’s highly sculptural style, punctuated by large cantilevering roofs (as seen in their 2006 Thuringowa River Way Arts Centre and 2007 All Hallows School). It seems fitting that some of the new terminals will replace white steel and membrane designs produced by the same practice a decade earlier. Viewed from its suburban surroundings, the West End Ferry Terminal is recognisably a Rayner project.
A broad, sharply delineated roof spans between a public seating area and amenities block, the roof folding upwards mid-span to create a taller volume that funnels towards the ferry gangway. Replacing a cluster of enclosed, 1940s dilapidated structures, the new terminal inverts the diagram, opening its contents to the neighbourhood and park. There are no solid walls and few sight barriers. A tapering promenade seamlessly connects bus interchange to pontoon. Recycled tallow wood benches are arrayed invitingly beneath a plywood-clad ceiling, with anti-skateboard fins the only visible vandal deterrent.
The new terminal is open to the neighbourhood and park
Project architect Brendan Gaffney reports that while the old terminal was subject to continual defacement, leading to ongoing maintenance problems, its replacement has been barely defaced since opening in August of last year. ‘Soft’ finishes, including the tallow wood, plywood and board-finished concrete, belie the robustness expected of marine materials.
Painted a charcoal grey and diffused with angled battens, the steel structure of the gangway and pontoon sits demurely below the tree canopy and within the shadowy verge of the mangroves. Here at the water’s edge, the only reflective surface is the plywood ceiling, which points the way to land. Appropriately, in contrast to the ‘urban furniture’ of the terminal’s land interface, materials appear utilitarian and uniform. However, not all that has been designed is visible to the naked eye. Commissioned by Brisbane City Council in 2009, the terminal design was revised in 2011 to mitigate flood damage. The pontoon and gangway can be sunk below the waterline in the event of a surge, protecting them from dislodged objects floating downstream.
Neighbourly and welcoming to the street, low-lying and restrained to the water, the new West End Ferry Terminal responds sensitively and appropriately to its surroundings. Cox Rayner has created a handsome prototype for Brisbane’s ferry infrastructure: its openness, exposed timber, batten screens and broad, overhanging eaves suggest a local vernacular, while the crisply folded roof plane is immediately recognisable as a contemporary form. Having said that, the completed terminal expresses nothing in its character or style evocative of West End, a particularly heterogeneous and lively Brisbane suburb. There are no historical motifs, no murals, no club colours or quirks that might communicate something of the destination’s eclectic character to visitors or locals.
This is not to say that Guimard’s stations were remarkable because they differed according to locale. But Guimard was working at a time when replication expressed the technological limits. Today replication is a given and creating differentiation has become a challenge. It remains to be seen how alike the new terminals will be. Will they vary at each location in response to Brisbane’s diverse cultural landscape, or stand as mute sentinels? Whether West End and its sibling terminals become icons, or just the latest stage in the ongoing transformation of river infrastructure, may rest on that distinction.
Postscript: Future Terminals
In August last year two important votes were held on the reconstruction of public infrastructure damaged in Brisbane’s January 2011 floods. One, determined by Brisbane’s City Council, was based on community feedback, the other by a committee of government-appointed experts. The council-led vote was to select an appropriate replacement for the Riverwalk, a concrete-and-steel pedestrian walkway damaged by flood-borne debris (a 300-metre-long segment was sent hurtling downriver in the dead of night). The expert committee was charged with choosing one of three shortlisted proposals for a new model of CityCat ferry terminal, which would replace and upgrade eight terminals destroyed in the floods. Implicit in both was the question: how could this infrastructure survive future floods?
The two outcomes could not have been more different. One solution was to bulk up the infrastructure, resisting the force of the deluge. The other was to resist as little as possible and ride the onrushing currents. Controversially, the council chose an alternative favoured by only four per cent of the public, opting to replace the floating Riverwalk with a wider concrete structure permanently fixed up to three metres above the tide line. The government committee arrived at a more popular verdict: a boat-like, floating terminal designed by competition winners Cox Rayner, Derlot and Aurecon.
Cox Rayner’s model for the 2013 terminals: designed for adapation, not denial
Tethered to a single, gigantic pier and anchored downstream, they came up with a pontoon that is free to shift in the currents. The absorption of shock from berthing vessels, conventionally accounted for with large pylons, will instead be offset by the pontoon’s mass, the rigidity of the gangway and the surrounding river itself. In the event of flood, the pin controlling the gangway will detach when the water reaches critical height, allowing the gangway to swing away from the land and alongside the pontoon. Cumulatively, these measures will effectively transform the jetty into a vessel.
Rayner and Gaffney even contemplated adding a motor so that the pontoon could be driven to safety in a flood! They say that their competition process was driven by “a list of qualitative and empirical questions”, derived in close collaboration with the Brisbane office of multinational engineering company Aurecon. “Cox Rayner is becoming more and more integrated with engineers,” says Rayner, which is partly strategic because “the new government won’t spend money on public and urban improvement. It is increasingly engineering driven.”
Indeed, the architects’ close ties to engineering have paid immediate dividends, with Cox Rayner now bureaucratically required to become second-in-command to Aurecon. The new ferry terminals will be rolled out in 2013. Pontoons will vary in length between single and dual berths, with the council planning to utilise the new terminals to simultaneously increase capacity and traffic.
A keen kayaker, Rayner was at his West End home when the floods struck. He helped tie down a neighbour’s boat but was powerless to prevent another neighbour’s unsecured boat from slamming into his house, inflicting damage. Rayner has since been outspoken about the floods, proposing new housing solutions that protect belongings and advising the Queensland reconstruction authority on ongoing recovery efforts.
Together with architect Shane Thompson and academic Peter Skinner, Rayner recently hosted Experience, the Australian Institute of Architects 2012 National Conference, at the South Bank Convention Centre, itself partially submerged when the Brisbane River overflowed its banks. With Rayner and Thompson at the helm, and a 1500-strong audience of architects – the majority of them locals – one would have expected the floods to be the foremost topic of conversation.
Curiously, however, it was left to US-based, Indian architects Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha to raise the subject. “Flood is not a natural disaster,” said Mathur at Experience. “It’s a disaster by design!” She accused citymakers of having wilfully courted catastrophe by placing homes and streets in known flood plains. By obstinately ignoring the probability of floods, or arrogantly attempting to tame them with levees, dykes and channels, those responsible for planning our cities put us in harm’s way.
Maps of rivers, claimed Mathur, were “fair-weather” plans, cartographic idealisations that ignored the “leaky” boundaries of tides, currents, floods and monsoons. Considering the evidence of recent years – a series of catastrophes in sub sea-level New Orleans, estuarine Mumbai and storm-surged Brisbane – it is hard to argue with this contention. Indeed, had Mathur and da Cunha made these pronouncements at a press conference immediately following the Queensland floods, they could surely have caused some controversy.
Designed to adapt to, rather than deny the flood, the Cox Rayner/Derlot/Aurecon ferry terminals promise to embody a resilient mode of environmental response that has more to do with Mathur and da Cunha’s concerns than the conventional, failure-prone infrastructure for rivers and floods.