This article originally appeared in AR 129: The Price of Building.
In 2006 John Wardle Architects (JWA) was invited by Westfield to participate in a limited design competition for a major refurbishment and expansion of newly acquired sites in the heart of Sydney. While Australia does not have the philanthropic or cultural commitment to design competitions common in Europe, the City of Sydney introduced a requirement to demonstrate ‘Design Excellence’ as part of the approvals process for large sites in the CBD; more often than not, this results in a design competition. Rather than philanthropy, then, competitions are part of the commercial equation for major development in the City of Sydney.
Connections between existing buildings and the retail additions are crucial in the project’s success.
If it’s the local government’s view that design competitions make for better buildings in the city, the question then becomes what makes a city? Urbanists such as Jan Gehl tell us it’s all about public transport, public space, bicycles and cafes. They may well be right, but that then begs the question: who makes the city? More importantly who pays for it and for what purpose? Every city around the world answers this in a different manner and no government can do so alone. Some are blessed with patron families like the House of Medici of Florence or, more recently, the numerous Sheiks of the UAE, who have poured billions of oil-fuelled dirham into architects’ fees to turn sand dunes into financial centres. Australia’s own Lowy family, who co-founded Westfield, has played a major role in shaping cities (and suburbs) across the globe since the 1950s.
Street-level retail ignites the urban fabric and invites the public.
JWA’s task in this instance was to rework an existing master plan for 38,000sqm of retail space (amalgamating two existing malls), an existing office building and a new 28-level office tower. Westfield’s development manager Andrew Robertson, who oversaw the project from conception to realisation, tells me that when they purchased the sites they were not developed to the maximum floor space allowed under the planning controls. It’s interesting retail returns are such that Westfield ‘did their numbers’ without considering the potential revenue from the additional office tower. This would become the icing on the cake at a later date.
Interior connections provide linkages between levels, something entirely novel for many of Sydney’s CBD buildings.
The competition brief was very strict; competitors were strongly advised not to “mess with the stage one approval”. They retained the basic bones of the retail planning, carefully sliced deep voids into the large floor plates of the podium office plates and carved a lane into one facade to make direct visual connections to an upper-level food area. John Wardle energetically describes how the canopy, that wraps three street fronts, “metaphorically stitches the sites back together … a reference to the area’s history in the garment trade”. It appears as an enormous stainless steel thread that sews the glass structure to the facade.
Image courtesy John Wardle Architects.
The tower form JWA inherited from the master plan required something more dramatic. Their elegant and efficient solution played a major role in winning the competition. Director Stefan Mee points out that the elliptical plan, which provides an excellent ratio of facade-to-floor space, evolved out
of a desire to create a “democratic” form and plan. As a gesture to the city the elliptical form optimises views between the new tower and existing built form. Mee says that the tapering plan ensures “no corner offices” but, importantly, from a commercial perspective, it offers excellent views to the all-important Sydney Harbour to the northeast. Wardle notes the project continues a fascination of the practice, which is to continually reveal more and more detail as you approach and engage with a building. Sheathed in patterned blue glass, it is a departure from the ‘frayed ends’ of other JWA towers, such as QV1 Apartments and Dock 5 in Melbourne. The tower is a fine contribution to the city skyline. The top is sliced precisely to maximise floor space and minimise overshadowing to the nearby Hyde Park, creating a silhouette much like a lipstick resting on a jewel box. Sculptural and elegant it may be, but it owes its existence to a commercial logic.
Entrance to the sky lobby with its enticing vertical interior finish.
For Westfield, ground level retail space is prime real estate. The Westfield master plan stage included a ‘sky lobby’ with transfer lifts four levels above the street entry. Andrew Robertson points out this was challenging to some potential tenants, simply as it was not “the norm”. The walls of the intimate street level lobby are lined with layered vertical timber battens that rise through the four-storey void and expand to engulf much of the expansive sky lobby. The space is inhabited by a series of finely detailed pods wrapped in the same timber that act as concierge desk, cafe counters and seating. The buzz of the food court below rises through a large void making the space far more animated than you would normally find in a CBD lobby. I ask Robertson what eventually made the tower and the sky lobby commercially viable in Sydney? His response: “when the anchor tenant (JP Morgan) signed the lease.”
Transfer lifts and floor plates slicing provide visual and circulatory connections.
The urban retail mall is a very different beast to its much-maligned suburban cousin. This project provides active retail to the street fronts and stretches the city into its interior… in opening hours. If we think about the plan as Giambattista Nolli may have done, the poche of retail reveals connections to unique (semi) public rooms, funded by commerce, and open longer hours than the public buildings Nolli identified in Rome. While the retail and office components of this project would survive alone, they benefit from each other, emphasising the symbiotic relationship between commercial and public endeavour in the city.