Above: Silk Apartments, the final addition to the urban residential development at Pyrmont
Jacksons Landing, the expansive residential and commercial property joint venture development between Lend Lease, Kerry Properties and Rico Star, a subsidiary of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, that courted controversy at the turn of the century, has recently come to fruition on the northern peninsula of Pyrmont, inner Sydney. Its five residential towers, housing primarily high net-worth ‘empty-nesters’, align along the horizon as something of an anomaly in contemporary practice.
In a development that dates back some 30 years, it is intriguing to consider the parallels between it and its fellow ‘antagoniser’, Barangaroo. The comparative outcries, on the face of it, are striking: an aversion to high-density redevelopment; a distrust of seemingly top-down planning; and, somewhat poignantly, a rejection of the proposal for a casino. Undeterred by such public protestation, Lend Lease purchased the site from CSR in 1997, with construction soon following. The final edition to the development, standing alongside designs from Denton Corker Marshall, Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT), Tzannes Associates and JAA Studio is Silk Apartments, designed by Tony Caro Architecture (TCA).
North-east facade along Bowman Street
Awkwardly located at the base of the Pyrmont escarpment, the building rises some 19 storeys to become a dominant feature to commuters and city revellers as they pass over Anzac Bridge. This arterial thoroughfare makes for a significant piece of infrastructure – offset against the harbour views in the background and a post-industrial landscape in transformation in the fore, both of which the building strives to directly respond to. Silk’s definitive characteristic is its schizophrenic facade treatment: first, its north-east face, with its harbour views and bespoke, perforated sliding/folding screens and operable bronze anodised horizontal louvres; whereas its south-west has a distinctly more urban feel, which TCA responds to with a somewhat garishly coloured array of off-form concrete panels. It is this facade that Silk will be recognisable for and the aspect that will cause a polarising response.
The sheer escarpment at Distillery Drive
Programmatically, the plan caters for this contextual duality between urban and harbour aspects. Woven around a central core is an agglomeration of one- and two-bedroom apartments that collectively form the trapezoidal-shaped plan. Where views to the harbour are maximised, more routine programs such as second bedrooms and bathrooms are located on the south-west, making for a randomised facade of fixed and awning windows. It dictates a sense of inoperability, a total ‘flatness’ to the facade, which could not be further from the truth on the building’s opposite side with its operable permeability. The south-west facade is, however, rather problematic, verging on schizophrenic. It may well be reminiscent of ideas borne from experiencing architecture from the highway, as defined by Robert Venturi, but its apparently random panels seem increasingly dated in its aesthetics, speaking less from a Venturian concept or a response to the city and more as an inflection back to the time it was actually conceived. Rendering it as little more than a synthetic reproduction of a city without critical reasoning.
Spotted gum timber flooring in the penthouse
Internally, however, there is a rational approach to interior spatial planning, with the material selection defying its developer-led production. The lobbies are spacious and directive, with the apartments providing unique views onto the city’s instantly recognisable skyline as the building becomes a pseudo-observation tower. While the north-east facade may be a typical response to harbour views through its operability, the building has a sense of affluence and attention to detail through the use of off-form precast load-bearing walls, spatially dividing the internal arrangement; and the spotted gum timber flooring, providing a warmth as an offset to the stark beauty of the concrete formwork. The material contrasts are considered and essential, relating to the building’s contradictions in facade treatment at a much smaller scale, not to mention the building’s visual connection to its neighbours.
View from Distillery Drive
Interestingly, Silk shares its car park with the adjacent building designed by FJMT as a result of strategic staging decisions in the construction process. Where Silk was initially supposed to be built first, the site logistics reversed, resulting in a shared facility. It is no doubt testament to Lend Lease that, while the Global Financial Crisis crashed developments the world over, Jacksons Landing continued apace without much delay. What becomes apparent though is that in this reversal of construction strategy, TCA did not amend the design at a time when all around it changed.
As a gesture on the urban level, the building is the shortest in the line-up of projects that form Distillery Hill. And yet given its neighbouring freeway and escarpment, would a much grander gesture at this location be a more appropriate response to the site? It is probably more a question of planning decision-making than design, but it is interesting to consider the density issue in relation to scale. As it stands, the remaining residential complexes unfortunately read almost as a singular mass due to their uniformity in height. Where Silk attempts to accentuate verticality through its randomised off-form panelling and vertically striated screening, it actually may have been much more successful and infinitely more distinct had it been taller than its neighbouring buildings.
Silk has some wonderful moments in its array of highly detailed finishing and spatial arrangements, making for an intriguing plan formation, but what transpires from this project – as the final moment in a major urban development – is a much broader debate: the role of the local architect in the procurement and construction process in the contemporary discipline. In the space of a decade, many developer-led projects in Australia have resorted to sourcing practitioners from overseas. This development depended largely on a crop of locally-based architects as lead designers. While Jacksons Landing was a piecemeal approach similar to Barangaroo in procurement, Barangaroo teams international architects with local offices in an attempt to set up an exchange of expertise. It is more a question to be levied at planning authorities, to note Jacksons Landing as a benchmark in terms of development and procurement instead of extending into an international market. As many difficulties and disciplinary issues have revolved around it, TCA has interweaved its role as designer between developer and planning authority to great effect.