Features

Barangaroo: The Towers & the Fury

May 3, 2013

Debate continues to rage over the civic and design qualities of Sydney’s Barangaroo development. Though the discussion has largely ignored one of the forces driving the more contentious aspects of the scheme – demand.

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All images courtesy Lend Lease.

“We … protest with all our strength, with all our indignation … to the erection of this useless and monstrous tower. To bring our arguments home imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating … like a gigantic black smokestack … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

These could easily be the words of protesters against Barangaroo; in fact, they are the objections a group of Parisian artists voiced against the Eiffel Tower in 1886. Ironically, nearly 100 years later, the same words were used verbatim to protest Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou designed in collaboration with none other than Richard Rogers. Of course, both structures are now much loved by Parisians.

Fear and distress often come with shifts in the scale of the city and its buildings but, throughout history, building typologies have evolved in response to changes in technology and material availability. In the twentieth century, workplace typologies have evolved in response to changes in technology and managerial approaches. New workplace typologies have led to the regeneration of entire areas of the city. Often these changes are incremental; sometimes though, aided by other forces in urban development, they can result in cataclysmic changes in urban morphology. Such changes can vary from simply amalgamating lots to accommodate larger developments with their accompanying shift in building scale, bulk and typology, to the wholesale redevelopment of city precincts.The forces of change have created our cities and indeed their dynamism depends to some extent on the juxtaposition of new models of urbanism and building typology. Consider the lack of urban energy and dynamism in totally planned cities such as Canberra, for example, or overly controlled cities such as Washington DC.

Today our cities are again undergoing a fundamental shift brought about by rapid change in information technology, which is in turn eroding the conventions of the late twentieth century office building.Gone is the central core typology that allowed for the maximisation of individual perimeter offices, based on the hierarchy between professional or managerial staff and clerical staff. In its place is the requirement for larger, more flexible open plan floor plates, with long spans, side cores and maximum connectivity both horizontally and vertically to encourage collaboration, teamwork and communication. These types of buildings, especially those with floor plates with greater than 1,500sqm of net lettable area, are sought by the financial industries that drive accommodation in Sydney. The issue is where to accommodate such buildings.

Other cities, when faced with similar challenges that either couldn’t be accommodated in their traditional urban morphology, or were in danger of destroying their historic city centres, have responded by creating financial districts outside their core to accommodate larger buildings and attract global investment. Paris created La Défense to eliminate the impact of contemporary offices on their traditional city, while London created Canary Wharf to satisfy the requirements of international finance and professional firms that couldn’t be accommodated in the traditional urban morphology of the City of London. Many developing nations have created an International Finance District (IFD) or World Trade Centre to attract international investment, while closer to Sydney, Melbourne has the Docklands urban renewal project, Brisbane has South Bank and Perth is progressing the Perth Waterfront development.

Site plan for Barangaroo South, with prominent position of the hotel at the waterfront

 

In Sydney the opportunity to redevelop the former International Cruise Ship Terminal and Port Authority site is the largest expansion of the CBD since Darling Harbour was developed as a leisure precinct in the 1980s. On this parcel of land, originally known as East Darling Harbour and since renamed Barangaroo, the NSW Government held an international design competition that was won by the local consortium of Hill Thalis Architecture and Urban Projects, Paul Berkemeier Architects and Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture. Their master plan created a framework based on extending the city grid and integrating with the morphology of the city, while creating a linear waterfront park on approximately 50 percent of the site as required by the brief. The Government then sought private sector involvement through a public private partnership (PPP). These types of arrangements have become increasingly common, as governments have lost confidence in their ability to deliver large projects. PPPs are a common feature of urban regeneration, with governments investing land (for example, La Défense) and/or infrastructure (for example, Canary Wharf Light Rail and railway station).

Lend Lease engaged the British hi-tech firm of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners (RSHP), that ironically came second in the international design competition, as master planners and architects for its PPP bid. Lend Lease’s brief to RSHP was to create side core buildings with large, flexible 1,500–2,000sqm net floor plates to meet the demands of finance and insurance firms. Driven by this requirement, RSHP modified the master plan for Barangaroo South.

Rather than an emotional debate over authorship and building scale, the revised master plan deserves to be analysed on its merit. Firstly, to accommodate the larger floor plates RSHP reduced the number of towers from the six to eight proposed to three. This, coupled with the radial ‘fan’ arrangement of the towers, has increased the distance between buildings, creating better view sharing and solar access to public spaces. In addition, the originally proposed second row of buildings has been eliminated, with all towers now having a face to the water. A row of relatively low-rise residential buildings in front of the towers has resulted in the development being closer to the harbour, creating greater activation and engagement with the waterfront, as well as a transition in scale to the towers beyond. While this strategy takes buildings to the water, as a counterpoint
a new larger cove has been created, bringing water to the buildings and creating an elongated pedestrian waterfront promenade.

The RSHP towers have been oriented on an east–west axis, improving their environmental performance and providing a slender or narrow silhouette to the harbour, which, refreshingly for Sydney, isn’t obsessed with facing the harbour view. The triumvirate of three identical towers rising towards the headland creates cohesion between the buildings and is a dramatic design statement and contrasts with Hill Thalis et al’s proposed massing, which tapered down towards the headland.

While the modified master plan provides potential improvements, it has come at a cost. The three identical towers coupled with the self-referential ‘fan’ arrangement of the buildings results in a composition that, while dramatic, lacks the connection with the urban morphology of the city. Thus the original emphasis of Barangaroo being an extension of the city is changed to it being an addition to the city. Secondly, the insertion of the cove between the two precincts of Barangaroo South and Barangaroo Central has compromised their urban cohesion and connectivity. In addition, the originally proposed straight urban edge to the western side of the city has been lost.

C5 commercial tower with its red-fritted glass sunshades may be the lasting legacy for RSHP’s Barangaroo development

 

At an architectural level, the three commercial towers are designed on the principle that RSHP call a consistent ‘chassis,’ with add-on elements creating the variation. Each tower has a linear floor plan that is 30-metres wide by 85-metres long, creating a flexible open floor plate, with curved ends resulting in a ‘pill’ shape. They have expressed side cores, with glazed lifts. A recessed perimeter column structure with cantilevers allows the towers to be vertically articulated at the plant floors into three modules to break their height. This volumetric articulation, however, barely raises the expression beyond the functional and appears to need more generosity so its ‘K’ bracing is more visible. The towers appear visually tied together by the verticality of the core. Each building has a facade shading system consisting of variations of horizontal and vertical shades that have been tuned to respond to their orientation. Colour and the differentiation between shading systems provides the uniqueness of each tower. C5’s red-fritted glass sunshades will potentially be a bold move on this tallest building, while C3 at the southern end appears the most sophisticated and most recognisably RSHP design. While the shading systems will be the lasting legacy of these buildings on Australian architecture, they do lack many of the defining elements we associate with RSHP architecture. The podium buildings at each end of the commercial towers are by Australian architects, but that’s a story for another day.

There is much more to discuss on Barangaroo that is outside the scope of this piece. What we have ascertained here is that to accommodate the larger floor plates of the new workplace the approved master plan needed to evolve; and that the changes have provided some improvements to the master plan. The new typology and scale of buildings was always likely to attract criticism, as it has throughout the history of cities. When the emotions die down, what will it deliver for Sydney? I believe Barangaroo will deliver a Global Financial Centre, with all the positives and negatives that implies. We will receive an activated urban waterfront precinct. Whether the architecture will deliver design excellence it is simply too early to tell.

Philip Vivian is a director of Bates Smart.

  • Will Smith May 3rd, 2013 10:33 am

    Barangaroo will be a great addition to Sydney City, however I disagree with the proposal of an oversized sky scraper in what will seem like the middle of the harbour.

    It would be a colossal and irreversible mistake should it proceed.

    Lets keep the fundamentals of the Harbour Foreshore principals in place for all of Sydney and NSW to enjoy in its most natural state.

    I vote NOT to permit the bank roll and political persuasion of those who will capitalise on this development for personal or commercial gain to proceed. As I mention above – a colossal mistake in my opinion should it proceed.

    Will Smith


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