Sergeants’ Mess

December 10, 2009

A disused army barracks in Chowder Bay has been transformed into a chic new function space, as Kellie Holt discovers.

The stage was set: uninterrupted views of Sydney Harbour, ‘multimillions’ of dollars and an abandoned 1960s army barracks flanked by unspoiled national park. Once the territory of the Australian Army’s primary maritime defence on Sydney Harbour (from 1880 to 1970), Chowder Bay now plays host to adventure-seeking tourists, events and top-class restaurants, the latest of which is Sergeants’ Mess – a purpose-built function space by Sydney’s Tea Room Group. Here, sergeants and servicemen have been replaced by gushing brides and white-collar workers thanks to an interior revamp by fellow Sydney-siders and longtime design collaborators Spangenberg + Park. The resulting design pays tribute to both the building’s military history and 1960s modernism.

Externally, the architectural renovation by Lacoste + Stevenson harmonises with the building’s bushland setting through the use of natural materials and a muted colour palette, while large expanses of glass provide a direct visual link to the waterfront. On arrival, guests enter a cavernous space immediately connecting the northern entrance to the adjacent view south over the Harbour, in the middle of which stands the reception lounge.

Stark white, 60s inspired furniture pieces (including Cappellini Rive Droite chairs, and custom-made ottomans and floor lamps) contrast against their azure backdrop. A custom-designed recessed carpet, developed with textile designers Six Hands and woven by Tsar, abstracts the Rising Sun military insignia in charcoal, geometric lines, providing a softness against the hard terrazzo floor and three-dimensional vertical pale oak wall panels (themselves a distinct modernist reference).

“Actually the building was reasonably contemporary, which is partly why we designed it with a modernist direction,” explains Annette Park, one half of the design firm Spangenberg + Park. “The building was, however, extremely utilitarian. It had no level of comfort, as you would expect in a custom-built military mess. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this building was the fact that it virtually ignored the view. Ourchallenge was to turn this cold and very closed building into a venue tocelebrate its stunning location.”

Layers of subtle, historical references exist in every room, which, to the discerning eye, provide a treasure trove of intricate design delicacies to discover. The Rising Sun insignia regularly appears in abstracted form – in carpets, ceilings, even surrounding the bathroom mirrors. In the adjacent bar area, it reveals itself in the dark pewter, silver and faceted mirror panels peering from behind the bottle display. The bar itself – a long slab of Calcutta marble – also features the same motif etched in fine bronze. In front, a series of reinterpreted club chairs (upholstered in subtle dark metallic silks and mohair velvets) stand alongside Tom Dixon’s Link tables and Punch pendant lights.

Separated from the bar and reception lounge by way of two custom-designed, bronze fret cut lace screens, we come to the main function room – a 350-square metre dedicated function space accommodating up to 250 seated guests. Only the low rectangular form of the original structure remains; however, to heighten space, the ceiling has been opened up to expose the original trusses, where five large Polish crystal chandeliers (again custom-made) now hang. Plush materials and neutral tones were selected for the room, which, as the designer explains, were needed to complement rather than compete with the visual drama of the building’s location. “The main room is the focal point of the venue, but it needs to be a luxurious and understated backdrop to the events held in it, not an outspoken design statement,” says Park.

Large bi-fold doors have replaced the southern wall, opening the waterfront location and deck area. Leather panelled end walls with Hermès stitch detail help to absorb the sound while the pale oak panelled back wall again references 1960s style and the natural surrounds of Sydney Harbour National Park.

Arguably one of the most striking, individual features are the retro-inspired waiters’ stations speckled throughout the room, their tan leather diamond stitched encasing introducing a sense of warmth and familiarity to an otherwise contemporary space. Like many of the furnishings used throughout the entire fitout, the stations were designed by Spangenberg + Park and, in this instance, made by Karisma Joinery (as were the upholstered, solid oak dining chairs and occasional drinks tables).

A modernist architectural statement facilitates the move from the public rooms on the upper floor to the amenities below with doubleheight pale oak panels sweeping dramatically from the roof to the floor below. Black Ice cut crystal globe chandeliers on shining chrome rods light the way, along with vertical rows of small LED lights recessed into the walls.

Breaking with the subtle consistencies throughout the rest of the space, the lower level sitting area is a world unto its own. Thin modernist movement meets ‘Alice in a design Wonderland’.

“The lounge is a quiet space with little outlook and no expectations, which allowed us to be more playful in its design,” says Park. “We made a positive out of the low ceilings with illuminated coffers of linen fabric printed with parrots and military imagery. Diamonds of mirror and crimson leather flank the walls. And blood red carpet islands are dominated by over-scaled wingback chairs and under-scaled Saarinen marble tables lit by spindly red floor lamps.”

On this level you’ll also find the Sergeant Major’s Room, which takes the boardroom to the bush, albeit with the designer offerings of Paul Smith fabrics and Eames fine-grained leather conference chairs. Sergeants’ Mess is the first dedicated function space of Manuel Spinola’s Tea Room Group, already known for its other Sydney spaces: The Tea Room QVB in the landmark Queen Victoria Building and The Tea Room Gunners’ Barracks, in Georges Heights, Mosman – both designed by Spangenberg and Park (in 1997 and 2005 respectively), in collaboration with Spinola.

A range of green initiatives has also been implemented to reduce the environmental impact of Sergeants’ Mess (and comply with the tender brief originally set by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust). These include considerable use of LED lighting, solar-powered hot water, rainwater tanks, low-energy kitchen appliances and a unique 100-mile food and wine menu where 99 percent of ingredients are sourced from within a 100-mile radius of the venue.

With the bushland setting of Sergeants’ Mess an integral factor of both the interior fitout and exterior renovation, being good to nature will naturally be good for business.

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