SYDNEY | Impressions + Dinner
We left Japan with our heads still spinning from the colours, the sounds of gaming lounges, the continuous traffic jams, and the hordes upon hordes of people that assaulted our senses at every turn. My impression of Tokyo is forever associated with Shibuya Crossing, the most intensely built and occupied 100 square meters of space by any measure, anywhere!
Somehow, being on the other side of the Pacific Ocean made us feel like we were, if not quite there, at least relatively close to Australia. Well, clearly we were not. After a two hour flight to Seoul, Korea, and an interesting airport change in Incheon, we boarded another 10 hour flight to Sydney.
We arrived with the sunrise. A short ride south from the airport to this beautiful port city gave me the overwhelming feeling of being on the other side of the world. As a kid, I remember twirling the globe and observing that from Finland, Australia and New Zealand seemed to be the furthest place on earth I could go. That magical thought could feed my imagination for hours at a time. Now, spotting the Harbour Bridge for the first time in over a decade still gave me that same exhilarating sense of curiosity.
After checking into our downtown hotel just minutes from the harbourfront, we made our way to the Opera House. There are only a few projects in the world that have had such a transformative effect on a city’s identity (not to mention its postcard industry). The Opera House is to Sydney what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris – an enduring symbol of progress, innovation and over time, beauty. Standing proud and majestic, the Opera House is a project that only seems to improve with the passage of time. Its base, which used to be rather walled off, is now slowly being opened up for activity along all of its sides.
It was at the base of the Opera House that we met Sasa’s best man, Mladen Prnjatovic, reunited with each other for the first time since departing from the former Yugoslavia in 1996. It did not take long for the two of them to recount the transformation that each had gone through in Canada and in Australia, respectively. As we sat by the harbourfront toasting to a well overdue occasion and listening to each of their stories, I felt like I was reading a dramatic novel about the resilience and ambition of the human spirit. Speaking with a colourful Australian accent and the father of two beautiful boys, Mladen is also a partner in the Sydney practice of Tzannes Associates, focusing on high-end residential and institutional architecture. We spent the afternoon walking around the city centre, telling our migration stories and laughing at the idiosyncrasies of our native cultures.
As we had arrived on a Saturday morning, we had a bit of time to get acclimatized before the start of the business week and our ‘official duties’. We spent part of Sunday on Manly Beach with Mladen and his family, marveling at the truly breathtaking harbourfront from the ferry along the way, and the other half walking around ‘The Rocks’ from one patio to another and reminding ourselves how lucky we were to have the opportunity to call this work.
ARCHITECTURE / BUSINESS
On Monday we headed off to the burgeoning Chippendale neighbourhood to meet our host, Michael Heenan, at the AJ+C offices. We tried to arrive early to sneak in a quick visit to the latest Starchitect development a few blocks away. Ateliers Jean Nouvel, in collaboration with Patrick Blanc, have transplanted their European sensibilities through an interpretation of strict daylighting requirements using a gigantic and menacing reflector panel, referred to simply as “The Heliostat”, which hangs off the side of the Chippendale Green Development building. You’ll be hard pressed to find an architect in Sydney that likes it! Nonetheless, they all talk about it – did you see Nouvel’s project? Two more projects, one by Gehry and Foster and one by Melbourne’s Denton Corker Marshall (all overseen by Sydney’s Tzannes Associates) complete the development at One Central Park and showcase the developer’s ambition to create a world class environment.
It was almost too hot for Winnipeggers in the Sydney spring sun, and we decided to head back for the official part of our visit. While walking, we ran into Mladen, whose office was just around the corner. It turned out that, just like pretty much anywhere else in the world, architects were the pioneers that led the quest to repurpose the edge[y] urban conditions by locating their studios within old warehouse buildings – leases were low and spaces were cool. Sure enough, there appeared to be an architecture office in every building we walked by.
After finally arriving at AJ+C, our Table for Twelve Sydney host, we were greeted by two of the firms partners, Michael Heenan and Peter Ireland, who were very generous with their time. After a quick tour of their offices, which span the top two stories of an old warehouse, we headed off for lunch, to a local joint where apparently all of the architects hang out. The discussion around the table with two of AJ+C’s directors – Jim Koopman and Mark Louw – quickly turned to Harry Seidler, who many consider the most important figure of Australian Modernism. Harry Seidler connected three continents with his architectural career. Fleeing the Nazi’s expansion in his native Austria, he studied architecture at our own University of Manitoba, followed by studies under Gropius at Harvard, after which he appropriated the Bauhaus influences to the Australian climate. His career included a number of seminal projects that defined the Australian Modern movement, ranging from the Rose and Marcus Seidler houses to the Hong Kong Club building and the Australia Square building. Coming fresh from seeing an exhibition on his life and work at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba, it felt a little like we were coming full circle.
The discussion group at the AJ+C offices was carefully curated by our hosts and consisted of a wide variety of perspectives, including: Keith Cottier, the “C” in AJ+C (he joined the partnership in 1957), who has been instrumental in many of the transformational changes that Sydney’s architecture has seen over the past 50 years; Paul McGillick, one of the most prominent architecture critics in Australia; and Chris Bosse, the founding director of LAVA, among others. The conversation revolved around Australia historically not having a requirement to have an architect involved in projects. This came as a great surprise to us – how did projects like the Sydney Opera House, Hong Kong Club or One Central Park happen?
We learned that the impetus to use architects came from political pressures, ignited by the former premier’s distaste for the drab architecture of the housing developments that he used to drive by on his daily commute. It appears that, at least partially, the responsibility is on politicians and requires champions to consider architecture as ‘art we live in’ (Witold Rybczynski). Jack Coutier is very active in design reviews in different constituencies in Sydney, assuring that a high level of design is demanded from all projects in the city. The conversation continued over refreshments generously arranged (and paid for!) by AJ+C, and then at the local pub with Mladen and Chris in the quintessential Gladstone Hotel. From active involvement to guerrilla tactics, we talked with Chris about LAVA’s attempt to shake things up in Sydney with self-initiated projects intended to stimulate different thinking, a modus operandi that seems to be shared by many young architects around the world. One of the projects that earned LAVA a hefty portion of the notoriety they enjoy today involved re-imagining the brutalist tower at the University of Technology Sydney.
We also had a chance to sit down for an in-depth discussion with Jesse McNicoll, Urban Design Coordinator at City of Sydney, and Michael Heenan. Very candid and highly articulate, Jesse and Michael recounted and debated the recent developments in Sydney and the city’s transformation into a place where design plays an integral part in the municipal and governmental decision making. While the process (to create the process) had taken approximately fifteen years to date, it was clear that the initial seed for the transformation originated with a single champion, Bob Carr, the premier of New South Wales from 1995-2005. In the early 2000’s, Sydney was going through an apartment building boom and, as mentioned above, the premier saw a number of these buildings on his way to work. Appalled by the poor quality, he decided that something must be done about it. As a result, the state government put in place a set of guidelines and a number of important policies, most notably the State Environmental Planning Policy 65 – Design Quality of Residential Flat Development (SEPP 65), that aims to improve the design quality of residential flat buildings in NSW. It contains principles for good design and provides guidance for evaluating the merit of design solutions.
It requires that residential flat buildings (apartments) are designed by registered architects and enables the Minister for Planning and Infrastructure to form SEPP 65 design review panels to give independent advice on the design quality of residential flat building proposals. Since that time, a great deal has changed. It is widely accepted that the design quality of apartment buildings in NSW has improved since the introduction of SEPP 65 and the Residential Flat Design Code. These policies have brought up the so-called ‘low base line’ of design in Sydney – the one that Jesse noted is the result of the varying levels of competency of professionals that exists in any profession – to a much higher level. However, it also appears that the framework that was put in place does a lot more than just achieve acceptable design – over time, it has built an atmosphere where quality urban environments and buildings are demanded by the public at large.
Indicative of the City of Sydney’s commitment to design quality is the fact that the City itself has apparently won more awards from the Institute of Architects than many of its architects have. According to Michael, this “sends a message that the city values design, that it cares about good environments, it values community space and the spaces in between buildings – it says that the city is willing to put money into public environments and in order to do so it is willing to invest in its best architects. It is absolutely critical for a healthy city to have that kind of leadership.”
According to Jesse and Michael, the economic case for good design is not hard to make. Quantifiable results that benefit the larger public have been recorded, and these include extended operational hours for businesses and retailers near walkable and attractive public spaces, as well as a direct relationship between quality public spaces, transport links and yields for higher rent. Michael correlated this with the Highline in New York City, where the investment into a piece of public infrastructure encouraged private development along it, and as a result increased the value of the entire project, bringing up the value of private property and yielding great returns for both public and private investments.
Furthermore, the increase in high density residential development is also directly linked with the retailers’ ability to have extended shop hours, as they now have clientele through weekends and evenings to activate the streets.
According to Michael, perhaps the most important transformation over the last fifteen years is that Sydney is becoming a city of apartment dwellers. This has been a massive transformation – one that we are just beginning to see in Winnipeg, where, at least seemingly, it is still cheaper to buy a single family home at the outskirts of the city than to buy a well-designed apartment condo in the centre of the city near cultural activities. The infrastructural and environmental costs of sprawl are still not widely recognized, nor is the cost on the quality of one’s life with a long commute.
Jesse noted that in Sydney there are also policies in place to encourage outdoor dining and policies that look at the ways people use the city centre. In other words, these are not only guidelines that look at environmental impacts, but ones that support greater diversity and depth, how, for example, in addition to markets and libraries, entertainment and nightlife – activities and industry that can reach the wider public – are supported. In short, these state policies “support the kind of services that enable people to live in the city.”
The transformation in the government started with the Urban Design Advisory Service, an agency that was in charge of implementing the residential design code and statutory documents. Preparations for the Sydney Olympics also saw investments flow into the agencies that were involved in delivering the games and improving the city’s public domain. As a result, a variety of state government agencies concerned themselves with delivering quality design. Currently, the New South Wales Government Architect Office, an agency which has had different roles over its life, is now largely concerned with promoting design excellence. Furthermore, different local governments (there are 17 different authorities in Sydney alone) have stepped up their individual efforts in implementing policies that promote good design.
One such framework is the establishment of the aforementioned Public Design Review which plays a significant role in reviewing public/development projects in the city for their design quality. The key to its success appears to be the high caliber of the panelists, which include experts like Pritzer Prize recipient Glenn Murcutt. According to Michael, the panel is truly critical. “The panelists do not hold back, and while you may come back feeling a bit knocked about, it is not like you can say to yourself that those guys do not know what they are talking about – these are some of the best architects in Australia and the world.” Jesse further explained that it was critical to expose the “barely competent practitioner to the best in the world,” and that the Public Review process, where the panel’s commentary and feedback becomes part of a public record, goes a long way towards holding the practitioners accountable for the work they deliver.
We can only imagine the outcry against any such initiative in Winnipeg – the profession in our province would be hard pressed to subject its members to scrutiny by others. In fact, I am convinced it would be turned into an issue about ethics. When we wondered out loud how our Urban Design Advisory Committee could have more teeth while explaining that as a member, you are not allowed to comment on design issues but only on the quality of the public domain, Jesse laughed and said that the answer was obvious – that “you have to be able to comment on design issues to improve the outcome.” According to him, the key to success lies not only in that but also in making the records public.
While the task of bringing these lessons home to Canada seems overwhelming, it is good to be reminded that systemic change takes time and that even in Sydney, the department is currently undertaking a review of SEPP 65 and the Residential Flat Design Code to ensure they remain relevant and useful resources for industry and local government. Jesse summarized this well: “Strategy is an important first step, implementation will be challenging, cost is high, and all of it requires massive organizational change.” To us, the take away message is clear: success requires strong leadership, and public Champions with real vision who are willing to endure the growing pains along the way. Now we just have to find them.