Civic superiority: delivering the third new office tower at Sydney’s King and George Street intersection, Denton Corker Marshall soars above heritage complexities with cool, discriminating authority

Civic superiority: delivering the third new office tower at Sydney’s King and George Street intersection, Denton Corker Marshall soars above heritage complexities with cool, discriminating authority

Christopher Procter

How do you design a city building to meet the many public, commercial and aesthetic requirements of council, clients and users? This is a question that has plagued architects perennially. Surveying recent architecture in Australia you may well agree that commercial and civic architecture has been in a state of galloping detachment. Is it necessary to define the public or commercial identity of a building as austere or opulent, open or closed? This question of parameters is answered by Denton Corker Marshall’s NSW office in a fine development at 363 George Street, Sydney.

Rarely, since Harry Seidler deftly situated the Theatre Royal around the eastern suburbs railway tunnels (at the MLC Centre, 1952-58) has commercial development in Sydney been as absorbed by the will to engage and provide public space. The 363 George Street development is not one but five buildings across a city block (including two heritage buildings and one unlisted warehouse worth preservation). It has three street frontages and its design refers us to peculiarities of Sydney, to past DCM buildings and to commercial building as a contemporary phenomenon.

At 363, five big gestures engage commercial and civic architecture: a generous public passage between George and York Street; an exposure of York Street buildings to George Street; a setback of the tower from George Street; a deference to imposing adjacent buildings, and a use of materials and objects with antecedent identities. Together, these comprise the framework for the entire development.

This framework is given plastic expression in a shrewd choice of materials and objects. Richard Johnson — the DCM director in charge of the project — suggests that architecture carries a freight of civic references that gain currency by being proliferate or well understood. To illustrate how 363 George Street is thus vested in Sydney, let us consider his use of objects having antecedent identity.

Outside the new building, one first treads a George Street pavement of the Austral Black granite which proliferates in Sydney. Next, across the property line, the slabs of granite are larger than on Sydney pavements and are reset parallel to the development with a random mosaic of inlaid plaques that seem to refer to randomly patterned paving on Alfred Street, Circular Quay. Finally, in the lobby, Panna limestone replaces granite. Randomly inlaid white stone is but a vestigal reference to the inlaid plaques outside.

This appropriating of materials and objects turns out to be not merely about stone and things outside but inside. Trite it may sound, but sandstone, granite, the effect of light and being sensible to the outdoors are basic to Sydney architecture. When DCM use granite they invoke the public significance it holds in Sydney in a blunt effort to have 363 George Street belong. Had they not invoked that significance, no amount of working the blue pencil would put stone into meaningful use. Without entering current debate on these matters, an alternate present fashion is to craft buildings by way of abstraction, excess or burlesque, detached from its surrounding civic circumstances.

Another way that external significances are appropriated by DCM is when borrowing from their earlier buildings. Named after the address of its 33-storey commercial tower, 363 George Street is the second Sydney high-rise project completed by the DCM Group (the first was the 1994 Sulman-awaded Governor Phillip and Macquarie Towers). In both developments, the joining of new to existing buildings, the expressed fixings and the cavernous understorey between podium and tower are companion gestures. Certainly a line of thinking — a design approach connected by lineal descent to other DCM buildings — is discernible in 363 George Street. As with what DCM draw from Sydney, so their past work is cut, pasted, used and re-used to fit the logic of the project at hand.

Again, modes of civic and commercial architecture engage where the city council required 363 to have an awning on George Street. The requirement is demonstrably odd next to the massive buildings without awnings (the National Australia Bank, the GI0 and GPO). Only the recently refurbished NRMA building has an awning to part of its frontage. DCM have treated the awning as metal-clad and partly glass. A further council requirement, to set back the facade to make visible the adjoining buildings, allows a potential breakthrough to the colonnade of the Landmark Building, also owned by Australian Growth Properties.

On George Street, the height of the windowless podium approximates the height of 365 George Street (Edmund Blacket, 1857) and of 345 George Street (the Landmark Building by Henry Pollack, mid-1970s). Another of the five buildings, a warehouse at 24 York Street, was overlooked by the council for heritage listing. Australian Growth Properties dutifully restored its sandstone facade and modernised infrastructure beneath a false floor and upon trays suspended beneath the ceiling. This building is the York Street address of a new public passage between York and George Street. As at the George Street entrance, plaques with written histories are inlaid in granite.

The thin-walled architecture of the tower facade — metal, polished stone and glass bolted to a frame — contrasts the thick architecture of the podium. It is a further example of the interplay between the building and the city. So compact is the 35,000 sq m tower that what appears from George Street to be two towers is in fact one. The apparent divide is merely a fiat perimeter column with no encroachment on floor space. Floors are column-free. From King Street, the tower appears to be divided where the floor plate is stepped. For Richard Johnson, the allusion to two towers dissolves the bulk when seen from the surroundings. It opens a way for him to compose the parts: tower, podium, lobby, mechanical plant, garage, entrance.

Here at the tower is architecture that is practical for tenants and filial to the overall development. Tenants are free to adjoin work-stations to walls, for the service core has one lobby to toilets, the goods lift and other utilities. The planning module is 1350mm x 450mm, with ceiling luminaires rotatable to 90 degrees to complement floor layouts.

The inner court is the great semi-public space of the development. It is part foyer to the tower, and part public passage between George and York Street. A 15-metre glass enclosure partitions the foyer from the passage between George and York Street. Adjoining it is a cafe. The understorey of the tower is a further 15 metres above the glass-enclosed lobby. Following demolition of a seven-storey building, the previously hidden backs of buildings on York Street face the light-flooded inner court and George Street. Installation artists Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford revel in the exposure of these buildings. They created The Wafer Swing — a 12 in-high stainless steel pendulum that swings with a shower of water at slow walking pace (a pendulum normally swings four times faster) along a 20-metre arc, north of the glass enclosure. Daylight reflects from a pool beneath the pendulum. Like the architecture of the interior, this very tactile and audible work provokes a visceral reaction.

Richard Johnson’s precise and intelligent eye for urban circumstances segues to wonderfully well-constructed architecture. He foreshadows in Sydney a future where architects are required to achieve a commercial outcome without clearing sites of existing building stock. At 363 George Street, it would have been impressive had he merely done that. That he should also unite five buildings as one development (upgrading four of them), highlight civic elements in Sydney that he feels have acquired well-understood identity and add a descendant to DCM’s work in Sydney, is real joy. It gives the development a timeless air. Moreover, the design is not exuberant with recourse to abstraction, excess or burlesque. The commercial and civic ideals that DCM hold for architecture they give common expression; yet with epic virtuosity of craftsmanship unparalleled since Seidler.

RELATED ARTICLE: 363 George Street Tower, Sydney

Architects Denton Corker Marshall (NSW) — directors Jeff Walker, Richard Johnson; associates Peter Blame, Kiong Lee; project team George Kokban, Andrew Schulltz, Carol Zang, Anthony Moorehouse, Andrew Cheng, Anatoli Patra, Gerard Reinmuth, Heike Reiwitizer, Paul van Rating, Paul Demaine, Graeme Dix, Wayne Dickerson, Jodie Tardelli, Monica Diradsi, Maurine Lai, Andrew Elia. Developer Australian Growth Properties. Project Manager Incoll Management. Principal Engineer Connell Wagner. Electrical Engineer Lincolne Scott. Lift Engineering Norman Disney & Young. Acoustics Acoustic Logic. Water Feature Artists Jennifer Turpin, Michaelie Crawford. Heritage Consultant Brian McDonald & Associates. Planning Consultant Julie Bindon. Quantity Surveyor Rider Hunt. Builder Multiplex.

Christopher Procter is Deputy Director Design of City Projects at the City of Sydney.

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