Ribbons of light: Hassell’s elegant addition to the North Sydney Olympic Pool — from competition winning scheme to shimmering building

Ribbons of light: Hassell’s elegant addition to the North Sydney Olympic Pool — from competition winning scheme to shimmering building

Elizabeth Farrelly

Our design strategy for a new 25 metre indoor pool associated with the somewhat quirky original Olympic complex was to propose a new “walled” terrace above the original pool enclosure, echoing its form but not mimicking its character. The new pool sits within a platform which provides a place of prospect over the harbour — an indoor/outdoor room. This new pool cuts into the terraced landform and is separated from the original structure by a gallery adjacent to an existing sandstone wall. A simple horizontal canopy over the new pool and its platform provides shelter and establishes a relationship to the harbour beyond. This unifying canopy which carries solar collectors, is divided into linear elements allowing the penetration of ribbons of sunlight and emphasising the reflection of fight between water and sky. A second canopy is introduced over the northern building of the original pool containing a smaller indoor/outdoor room. Minimal works have been undertaken to clarify circulation in the original pool bu ilding, and to renew change rooms and other support facilities. The original stair hall, with an inserted glass lift shaft, provides the circulation linkage between the new and original pools. Materials are refined and calm in contrast with the rich textures of the original building, with emphasis on an uncluttered definition of space and manipulation of light. The architecture aims to provide a respectful relationship between old and new while celebrating its spectacular setting.

It may be the world’s most fabulously sited Olympic pool — underbelly of the bridge, full-frontal of the city, intimate of the inner harbour. it may sit cheek-by-rouged-jowl with Luna Park. But North Sydney Olympic Pool, designed by the poetically named Rudder and Grout architects “in a modem manner” and opened mid-1936 for the 1938 Empire Games, is not principally about fun. North Sydney has always been a serious pool, home to world records (86 in 23 years) and devout lane nazis. A 1997 survey revealed that 94 percent of visitors come to swim laps. Swimming-lesson mums do not latte while they wait, but quietly study Tolstoy and Schopenhauer, beyond the splash zone.

And that’s the way they like it. Of public comments received during the competition process, by far the biggest group — some 30 percent — suggested that the pool should either remain untouched or be updated only minimally, with the fabric and feel of the pool preserved. Other recurrent themes stressed the simplicity of the solution, the desire to minimise commercial development, and the demand for year-round usage. It was clear that the pool had a genuine constituency. Few buildings, public or private, would fare so well after 60 largely unrenovated years.

Renovation was nevertheless required, and a competition duly held. The brief, written by Graham Jahn for North Sydney Council, was conservation-minded, requiring kid-glove treatment of the 1930s fabric — an ambiguous confection in tartan brickwork which Jahn generously likened to Dudok — and removal of the 1960s tat. it also required a range of new facilities that suggested that North Sydney calvinism might be starting a slow thaw. These were to include: a new 25 metre leisure pool emphasising “fun and relaxation” (the brief talks of moving water, submarines and coral islands); a bar/cafe; a restaurant; retail facilities; commercial conference and function facilities; a gymnasium; a sauna, steam-room and spa; outdoor sun bathing areas; bus shelters; public toilets; displays of pool memorabilia; car parking; and a 20-place creche. Also required were refurbishing and heating the existing pool and change rooms, and improving access. Very civilised. There was a wistful nod at the possibility of unimagined comm ercial/tourist development, in the best possible taste, of course. Oh, and a budget limit, by the way, of $6 million.

As is often noted, winning design competitions is all about knowing which rule to break, Hassell’s talented design team, led by Ken Maher, got that right, The essential strategic decision was the location of the new 25 metre pool. The brief suggested a sea-level location, on a dreary patch of grass between the eastern end of the existing pool and the bridge, instead Maher perched the new pool right at the top of the escarpment, above the existing grandstand. From this single dramatic insight, everything else flowed.

The new uses — pool, cafe, restaurant, and a walled leisure garden — were stacked up on top of the cliff, capitalising on the outlook and exaggerating the height differential, which was then dramatised further still by a spectacular public staircase. This stair — call it the Stirling stair, homage to Stuttgart — crossed the entire site east-to-west while cascading cliff-side down the full 12 metres or so of the level change, thus providing a through-site public link from Luna Park to the Harbour Bridge.

Fanciful, perhaps, Such ideas are notoriously difficult to convert into practice, typically falling prey to such practical concerns as staffing levels, entry points and ticketing. But as an idea it was sufficiently vivid and romantic — conspicuous qualities in the utilitarian world of pool design — to attract the unanimous support of the judges. By leaving the existing fabric virtually untouched, Maher’s re-jigged site strategy all but eliminated the prospect of an excruciating Sydney heritage squabble. And the public liked it too, words like joy and excitement figuring largely in their comments, “Shining simplicity and brilliance,” breathed one, All in all, it was one of those ideas that, once exposed, appear both obvious and irresistible.

The judges did note, however, that the proposal was over budget and would need to slim for the next stage. Another lesson, perhaps — never comply with the budget first up.

The second-stage competition sliced the conference centre, commercial/tourist development and car parking out of the brief, and a layer of romanticism off the Hassell design. in losing the Stirling stair the proposal became both more practicable and more unified. The great cliff-side slot remained, although now closed at the ends and roofed, as the “Hall of Fame” display area, while the relocation of the restaurant from its airy perch atop the new pool to a slightly lower spot next to “that face” on the western end of the existing pool allowed the extension of a vast cantilevered roof plane from the new pool over the slot to the grandstand.

Subsequent stages, through DA to the built work, show further adaptive and reductive change. The walled leisure garden at the top apex of the site, for instance, was canned at DA stage: enclosing existing open space, however residual and dreary, has become a political impossibility in Sydney. This meant too that the lazy pool got squeezed into a wading strip, while the water cascades, hydrotherapy pool and water-landscape treatment vanished completely. Along with the cafe. Well, it is North Sydney.

Broadly speaking, though, the trimming process has left both the guts and the poetry of the winning scheme intact. The great cantilever itself has shrunk but its planar theme, which from the early stages had been the project’s dominant leitmotif, remains spectacularly intact. The successively shimmering layers of horizontality (ceiling, water, water, water) stepping down the cliff to the sea, as prefigured in one of Maher’s earliest sketches, is palpably seductive even as occupied by screeching water-winged toddlers.

All very Miesian, this (excepting the toddlers) — the slab roof, transparent walls, stepped planes and loose rectilinear plan. And although Homebush Olympic Station was from a different stable (more Foster than Mies), the Chifley Square cafe shows a similar planarity. So, is some sort of shift in stylistic allegiance detectable here?

Not a bit of it. Maher is still enough of a modernist to bristle at the word style, and enough of a post-modernist to disavow any allegiance to any particular “language” (note post-modern term), preferring a more context-specific approach, It happened that an apparently Miesian planarity provided both the urban definition and continuity required at Chifley, and the layering that seemed appropriate in North Sydney, In another time, another context, another program — who knows?

In true less-is-more style, though, there’s not a lot to it apart from the roof. But then, what a roof it is, easily combining structure, cladding, solar collection and light modulation with its spatial and symbolic functions. Maher’s habitual phrase, “ribbons of light”, seems at first an odd description of the deep-walled roof-lights that run across the roof’s entire width, including cantilever — until you realise he means the light in the water. These are the ideas you cling to when your project is being shorn, and shorn again. For most of the day, and most of the year, though, direct sunlight is excluded by the roof lights’ depth-to-width ratio, leaving a serene and remarkably low-glare light environment in this very plausible facsimile of roofed outdoor space.

Sadly, the dramatic cliffside slot traversing the site is now its least successful space, visibly mnemonic of an opportunity missed but inaccessible and, so far, unexploited. Spanning it, though, the new structure salutes the old in a gesture that seems to acknowledge its imperial origins. And while, in the abstract, the clean spare language of the Hassell addition may sit oddly with Rudder and Grout’s Vaudevillian arcade as it minces and titters its way along Olympic Drive, there is something about this heroic lineup of nine giant diving boards readied for the race of a lifetime that seems entirely appropriate to its super-scaled, grease-painted context. The language may be spartan, but the spirit is distinctly romantic.

RELATED ARTICLE: North Sydney Olympic Pool

Architect Hassell–principal in charge Ken Maher; project architect (design/documentation) Nigel Greenhill; project architect (construction) Brett Pollard; competition design team Ken Maher, Nigel Greenhill, Andrew Cortese with Julieanne Boustead, John Chol, Michelle McSharry, Mano Ponnanbalam, William Smart, Vanessa Yen; project team Ken Maher, Nigel Greenhill, Brett Pollard, Steven Fighera, Julieanne Boustead, Geoff Crowe, David Fang, Tony Gee, Michael Luders, William Smart, Sarah Warner, Janene Weber, Vanessa Yen. Structural and Civil Engineer Taylor Thomson Whitting. Quantity Surveyor Page Kirkland Partnership. Lighting and Electrical Engineer Barry Webb & Associates. Services Engineer Ove Arup & Partners. Landscape Architect Hassell. Interior Design Hassell. Planning Consultant Hassell. Builder Hansen Yencken. Heritage Consultant Godden Mackay Logan. Restaurant Fitout SOMA Design Partnership. Gymnasium Fitout Hassell.

Top left Deep roof lights ran the width of the cantilevered reef. Above Leaking out over the existing pool to the harbour. Left Concept sketch.

Dr Elizabeth Farelly is an architectural writer and urban consultant.

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