Nouvel and Gehry in the Hood

Nouvel, Photo by Charles Pickett 2013.

The first new building at the Central Park development on Broadway is making progress. Watching it is a bit different from following the progress of most new buildings – it’s literally growing, not just figuratively so. French botanist Patrick Blanc is creating what’s claimed to be the tallest vertical garden in the world.

With Sydney’s PTW Architects, One Central Park is designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel,  best known for designs for museums and other cultural buildings, but Nouvel’s first Australian project is a new take on the apartment tower – actually a twin tower complex of a thousand apartments. The green is not there solely for looks; it will filter, renew and cool the air while insulating and shading the apartment interiors, effectively creating a liveable micro-climate for the building.

As well as its foliage-encrusted facades it includes a cantilevered skygarden and swimming pool a hundred metres above Broadway. Suspended beneath the skygarden will be a heliostat designed to reflect sunlight to the atrium and park below.

Copyright Frasers Properties 2012.

Copyright Frasers Properties 2012.

Jean Nouvel has confessed his surprise that his will be the first significant vertical garden in Sydney: ‘It’s not the tradition [in Australia]; but it could be better in some situations to have vegetation linking to apartments and terraces. So I proposed we do it…It was a bit difficult and a little bit of an adventure for my client’. I’m enjoying the thought of Nouvel’s foliage-encrusted towers bookending Broadway across from Michael Dysart’s hard-edged UTS tower.

Green buildings are an important trend, but sustainability and low emissions does not require an obviously ‘green’ exterior as One Bligh Street makes clear. Indeed vegetated exteriors are still sufficiently novel to attract wide attention – witness Bosco Verticale under construction in Milan. Like Nouvel’s Sydney project this is also two apartment towers.

Bosco Verticale, Milan. Copyright stefanobioerriarchitetti.net.

Bosco Verticale, Milan. Copyright stefanobioerriarchitetti.net.

For all that Nouvel’s first Australian project has received scant attention compared to Frank Gehry’s nearby ‘tree house’. In this case the green reference is architectural metaphor rather than actuality. Gehry’s first Australian project, a business school for UTS, will be appropriately green. UTS, no doubt a little nervous that it’s Gehry commission be regarded as an indulgence, has insisted on this and the Daily Telegraph has already bemoaned the fact that the new building will feature more parking spaces for bikes than cars.

UTS Business School model. Photo by Charles Pickett 2011.

UTS Business School model. Photo by Charles Pickett 2011.

The tree house metaphor refers to the UTS building’s design as groups of spaces clustered off a central space or trunk. It also refers to its irregular exterior design, the subject of frenzied debate within the local architectural cognoscenti. Most seem to have missed what was emphasised by the many working models which Gehry brought to his presentation of the design – that the proximity of existing buildings plus the elevated walkway on the Haymarket side means that few people apart from residents of Chinatown’s Peak apartment tower  will be able to view the new building whole. The design has to deal with four  different settings and its four facades will be distinct in appearance; it’s a fractured design for a fractured locale. Yet local commentators insist on debating Gehry’s design as an aesthetic object detached from its site, the only place it where it makes sense.

Frank Gehry and models. Photo by Charles Pickett 2011.

Frank Gehry and models. Photo by Charles Pickett 2011.

I suppose Gehry’s status as the biggest star of the ‘starchitects’ makes this focus inevitable. More than most architects Gehry is believed to own a signature style hence the standard line of critique is that ‘the clear Gehry lineage shows a building that is more about him than us, suggesting a boot-licking stance from a client that clearly defines its ”needs” with ”great dollops of global publicity” as top dot-point’.

I’d like an explanation of what ‘us’ could mean in this context. Gehry has a reputation as an architect of sculptural, place-making buildings. If Gehry can be caricatured as a brand name on this basis, so can many of architecture’s most celebrated practitioners past and present. It would be pointless for UTS to hire him if it wanted a business school that was merely functional, comfortable and respectful of its neighbours.

Gehry’s building will consume a relatively small fraction of the generous UTS building budget.  UTS is following a well-worn path among universities in using architecture to create an urban presence and reputation. Perhaps the best known exemplar is Harvard, with modern buildings by Le Corbusier, Jose Luis Sert, Walter Gropius and others including our own John Andrews creating an enviably design-rich status. One suspects that what is good for Cambridge, Massachussetts will be ditto for Ultimo.

One of Ultimo’s few stand out buildings is William Kemp’s Technological Museum just around the corner. Among other things Gehry and his builders are trying to do something unusual with common rectangular bricks. Kemp succeeded at that; I hope Gehry does too.

 

This article was originally published on the Powerhouse Museum’s Inside the Collection blog.