Modern Composition

There is a great line – which I have seen attributed bizarrely to both Frank Gehry and to Frank Lloyd Wright – that if you tilt the whole of the US sideways, Los Angeles is the place where everything loose will fall. It seems to me that, on the much smaller scale of the city of Sydney, the same thing could be said of the suburb of Darlinghurst: if the metropolis were tipped up, all the city’s detritus both glamorous and grotty would end up tumbled and heaped in this lively inner-urban locale. This impression is partly topographical – much of the suburb is located in a broad valley, sloping downwards from Oxford Street and overshadowed by the ridges of College Street on one side and Darlinghurst Road on the other. Located just at the base of this shallow urban bowl, which is loosely packed with Victorian terrace housing, new apartment blocks, shops, and remnant light industrial buildings, is a new mixed-use development designed by Engelen Moore for Multiplex. A soberly contextual and quietly luxurious development, Kings Lane is a refuge from which to watch the passing spectacle of urban life.

In many ways the project represents the expansion upwards and sideways of earlier, where Engelen Moore modified an existing 1940’s era commercial building on the corner of Crown and Liverpool streets. According to principal Ian Moore, this building was first an electric light showroom, later a showroom for cars, and in 1997 the firm renovated the ground floor interior as a showroom for De De Ce. The recent expansion of that earlier project encompasses and unifies the entire urban block. This includes further adaptive reuse of the eastern building, new exterior work on the Western building (where the interior fitout was undertaken by Bates Smart in a separate project), a reconfiguration of the atrium space between the two existing masses, and the colonisation of the communal roof for new residential apartments.

Engelen Moore’s work on the existing Western building was aimed at producing an aesthetic coherence between it and the other corner building. This included rebuilding the western corner in a matching curve, reinstating the original steel window frames, and modifying the external sill detailing. The changes to the Eastern building were more comprehensive, with the insertion of hybrid home/office shells. The materials and finishes of these enormous spaces are notably less fine than in the apartments upstairs, but this is compensated by the sheer luxury of emptiness, of a vast open area waiting to be invented by a new owner or tenant. The atrium between the two buildings has been reclaimed from use as a carpark, and is now a high and gracious room with a glazed roof, which will eventually house a café or restaurant. While it is currently without a tenant, it is easy to imagine how this will enliven its two street frontages, on Kings Lane and Liverpool Street, as well as providing a new cross-site pedestrian link. In fact, the Kings Lane frontage is already a remarkably more commodious place than the rubbish-strewn alley of a few years ago. This is partly new paving and street-lighting, but also increased traffic generated by the entry to the new rooftop residential apartments, which the architects have ingeniously tucked behind the existing façade of the Oxford Foundry building.

It is these new rooftop apartments that are also most characteristic of Engelen Moore’s broader body of work. The firm is one of the more interesting in Sydney, but not for the obvious reasons – certainly not because their work is characterised by idiosyncratic, gestural, or expressive form. Rather, the firm is dedicated to an older and perhaps less immediately glamorous idea of architecture as the refinement and repetition of certain patterns: of planning and spatial arrangement, of material use and principles of sustainability, and of structural and constructional detailing. These patterns are rigorously and rationally tested on a range of the projects, which gives the firm’s oeuvre an unusual level of consistency. Walking into these new apartments, for instance, one sees the same ideas that were earlier tested at other eastern Sydney developments – Altair, the Grid, and Barcom Avenue – repeated with small local variations, but with the principle intact. Here is the thickened ‘working wall’ of built-in fixtures, furniture, and storage. There is the central service ‘pod’ comprising kitchen, bathroom, and laundry facilities, distinguished from the rest of the interior by its colour, and often conceived as a wrapped two-story item of joinery. The living areas are comprised of the familiar ‘extruded tube’ of the communal space, and corridors and stairs act as breeze-ways providing cross-ventilation. Anyone familiar with the work of the architects will recognise these as familiar elements, part of the pallette or kit of parts that assembles into the firm’s signature aesthetic. This overall look has little to do with ‘style’ as such, and much more to do with a refined interior as the driver of a relatively blank and understated exterior. Externally the apartments are sleek dark grey steel monopanel boxes, stepped back from the street edges in a vaguely mansard-esque lightweight roof. On the Easternmost edge this also allows space for a spectacular new lap pool and sundeck.

It is interesting to note that the client was concerned, before the design process began, that Engelen Moore’s work may be too hard-edged, and thus frighten off potential buyers. This was the first project to be completed under the new ‘Multiplex Living’ brand, and throughout the project there was a constant negotiation between architect and client about finishes and services. The question of air-conditioning, for instance, was discussed – with cross-ventilated apartments the architects argued that there was no need for it, but the client insisted that this was what the market expected. In the end, it has been installed, but in the hope and expectation that it will not be required.

The Kings Lane project can be seen as a result of the philosophy of ‘taking money out of the envelope and putting it into the interiors,’ in Moore’s words. This is a highly unsentimental architecture, with extremely high standards in construction and finish. This rationalism is softened, however, by a sensitivity to materials, a commitment to quality of space and finishes, and a generous accommodation of the small practicalities of inner urban life.

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