The Infinite Library

The model of the city of Sydney, now magnificently located beneath a glass floor in the main atrium space of the refurbished Customs House, is a particularly wonderful introduction to the actual city, and to the idea of the civic realm and the civic architectural project here. Even for someone inured with a professional architectural training, city models seem to retrieve some of the childlike wonder of small scale. The intricate, toy-like metropolis is laid out all abstracted and serene, empty of people, waiting to be inhabited and colonised by the imagination. It is both an ideal city and a playful one, a utopia and the setting for wild flights of fancy. The model was formerly located in the city exhibition space on the fourth floor, but its unwieldy size always meant that it was cramped and difficult to properly see there. It was moved downstairs as part of Lacoste + Stevenson’s charmingly eccentric award-winning design for the Customs House library. While some people shyly step above the steel structural members, wary of standing suspended on sheets of glass, others sit or squat unashamedly on the surface and stare downward, transfixed by the tiny streets, trees, and buildings, the meandering of the harbour’s edge. More than saying something about the general appeal of city models, this new ‘setting’ for the model allows us to think of its location, Customs House the building, as itself a kind of ‘model’ of the larger process of city-building.

Located on its prominent site at Circular Quay, reputedly the very spot on which Governor Philip first raised the Union Jack at the landing of the First Fleet, the building has undergone five major refurbishments over its long life. Like the city itself, it has been written and over-written by successive layers of adaptation and adjustment, and is thus a kind of built history of architecture – from Mortimer Lewis’s original, simple two-storey block, through James Barnet and Walter Liberty Vernon’s higher, U-shaped volume with its ornate front facade, to George Oakeshott’s dense infill, and Tonkin Zulaikha and Jackson Teece’s later subtraction and re-arrangement of the building around a light-filled atrium. It is also a palimpsest of architectural style, with nods in the direction of the Greek Revival, the Italianate, and French Neoclassicism, as well its latter-day hard-edged additions. Like the broader city, Customs House is the work of many hands – in the latest refurbishment alone there are three different architectural firms collaborating. Aside from Lacoste + Stevenson’s library, PTW are the overarching ‘building architects’, reconfiguring the fourth and fifth storeys as commercial office space, and converting the ground floor windows into a series of French doors to open the building more porously to Customs House Square. This square, in turn, has been redesigned by Tanner and Associates.

Even in terms of pragmatic economic realities, the building is revealing of the financial deals and tradeoffs that shape the city, negotiations that architects are often not privy to. After the building was vacated by the Australian Customs Service in 1990, the present management of Customs House was the stake in a three-way deal between the Federal government, the City of Sydney, and the developers of East Circular Quay. The major condition on the Commonwealth’s 60 year lease to the City was that the vast majority of the building be retained for public use, and that led to the major refurbishment in the mid 90’s by Tonkin Zulaikha and Jackson Teece. That scheme was widely well-regarded, and there have been murmurings in architectural circles about the way the building has been expensively refurbished again so soon. But leaving these issues aside, there are some larger points to be made about this building within its physical, conceptual and historical context in the city of Sydney.

It is a truism that libraries are institutions under transformation, the typology is currently being revolutionised by new information technologies. What was once a quiet, secure, secluded place is now as casual as it is accessible, as active as it is lively. Lacoste + Stevenson’s conceptual intention, to make the Customs House Library into the ‘lounge room of the city’, also indicates a fascinating blurring between the private and public realms. It is now intended to be a place that accommodates, but more importantly which encourages and engenders a lively public culture. In recent weeks Customs House Square has been the site of live performance and live TV broadcast of a popular music programme, while within the building has been a major exhibition on the work of Harry Seidler, the opening of new exhibits on pub culture in Sydney, and most recently a multimedia display of digital architecture. This wildly diverse scope of subjects seems to indicate the ambitions of the institution more generally – to be as mobile, imaginative, and dynamic as culture itself is, and to actually participate in the production of cultural objects and performances, as well as displaying and representing them. It is highly appropriate that on any publicity released by Customs House, any brochure or flyer or postcard, can be found the words ‘Customs House is a City of Sydney venue.’ A venue in and of the city, a place where the city performs itself, where it is somehow intensified, embodied, or captured in microcosm, seems exactly what this new institution sets out to be.

And within all this remain the pleasures of the city model. Within the real city of Sydney there is Customs House. And within Customs House there is the model, an identical but smaller version of the city. And within that model there is also a model of Customs House, and within that too, presumably, there is another even tinier model of the city, and so on it goes… The setting and experience of the model in Customs House embodies both the marvel and wonder of the miniature world, and the glorious profusion of the city itself.

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