Archive for the ‘2007’ Category

This is a feature profile of Sydney architects Neil Durbach and Camilla Block, of Durbach Block architects. The feature was commissioned by PolOxygen magazine and published as ‘A Very Different View,’ in PolOxygen: The International Design, Art, Architecture Quarterly, issue 20, 2007, pp.90-98. Words by Naomi Stead. Continue Reading »


The story of Hugh and Eva Buhrich is one of those grand narratives, the same epic kind of story that drives many a great film or novel. A young couple, each of them talented and committed to the art of architecture, are forced to leave Germany, flying before the winds of war and persecution. Assisted by supporters in London, they arrange passage to the new world, tossing up between South Africa, America, and Australia. Almost by accident they eventually reach Sydney, but their trials as refugees are not over, since their professional qualifications are not recognised here, and work is hard to come by. Persevering, Eva goes on to become a respected architectural journalist, while Hugh pursues his craft under the title of a ‘planning consultant,’ going on to design a suite of fine but under-appreciated buildings, most of which are demolished or irreparably altered in subsequent years. But the thing that makes this particular émigré architect’s story into a unique and significant one is the quality of two of these works, two houses designed and constructed over many years by Hugh, for Eva and himself, on the same street in Castlecrag.

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In the law of warfare, when it becomes clear that a given city can not be held against imminent invasion, its government may declare an “open city”. This declaration bears the expectation (or hope, since it has historically not always been respected) that the invading army, meeting no further resistance, will march in and occupy the city without destroying its architecture and landmarks, or attacking its civilian population. It is a mode of surrender, intended to preserve built fabric and human life, but it is also a powerful metaphor: in it the city becomes porous, without boundaries, something to be flowed through and filled to the brim. In a peaceful place such as Sydney, the warlike metaphor may seem inappropriate. But the notion of permeability, of the city as a diaphanous network of open pores, remains potent, and it well describes the event of Sydney Open. Organized biennially by the Historic Houses Trust, Sydney Open is an architectural open day when a large number – this year 65 – of city buildings are accessible to the public.
Some of these are part of specially ticketed “focus tours”, which provide “in-depth access to private and fragile properties”, most often led by the architect or building owner. But the majority are buildings opened for this single day to anyone who holds a general admission ticket. Sydney Open began in 1997, following other successful events in London, New York and Toronto. It is now a fixture on the Sydney cultural calendar, and continues to grow in popularity and scope.

On the face of it, it is perhaps surprising that this event should be run by the Historic Houses Trust (HHT), given that most of the buildings featured are not houses, and many are also not “historic” in the sense of being old. In fact there is a fantastic collapsing of historical periods here – buildings that might usually be known as architectural “heritage” are displayed on the same plane as the most recent and cutting-edge constructions. And in this sense the event is entirely in keeping with the innovative and engaging public programmes of the HHT, an institution that contributes immeasurably to the cultural life of the city. In many ways the HHT leads the way in the display and dissemination of architectural ideas, both contemporary and historic, to a broad public audience in Sydney. In the Sydney Open guide book Peter Watts, director of the HHT, writes that the aim of the event is to “encourage a greater awareness of, and appreciation for, all forms and styles of architecture and design that contribute so much to our heritage and culture, encouraging us all… to develop a sense of ownership of our city.” Accordingly, the Trust reports that this year 5,000 people bought general-admission tickets, up from 3,706 at the last event two years ago. The most popular sites this year were Deutsche Bank Place, with a staggering 2,000 visitors, the Great Synagogue, and the Mint.

So there we all were on the day itself, Sunday 5 November, 2006. It was a grey, cold, and windy day in Sydney, with the city raked by fast-moving squally showers. In spite of the weather, there was a celebratory atmosphere and a sense of camaraderie between participants, as we hiked around the city with our umbrellas and cameras, looking out for other people wearing the distinctive red admission sticker. Most also clutched a well-thumbed brochure, the map at the back marked up with each person’s individually plotted itinerary. There were many possible themes through which to organize the day’s path through the city; materiality, for instance, could have been one linking thread – examining the role that sandstone plays in the architectural life of the city, perhaps starting with the convict mason’s mark on each individual stone in the wall around Darlinghurst Gaol (now the National Art School). Or you could visit Sydney landmarks including White Bay Power Station, the underground remnants of the Tank Stream, and the Sydney Town Hall. Or you could stick to contemporary, award-winning architecture. Whatever your taste and interest, people who wanted to nosy around the latest apartment design were equally as welcome as train-spotting historians, and both appeared to be outnumbered by regular, curious citizens of Sydney, hoping to see the city from new vantage points, to discover unexpected and secret spaces. Suddenly buildings which you might have walked past literally every day for years became more than just a facade: they are opened in every sense, taking on a depth of both space and experience.

Who would have thought, for instance, that there was such a sumptuous cast iron staircase in the Société Générale Building, which climbs acrobatically up a marble-faced lightwell towards an extraordinary stained glass ceiling. And while it has always been possible to see from the outside the sublime brutalist mass of the Sydney Masonic Centre and Civic Tower, who could have known that to be in this interior, with its highly figured off-form concrete and swooping heavy forms, would be like being among the turning cogs of a giant machine, the spaces themselves turning and meshing against one another.
Sydney Open also allows the populace an opportunity to see and understand those buildings that are “public” – institutions serving the public, working for the collective good – but which are not usually publicly accessible. Most people would hope never to see the inside of the cells and courtrooms at Darlinghurst courthouse, for instance, but the presence of this institution, the knowledge that it both symbolizes and facilitates the orderly processes of law, is a central part of living in a social democracy. But aside from these lofty ideals, in visiting these buildings it is also the detail that is interesting, including the graffiti on the cell walls at the courthouse – “this cell has ears!”; “whatever you have done, remember God”. Likewise, the interest of Darlinghurst Fire Station is not just the lively brick and stone of Walter Liberty Vernon’s design, but the opportunity to see the way the firemen’s coats and boots are lined up, the whiteboard with notes about sporting teams, fundraising drives, and a phone number for “Deano”, the open-air boxing gym on a roof garden which would be the envy of any inner-city resident. There is a sense, throughout the fire station, of the many many hours spent here, training, keeping fit, and mostly simply waiting for the emergency which will send the trucks hurtling out onto Victoria street with sirens blaring. While the building itself is interesting, especially in the context of two other fire stations designed earlier by the same architect (at Pyrmont and Randwick), it is more compelling for the insight it gives about the working life of a professional fire-fighter. It is not just as artefacts that the buildings suddenly become fascinating, it is as the intimate spaces of other people’s social and working lives.
By taking one day to specifically frame and re-present the city back to itself, Sydney Open makes architecture, in all its lived and built and temporal complexity, a legitimate object of appreciation in its own right. It reveals the consummate pleasure of becoming a tourist in your own city for a day.

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.