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So blatant, so needy: Why is James Packer not embarrassed by Sydney’s new casino tower?

Both buildings occupy prime waterfront. Both are foreign designed (the casino by London firm Wilkinson Eyre, the fish market by Danish firm 3XN with Sydney’s BVN). Both claim “iconic” status and (spurious) Opera House ancestry. Both are described as “sculptural” in form, whatever that means. But only one of them is architecture.

With the disappearance of architectural critique from public discourse it has become commonplace to serve up some flip isomorph instead. Priapic casinos aside, the Opera House is likened to sails, Bennelong Apartments to a toaster, the UTS Gehry building to a paper bag and the new fish markets to a languid marine creature with roof-lit “scales”.

An artist's impression of the new Sydney Fish Market building at the head of Blackwattle Bay.

An artist’s impression of the new Sydney Fish Market building at the head of Blackwattle Bay.Credit:NSW government

In London there’s Norman Foster’s famous Gherkin, Renzo Piano’s Shard and Foster’s Glass Testicle, which the Greater London Authority is about to decamp for the cheaper and cheaper-looking Crystal, also by Wilkinson Eyre.

The suggestion here is that function is irrelevant. Form derives meaning not from purpose but from a shape-based simile with all the depth and significance of a Rorschach ink blot. Add the word “sculptural” – which usually implies curves without meaning, as per Gehry – and the entire architectural enterprise is reduced to digitised shape-making. This is a huge aesthetic and social loss.

It was Chicago proto-Modernist Louis Sullivan who, in 1896, formulated the phrase “form follows function”. But does function still come first? Should it?

As the two architects – Denmark’s Kim Herforth Nielsen, of 3XN, and Britain’s Chris Wilkinson, of Wilkinson Eyre – discuss their buildings, it’s immediately clear where architecture is still taught as a purposeful discipline, and where it’s been reduced to developer’s gimcrack.

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Nielsen, describing the fish market’s design trajectory, talks you through its purpose. The need to open the building to street and landscape, making a market, not a mall. The need to separate its stinky, clanking, working part – all boats and seagulls, dripping crates and loud auctioneers – from the cafes and restaurants part, yet still integrate the two into a whole. How Utzon’s Opera House, two bays east, inspired the broad and sinuous stair arrayed like a welcoming stingray at the market’s east end.

He explains, too, that function is just the start, before you “combine all the functional elements in a natural way so that it gets a beautiful storytelling, a beautiful sculptural shape at the end”.

This sounds so simple. Obviously you make the building work then massage those functional solutions together into beauty. But Chris Wilkinson’s description of dreaming up Crown Casino is quite different.

When I’m in Italy, I can think because the phone stops ringing,” he told an Australian writer back when Italy conjured hills and grapevines not harried-looking medics in hazmat suits. “So I just sat and thought and I came up with this idea that it had to be a sculptural form.”

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The shape itself came from Wilkinson’s 2011 three-petalled entry for a sculpture competition at Gretna. It didn’t win. But, he says, “I looked back at the sculpture and thought those three petals that twist as they rise could be joined at the tips to create a building.” Then, when Crown thought the design “too simple”, they stuck on some twists of Carrara marble and called it “Gothic inspired”.

That’s how much the casino’s form has to do with function. Or with Sydney. Or indeed, with intelligence.

Phallic, you say? At least penis-as-penis has a clear and present purpose, of which form is a direct expression. But penis-as-building? Is that about anything at all except ego at its predatory worst?

Oh hang on, wait. It’s a casino, a glowering, towering fat-cat mud-brawl over dosh. Maybe this super-schlong does express its function, after all. Domina-a-aate. Dominaa-a-ate. Dominaa-a-te.

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