World-class cities are built from good ideas
'Australians who think the carbon tax is asking them to live without the creature comforts should come and look at this building," Julia Gillard said, opening Sydney's newest and greenest office tower, 1 Bligh, last week.
'Australians who think the carbon tax is asking them to live without the creature comforts should come and look at this building," Julia Gillard said, opening Sydney's newest and greenest office tower, 1 Bligh, last week. 'Australians who think the carbon tax is asking them to live without the creature comforts should come and look at this building," Julia Gillard said, opening Sydney's newest and greenest office tower, 1 Bligh, last week.And for a minute, despite the glam - the 18-carat harbour glitter, the cocktail dresses, the fireworks - I felt a reckless optimism that Sydney was at last coming of age. Or perhaps it is a delayed effect of September 11; not an end to towers, but a shift of emphasis from quantity to quality.Either way, 1 Bligh, conspicuous not for its height but its confidence, nestles comfortably among a gaggle of Sydney towers that are undeniably world-class. Easily visible through 1 Bligh's ultra-clear, curving glass skin are a Norman Foster (one of two), a Richard Rogers (still emerging), two Denton Corker Marshalls and four Harry Seidlers - two of them classics - and a Renzo Piano.To say nothing of the Jean Nouvel, the third Foster and the Frank Gehry all still in utero, as it were, at the other end of town.What sets these buildings apart - what makes them world-class - is that they're about something. Ideas. They prove that good ideas, followed through, make good buildings, and good buildings make money. They also make good cities.This sounds easy but isn't, because the city-building process is so long and convoluted and the forces of compromise so pervasive and multi-pronged. Generally, in Sydney, it's the forces of compromise that have won.So my optimism sprang from the microscopic yet tantalising possibility that our esteemed development fraternity is at last beginning to value ideas. Been a long time coming.Politicians too, or so it would seem. Barry O'Farrell may be, even now, ripping every last shred of ingenuity from Barangaroo, but it's not every tower that gets its cord cut by the PM. Admittedly, Gillard is expected to take space in 1 Bligh, moving her Sydney offices from Phillip Street, and to this end had crawled all over the building, even on to its glass roof. But that wasn't the reason for her midwifery.Gillard's decision to preside at this particular birth sprang, she said, from her "responsibility to help people understand how we are going to live differently in the future''. This building matters because its shaping idea is one whose time has come.Skyscrapers are always about power, but 1 Bligh offers a slightly different, 21st century take on this paradigm, acknowledging that power is never outright, but always a balance; that the oppressor is always oppressed; and that long-term survival requires our investment in the enlightened form of self-interest.Where the classic, last-century skyscraper - Australia Square, for example - focused on dominating and perfecting nature (guzzling energy and water in order to protect ourselves from her whims), 1 Bligh takes a more collaborative approach: real air, chilled beams, solar panels, water recycling, sewage mining, trigeneration. Tony Gulliver, from DEXUS Property, recalls it as love at first sight. The minute Gulliver saw the gleaming elliptical model emerge from its box, he knew it was the one.He also says, with discernible glee, "Do you know how many city planning rules this building breaks?"Graham Jahn, now the city's director of planning but then chair of the selection panel, is more circumspect, emphasising the sheer smarts shown by the Ingenhoven-Architectus tower. Smart buildings so seldom are.Most buildings tagged ''intelligent'' turn out to have the IQ of wilted broccoli, and personality to match. But 1 Bligh is different. For a start, the real air and ultra-clear glass give a sense of environmental connectivity almost unheard of in a commercial tower.Fresh air is delivered throughout via a full-height, curved-glass chimney that rises dramatically, neck-crickingly, from the foyer, exploiting the stack effect to cool open balconies and bridges on every level.This is unusual enough, but the building's most ingenious trait is also its most obvious; its elliptical plan.Christoph Ingenhoven explains this as primarily a civic response. The site sits on the bend of Bent Street, at the meeting of two non-parallel street grids whose clash forms the shadowy remnant that is Farrer Place.The city planning rules (which I helped frame, sometime last millennium) required a street-hugging podium with retail frontages and set-backs above. The idea was to re-assert the traditional Sydney street, as defined by those much-loved sandstone buildings, such as the Lands and Education departments, on to which 1 Bligh so happily looks.But Ingenhoven-Architectus totally ignored this - as had both Piano and Seidler, but with better reason. Ingenhoven's site really was special and his ellipse offered genuine benefits.First, while aligning with neither grid, the ellipse actually resolves the clash by leaving a north-sloping triangular plaza at the front.Flanked by a grand, curving, six-metre stair so sun-drenched it tempts even suits to sit and linger, this doubles the effective size and amenity of Farrer Place in a way that architects dream of but seldom achieve."For me," Ingenhoven says, standing in the foyer, "this is what the building is about. It's like a stage set. The building is in the city, and the city is in the building."The ellipse has other virtues. It preserves neighbours' views, minimising objections. It increases volume-to-surface-area ratio, minimising heat transfer and energy use. It decreases wind turbulence, reducing lateral loads, column size and cost while increasing openness. And, as Ingenhoven notes, it shoves floor space "up into the dollars".Of course, an all-glass skin - even a double skin ventilated at each floor like this one - would normally be a heat-gain catastrophe, requiring massive, energy-sucking aircon.Here, though, the ventilated cavity also contains automatic, view-preserving louvres that mean the sun never hits the inner skin, so that high-efficiency, chilled-beam air-cooling is adequate for much of the floor plate.Regarding 1 Bligh, Gillard is on the money. It's green, lovely to behold and a joy to be in. Green seduction made manifest. Surrender to the inevitable.