Prince Alfred Pool by Neeson Murcutt, Sydney – Review

I visited the new Prince Alfred pool today. The City of Sydney project was designed by Neeson Murcutt, and opened two days ago. I saw Rachel Neeson talk on this project around a year ago, so I was keen to see it finished (plus the price is right – it’s currently free to swim at the pool and will be until November, as compensation for the two year construction delay). I was wearing a couple of hats, that of an irregular lap swimmer and architecture aficionado.

Prince Alfred Pool. Photo from NeesonMurcutt.com.au

My approach was from central on foot, but my swimming partner arrived on bike from the other direction. The pool has an active forecourt with ample bike parking and small but dynamic children’s playground. As previously mentioned, it’s currently free to enter, but looks to have been set up with a swipe pass system for future use.

Inside, the change rooms to the left shelters the heated outdoor pool from the bustle of traffic. Likewise, on the right the gently raked timber outdoor seating with permanent individually operable umbrella shelters the pool from the park in which it sits. It lends the open air pool (and there is only one, the other is a ‘toddler splash deck’) a surprising air of intimacy and it also seemed to offer some protection from the wind.

The pool is 50m in length with nine lanes, with a non-returning zero-depth entry ramp on the right hand (park) side. It has an overflow filtration system, is heated, and compared to the indoor pools in which I have been swimming most recently, a gentle chlorination level. The pool has a gentle, even slope, from approximately 1.2m in the shallow end to 2m in the deep end. I think I have heard that it can be converted into  2 x 25m pools, and the slight rise in the centre supports this, but I cannot definitively confirm. Both my friend and I felt that it was an ‘easy’ pool to swim in – after swimming our regular amount of laps, we felt that we’d romped home [warning: the last time I felt like this I found out the pool was 45m in length. No wonder my times had dropped by 10%!].

It seems like a strange thing to quibble about, but every time I paused to stretch or catch my breath, I could hear another swimmer inquiring after the time or peering about for either a lap timer or clock. While this can be easily (and cheaply) rectified, it seems like an odd thing to overlook, especially when other ‘use’ elements have been carefully and thoughtfully integrated into the design. For example, in place of the usual awkward whiteboard, the external wall of the change room has narrow vertical magnetic strips to which labels designating slow, medium, fast and free play lanes can be attached and adjusted easily. The magnets visually represent the lane, making it very simple to double-check the lane speeds from the water. So simple and so effective.

The concourse is a smoothed, unpolished concrete. Both my companion and I felt like it was on the verge of being slippery – whether or not it is, the feeling is unpleasant. A slightly higher sand or grit content may have been less pleasing but more reassuring to walk on.

The change rooms (only the women’s were visited and I took no photos for obvious reasons) are tiled in a small, striking white hexagonal tile that appeared to shimmer with depth, and at first partially disguise the raked roof. As I inhabit the taller end of the height spectrum, I was surprised to notice that the curve of the change room did not feel claustrophobic in anyway, despite its low height at the perimeter. The skylights are funnel shaped, opening out from the glass at the top to a wider mouth at ceiling level. My understanding is that the angle of the skylight are set-up to maximize the light in early mornings, but at 4pm in autumn the effect is still delightful.

What I loved was the showers. The roof of the change room ramps towards the pool, where it meets the wall which finishes with an open mesh above the showers (as I pointed out to my friend, if you’re in the shower at a pool, it seems somewhat redundant to worry about getting wet). The showers are simply but cleverly detailed. Each shower has a small step down and is separated all the way down to the floor and individually drained. I loathe having the shampoo and soap of others wash through public showers (something about abject fluids… Kristeva would understand), so the simple solution of running the dividers all the way to the floor is greatly appreciated. Similarly, the step down into the shower zone helps to keep the floor of the change/storage zone dry, which increases amenity.

The open change area in the women’s change has wide timber seats along the perimeter and along several projecting ‘fingers’, a space efficient solution. The timber has the same dimensions as that used in the outdoor seating, tying the scheme together. Simple metal horizontal cylinders serve for hooks above the seats. While they may be elegant, my bag fell off twice. I’d prefer a slightly angled cylinder or a more conventional hook. Even a lip on the cylinder would be an improvement.

Sadly, the café is yet to stock more than a nominal level of food, so I left unfed. I’ll definitely be back. It’s going to be interesting to see how the pool and its surrounds get tweaked over the next 12 months, particularly over summer. I’m interested to see how the green roof grows in, whether the showers (which will need individual hosing) stay clean and how the Christo-esque square yellow umbrellas will survive the rigors of public life. But mostly, I want to know where the inevitable clock will go.

What’s the fuss: Behind the Denise Scott Brown campaign for Pritzker recognition

If you’re a casual dabbler in architecture and design pastures, you probably haven’t heard of the Pritzker Prize. If you’re enmeshed within these rarefied fields, you’ve probably resorted to describing the Pritzker as ‘like the Nobel prize for architecture’ [or if dealing with a mathematician, like the Fields medal for architecture, but without the age limit]. In short, it is a $100 000 cash prize and bronze medallion awarded annually since 1979 to living architects who have made substantial and consistent contributions to humanity through architecture. It is a Very Big Deal.

Currently it also has a small public perception problem: the jury (the exact composition of which changes over time) doesn’t appear to like women or collaboration very much (it also skews towards recognising Western Europeans, but that’s a separate post).

This was certainly the case back in 1991, when the jury rather superciliously announced that the prize was for individuals* rather than partnerships or firms, and thus it would be awarding the Pritzker to Robert Venturi. Alone. As though over 22 years of design and writing collaboration with life partner Denise Scott Brown were somehow separate to his success. A strange choice, and not uncontroversial at the time. In the two decades since, Denise Scott Brown has expressed her not unreasonable disappointment at her exclusion on several different occasions and forums.

At a recent (March 2013) Architect’s Journal Women in Architect lunch, Denise Scott Brown made the following comment (through a pre-recorded message):

“They owe me not a Pritzker Prize but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony. Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity”

For whatever reason, this comment has generated a slew of responses. It’s been reported on blogs dezeen, architizer, archinect, artlystarchdaily and Australian feminist site Parlour [disclosure: in addition to my attributed work, I have previously copywritten and sub-edited for Parlour]. It’s seen a supportively titled column from Rory Olcayto in AJ (the paywall prevents me from reading the content in full) and spawned a change.org petition supported by high profile advocates for gender equity such as Jeremy Till.

Despite the trumpeting blog headlines and petition (which I have signed), DSB is not campaigning for or demanding a Pritzker. She’s doing something considerably more radical and dangerous. She’s advocating for an entirely different way of thinking about how authorship and attribution is recognised and celebrated in architecture. Wrapped up in the Pritzker (and architectural culture more broadly) are a truck load of implicit assumptions about authorship and individuality. By calling for an inclusion ceremony rather than a prize, DSB is both nodding to and swerving around the prize and authorship systems. Once again, we’re Learning from Scott Brown… and I, for one, salute her.

For more scholarly unpacking about the ways that both gender and authorship are implicated in Pritzker Prizes and architecture more widely see the following texts by Hilde Heynen (paywalled), Naomi Stead and Denise Scott Brown herself.

Aside on the “pipeline” argument: the median age of Pritzker winners is 61. In 2013, a 61 year old graduate who went straight from school to university would have graduated in 1974. Since the numbers of female students has increased steadily since then, we’d assume to see the number of women winning the Pritzker to increase steadily in coming years. However, I’m expecting to see a shift towards older recipients (2013 winner Toyo Ito is 72) and an extra lag that will be attributed to delays in women’s careers due to children responsibilities before seeing any measurable increase in recognition for women.

*Strangely, the ban on partnerships was not in effect in 2001 (Swiss duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron) or in 2010 (Japan’s Kazuyo Sejima and collaborator Ryue Nishizawa, SANAA). But in 2012, it again chose to snub partners who are also wives with the sole recognition of Wang Shu (and not collaborator and wife Lu Wenyu).

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Words and Buildings – A meandering review

On March 10 at the MCA, Make Space for Architecture, in association with the University of Sydney and AR hosted a roundtable discussion on the future of architectural criticism called ‘Words and Buildings’. The panel was comprised of American critic Alexandra Lange, local architect John de Manincor (of DRAW), Michael Holt (AR editor), University of Sydney lecturer Lee Stickells and local architecture critic and opinion writer Elizabeth Farrelly.

Having avidly followed the twitter feed of the preceding Melbourne event ‘More that one way to skin a building’ (at which Lange and Holt also spoke), I was interested to see how the Sydney event would both echo and differ from the Melbourne event. [The Melbourne event has been covered very ably by Warwick Mihaly at the Panfilocastaldi blog and Michael Smith’s Red and Black Architect blog. For a discussion of differences between the two events, see Tania Davidge’s review in ADR  and panelist and AR editor Michael Holt’s Melbourne presentation and Sydney notes].

The event was framed as an interrogation of the present and evolving role of the architecture critic. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the title and panel composition, the discussion of ‘criticism’ was framed around fairly conventional paradigms. By this, I mean that discussion barely considered forms of architectural criticism outside the written review.  Historically, reviews appeared without illustration in general interest publications (eg newspapers) or in architectural media accompanied by commissioned photographs. Even when the discussion moved to newer media modes (such as personal and commercial blogs, tumblr and twitter accounts maintained and frequented by the panelists), the influence of the traditional review was still evident, revealed through comments about online critiques being freed from ‘word counts’, space limitations and the mixed blessing of freedom from editors.

For a discipline that champions and focuses on the new and original in the built form, that prides itself on visual communication skills and actively challenges the research conventions of the tertiary education system, it is striking how narrow our concepts of critique are. There was a limited discussion of the increasing role of photography and rendering in reviews (mostly encapsulated by de Manincor’s observation on the gradual replacement of geographical communities of critique with online communities of dissemination) and no discussion around the idea that paintings, music, physical models and witty drawings can also be forms of criticism. One of the pithiest responses I have ever seen is the so-called ‘conga line of mating turtles’, a much reproduced cartoon on the Sydney Opera House, credited to ‘Sydney Architecture Students’ and yet this mode of criticism was ignored. 

A conga line of mating turtles: student cartoon on the Sydney Opera House. Source: http://www.gardenvisit.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/TurtleLove2.jpg

The role of the real world exhibition and curator as a form of architectural criticism was also skipped, as was the scope for using online resources to share time-lapse construction photos, publish alternative designs using SketchUp and Google maps, use render engines and sandbox tools to make buildings explorable or playable using video game interfaces, or create mind-blowing mashups (of music, film, photos and data). Michael Holt did flag the emergence of an ‘Under Construction’ segment of AR, which is encouraging. Although understandable given the composition of the panel, which skewed heavily towards published writers, I found this tunnel vision to be slightly disappointing.

In addition to the fixation on the written form, the subject of architectural criticism went largely unmentioned, but was implicitly a single building (as opposed to parts of several buildings or a building over time or an urban precinct or aspects of architectural culture).  Given that some of the most vocal and vibrant discussions and critiques I have seen recently have been on competitions and procurement processes (*cough* Venice pavilion, Barangaroo *cough, cough*), this limitation was somewhat surprising. In my reading of the reviews and responses to the Melbourne event (and possibly discussed in passing in Sydney: my notes are unclear) it does seem that Michael Holt and Marissa Looby may be addressing this in their ‘Elements’ work for Domus, where an architect’s use of a single element is critically interrogated over multiple buildings.

Moving discussion away from the how and what of criticism and towards the why was Elizabeth Farrelly’s tart observation that the reason that there is no architectural criticism is that there is no one willing to pay for it. This approaches what I think is one of the most interesting and fraught issues of architectural criticism: who is the audience? Is it the public with a general interest, the architectural profession or is it more complicated? Can (should?) we separate the role of advocacy from that of critic? Does the low pay rate condemn us to part time or independently wealthy critics? Does the financial necessity of undertaking other work strengthen or weaken the criticism? Have blogs rent asunder the divide between audience and author(ity)? Do we have critics as mediators because architects are so bad at written communication? Is it only architecture if it engages with ideas? Do editorial gatekeepers matter? Has Grand Designs given the public with a skewed understanding of where the responsibilities of the architect and the client begin and end? Does it show an appetite for more nuanced discussion of building projects?  How do we walk the line between cheer leading, education and professional engagement? None of these questions can be resolved in a two hour discussion panel, but they show just how contentious and uncertain the current role and purpose of the architecture critic has become.

To be totally honest, as a recent returnee to Sydney from regional Tasmania, the ability to spend a happy afternoon reflecting on architecture and criticism in a room of like minded individuals was quite simply wonderful. The panel and crowd were lively without being confrontational and showed a deep appreciation of the opportunity to reflect on the difficulties and transformations occurring in architectural criticism. The good humour and frank discussion of the challenges were entertaining and thought provoking. Although I remain mildly disappointed that the event didn’t cover slightly more unconventional forms of critique, it certainly delivered as billed (words and buildings) and provided plenty of food for thought.

Operahuset, Oslo by Snøhetta, 2008. Visited Nov 2012

I’ve been keen to visit Snøhetta’s Operahuset (known to English speakers as the Oslo Opera House) for a while now, but particularly since I saw architect Kjetil Thorsen present this memorable youtube clip showing a motocross rider enjoying the building at the 2012 AIA conference.

Opera House on a summer day. Image from VisitNorway.com

The harbour-side location, program and unusual white form immediately invite comparisons with Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, an impulse which appears to have been explicitly embraced by the architect and city. Both buildings have become iconic symbols for the city they call home and are invested with massive symbolic meaning and public significance. At over 38 000 m2, the building is reportedly the largest cultural building to be built in Norway since Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim in the early 14th century. Over 70 000 residents of Oslo (around 14% of the city’s population) turned out to inspect over 240 entries into the public design competition, which was won by local firm Snohetta. Unlike its Sydney counterpart, the Oslo Opera House was completed ahead of schedule, under budget (total cost was 4.4 billion NOK or approximately $880 million AUD) and without the architect entering voluntary exile from the country after being fired. By that measure alone, the Norwegians are already ahead.

From a distance, the Oslo Opera House emerges angularly from the surrounding buildings and construction works like a faceted iceberg. Moving closer, the impression is reversed; the building, sheathed in Italian marble and white granite, appears to be sliding glacier-like into the fjord.

Shot of exterior traversable 'carpet'. Note the shifting planes and subtle changes in finish of the stone.

Shot of exterior traversable ‘carpet’. Note the shifting planes and subtle changes in finish of the stone.

The forecourt is comprised of slabs of stone, which slopes down to enter the water on one side and continues up to create the volume of the building on the other. The sweep of pale grey paving is interrupted by expansive slashes of blueish glass. With such a limited palette of exterior materials, the architects’ attention to detail and the skilled work of the builders becomes all the more important.

Look verrrry closely. The subtle variation in finish is almost imperceptible.

Look verrrry closely. The subtle variation in finish is almost imperceptible.

Like a snowfield, what initially appears to be a single, smooth monochromatic surface shifts on closer inspection to reveal a composition of planes with subtle clefts and fissures. These are prised up and tilted to create a non-repeating pattern of shallow ridges and depressions, with muted shadow lines. The planes are further articulated by the orientation and diverse finishing of the granite tiles. The finishing is both practical and artistic: the rougher finish over acoustically sensitive areas discourages skateboarding (officially ‘forbuden’) while also providing a visual feast.

Situated atop the building are several rectangular prisms, which are clad in overlapping aluminium sheets. These are pressed with concave and convex indents, apparently inspired by traditional weaving patterns. For such large elements, the combination of material and location help it to almost disappear, the overall effect is almost mirage-like (see 0-11sec of this time lapse clip for a better idea of the result).

Other than a modest sign in Norwegian and English advising that the nature of the paving may present a hazard, the outside of the building is apparently unencumbered by any significant concessions to safety, although one of the prisms contains a lift which provides wheelchair access to the flatter top section of the building. The absence of tactile ground surface indicators is surprisingly jarring, although I suspect that the carefully contrived paving scheme and subtle visual effects would not have survived their imposition.

At the beginning of my visit the angled glazing reflects the overcast sky and surrounds, but as the afternoon twilight begins to fall, the warm glow of the timber interior peaks though. The form begins to invert – the dynamic shell disappears and the interior becomes a stage-lit beacon.

The overcast sky and twilight shift the focus onto the warm, glowing interior.

The overcast sky and twilight shift the focus onto the warm, glowing interior.

The interior 'wave wall' houses circulation and resembles a well known NY museum...

The interior ‘wave wall’ houses circulation and resembles a well known NY museum…

Inside, the palette switches to a much warmer timber finish. From the foyer, a commissioned artwork of what I can only describe as ceramic origami is offset by a cliff of golden oak battens. Progressing around the curve of the cliff, it resolves into what appears to be a spiralling circulation spine, faintly reminiscent of FLW’s Guggenheim museum. The battens are delightfully varied, a range of profiles and thicknesses which create a sense of dynamic movement as you pass. The sloping interior circulation is also timber lined in the same oak and gently lit, creating a pattern of light and shadow when viewed from below.

On a tour of the building, the inner working and logic of the building are revealed. The building is contains hundreds of employees, including costumiers, carpenters, scenographers (technical term for curtain painters), steel workers and others. Some of these functions (such as costume making) are pushed to the edge of the building, which contains extensive glazing. The rationale behind this is ‘transparency’, and the aim is to allow the public to follow the development of a productiion. While the intent is admirable, building works limited the possibility of circumnavigating the building to confirm this from the exterior during my visit.

Other ‘back of house’ professions are also housed on the ground floor. Sets up to 9m in height can be constructed and moved between different areas using a series of oversized doors. Sadly, no photos can be taken of the areas in professional use. The levels above contain dressing and rehearsal rooms for both opera and ballet performers. A hidden gem is the courtyard, which dramatically increases the amount of daylight. As the planting matures, this should become a green oasis, a private pleasure for those who work here.

Where private and public intersect in the building is of course the main concert hall, which seats around 1400 people. Like the foyer, the interior is clad in oak, but here it has been treated with ammonia to create a darker tone. Much of the interior has been influenced by acoustic requirements.  Everything from the LED chandelier to the seats (which are specially designed to mimic the acoustics of the human body, ensuring that performances sound the same in an empty hall) to the panelling (dense materials to prevent vibration) is designed to provide optimum acoustic performance. The end result is apparently very good: there is a long reverberation time (1.4 seconds according to our guide) and no need to use microphones. Again, photos were not possible.

Returning to the foyer via the timber lined main circulation stairs, we pass the Norwegian language tour group, which is more popular than the English tour. This, coupled with the dazzling visitor statistics (over 7 million people since opening) indicates just how much pride and interest this building has managed to generate both locally as well as internationally.

Overall, I love this building. It’s ‘big idea’ is executed with intelligence and wit. Every single move, both small and large, contributes to a cohesive, functional whole.

Fast Facts 

Dominant Impression: Sloping iceberg creates iconic space for both public and private use.

Architect’s Concept: Carpet, wave wall and factory. ‘Carpet’ is the white, publicly traversable exterior, ‘wave wall’ is the timber cliff, signifying where the water meets land and the public meets the art and ‘factory’ is the back of house production facilities.

Materials: Granite, Italian marble, glass outside, oak battens inside, aluminium at rear.

Technical wow: glass windows supported on glass bracing with small steel brackets. Solar panels on southern side provide power.

Trivia: The design won from more than 350 entries in an international design competition. It was completed ahead of schedule AND under budget.

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Risks and rewards… Audacity pays off.

Here’s an extract from my final submission for PP1: Brief Writing. This subject culminates with the preparation of a 16-20 page document [“the brief”] in which you assemble all the background information on your proposed final project: site analysis (demographics, culture, neighbourhood, history, topography, climate, microclimate etc), precedent selection and analysis, programmatic requirements, statutory and regulatory requirements, design research question, client requirements, financial planning and some other bits and pieces. The brief forms the basis of the project report for external markers and your second semester tutor. In addition to this, I decided to say what I really thought in a cheeky introduction… I very nearly chickened out, but thought ‘f*ck it, you only live once and I think it works’. Turns out it was the most successful part of the whole submission! I’ve reproduced it below.

foreward/disclaimer: an audacious proposal

 

A final year project is traditionally treated as an opportunity not only to display professional skills acquired over several years of painstaking effort, but as a chance to push the boundaries of what architecture is and what it can be. It also offers the chance to nail your colours to the mast, to make a statement about what you value within architecture and what interests you.

With so much expectation, a great deal of thought and superstition influences the careful selection of site (it should be near water), program (it needs to have a social conscience) and research question (“can a dead male European theorist inform the spatiality of a maternal health building in Tanzania?”).

For the career minded students with one eye on their portfolio, the temptation to choose a project that aligns with the interests of a desired employer or their intended career trajectory is often irresistible. Too often this results in shiny renderings of indifferent projects stuffed with good intentions executed in a demonstration of tolerable competence.

This is not one of those projects. This project is fun.

The Angel St Derby Centre is utterly frivolous. A career as a professional roller derby venue architect does not beckon. The project is improbable, but not impossible. In all likelihood, the Angel St Derby Centre will never be funded, never be built and never be the subject of a monograph. Taking a cue from roller derby, this project is chutzpah sprayed in giant letters across cheap plywood scaffolding, assembled with love and gaffer tape rather than good sense. It’s an oasis of exuberant, flippant humour, amid a sea of ponderous propositions.

But as anyone who has watched derby knows, fun is serious business. Having a ludicrously farcical idea, the only way to execute it is with utter solemnity.

The Angel St Derby Centre juggles busy public space and an unconventional program (roller derby venue) on an urban brown field site with a dilapidated heritage listed building. These competing demands require a sophisticated understanding of the intersection between site, heritage and program for successful resolution.

To add further depth to the project, the design research question was framed to use the characteristics of the program to unpick and re-examine the notions of adaptive re-use.