McGregor Westlake Architecture has responded with vigour to a challenging site in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo, creating a quiet and robust retreat from the cacophony of the city.
A century on, Le Corbusier’s warning of 1924, “The city’s residential quarters must no longer be built along roads, full of noise”1 has not been heeded, notwithstanding the numerous studies that show living with noise reduces life expectancy and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease2 and the protection from noise continues to be advised by UN-Habitat.3
Housing is the most numerous work of architecture. It shapes and gives character to our cities and has the most direct impact on the daily lives of people. Yet despite the clarion call from the foundation of modern architecture, too often the public duty to create good housing is ignored.
New South Wales leads regulation reform for housing amenity in Australia.4 The “Apartment Design Guide” released following the review of State Environmental Planning Policy No 65 has elevated consideration of noise to above that of natural cross-ventilation and sun access, but not above access to natural ventilation or natural light. This will overthrow the business-as-usual model advocated by engineers that noise is to be addressed by closing windows and using airconditioning.
Designed prior to the regulatory review, the Woolloomooloo Apartments by McGregor Westlake Architecture heralds an architecture of innovation with a work that is ahead of the pack. The site is surrounded by noise, between a motorway and a railway, in a valley where sunlight and breeze are not easy to find but must be sought out. The situation seems unsuited to the comfort and wellbeing required for good housing. Yet entering each apartment, you are struck by the unexpected: the gentle movement of air, the peacefulness of quiet and the bathing of light. The hostile surroundings are conquered by quietude so deftly that the naive would simply overlook the achievement. Why is it so?
The general arrangement is rational – based on type. Double-height apartments are arranged serially; the primary rooms – living and bedrooms – open eastward to the air and light. Facing the motorway, small, sealed windows are carefully placed at a height that provides outlook from the minor rooms – kitchens and studies. The lower apartments are entered from a common walkway through private garden terraces to the living rooms. The upper apartments have the living rooms on top, immediately below roof terraces that are open to the sky. This arrangement places living rooms away from the neighbours’ bedrooms, enhancing acoustic privacy and reducing overlooking. The double height encourages “stack” ventilation that is particularly effective in the upper apartments. The thin, nine-metre plan depth ensures plentiful natural light and air throughout.
The type and its arrangement are descended from the Adelphi building in London by the Adam brothers (around 1770) – the prototype of the “terrace” house. At the Adelphi the terrace sat on warehouses facing the Thames below; here it sits over bicycle and car parking, lifting the apartments off the valley floor and into the light and breeze.
Special corner apartments look north and protect from the noise of the elevated railway to the south. Across the courtyard a lower building is fronted by the retained brick facade of the workshop that formerly occupied the site. Here a more circumstantial arrangement has been driven by the planning consent requirement to keep the older facade and reduce the bulk of the building to the street and its neighbours. The retained brick facade provides historical continuity in this heritage-significant area of Woolloomooloo. The ground floor will have a shop or cafe that opens directly to the street, adding vitality to the local area. Most of the apartments in this building have living rooms facing the street across large loggias and terraces with bedrooms behind. Most of these apartments are cross-ventilated, quiet and filled with light.
The building is robust, plain and matter-of-fact, marked by a clear structure and other elements in grey – off-form concrete, natural anodized aluminium and galvanized steel, counterpoised with smooth, shiny, flat surfaces in white prefinished panels. There is no excessive decoration. The planting, still young, has frames and arbours to grow over, and timber elements and green panels with which it will merge to soften the courtyard over time.
Air, sound and light5 – these are the themes of housing that please everyone. What of art?
McGregor Westlake Architecture is a design-focused architecture and art studio that bridges the sister disciplines like few others. The western facade of the Woolloomooloo Apartments faces the motorway and is seemingly composed as a work of art. This surface is made of the same glossy prefinished coloured board that is used by the roads authority in tunnels and on walls to minimize maintenance. It is rain-cleaned so as not to collect grit and grime. The panels are single modules sized to the windows, meeting the varying windowsill heights required by the interior and arranged in stretcher bond. The colours grade diagonally from a russet red base to an azure blue crest. The complementary bands are separated by a brilliant white slash. Earth to sky, city to harbour, the red tail-lights trail. Is this architecture or art?
“Houses must please everyone. It is this which distinguishes the house from the work of art, which does not have to please anyone. The work of art is a private affair. The house is not a private affair. The work of art is born without anyone having need for it. The house responds to a need … But isn’t the house a work of art? Isn’t architecture an art?”6
Visible from the Domain, at the rear of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, this is a work of architecture that masquerades as a work of art. The Harlequin mask is invisible to its occupants, who peer out silently from its slits. Walking past on the street, it is not seen. The motorway facade is superficial to the housing, it is of the city – viewed in a blur from the speeding car or train, it is superfluous but memorable (perhaps even monumental).
This is not the archetypical Sydney building, which would be on a ridge facing the sun, overlooking the harbour and draped with rich materials. This is a building forged of robust material in difficult circumstances. Living here is a quiet retreat from the cacophony of the city. The health of its inhabitants is protected. It has found light and air in the valley; it has made quiet amongst noise. This is good housing, beyond art – this is architecture for the twenty-first century.
1. Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow (London: Architectural Press, 1929), translated from Le Corbusier, Urbanisme (Paris: G. Crés, 1924).
2. See for example Jaana I. Halonen et al, “Road traffic noise is associated with increased cardiovascular morbidity and mortality and all-cause mortality in London,” European Heart Journal , 23 June 2015.
3. UN-Habitat, “The Habitat Agenda Goals and Principles, Commitments and the Global Plan of Action,” 13 November 2003.
4. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council’s “Review of Capital City Strategic Planning Systems” (2011) identified SEPP 65 as best practice in delivering outcomes consistent with the criteria for capital city strategic planning systems.
5. “Air Sound Light” was the theme of the third International Congress for Modern Architecture (CIAM) held in Brussels in 1930, where Le Corbusier called for “new and fundamental ideas for housing and city planning.” See Le Corbusier, The Radiant City (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), originally La Ville Radieuse (Paris: Vincent, Fréal and Cie, 1933), 47.
6. Adolf Loos, “Architektur,” 1909 in Trotzdem (Innsbruck, 1931).