Chifley Square

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Declaring the forecourt of Sydney’s Chifley Tower as a realm for public relaxation, the City of Sydney and Hassell have revamped a formerly neo-classical plaza with bold glass architecture, towering palms and an “ironic” steel statue of a Labor Party deity.

Photography John Gollings

top Looking into the Crucimatrilux installation. above Lightwall Crucimatrilux, looking towards Hunter Street.

Chifley Square, looking south west towards Avenue Café.

Project Description
The City of Sydney has transformed the forecourt of Chifley Tower, at Hunter and Phillip Streets, from a corporate plaza to a public space with a bustling glass-sheathed café defining the south (Hunter Street) edge. The café faces north across a granite court planted with a grid of cabbage palms and interrupted by low timber benches. The concept was initiated by Tim Williams of City Projects. The council then appointed Hassell as architects to develop the design and artist Simeon Nelson to build a “heroic” statue of former Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley and a glass installation, called LIGHTWALL Crucimatrilux, as an extension of the cafe’s rear wall.

Architect’s Statement by Ken Maher
The space is intended as a background to public activity. It is therefore understated, using natural finishes-bluestone, verde granite, glass, stainless steel, zinc, plywood-within a limited colour spectrum. In acknowledging the character of Ben Chifley, the intended effect is one of restraint. … A strong east/west linear pattern was introduced … as a geometric discipline expressed through the alignment of paving, insert strips which continue across Phillip Street, the tree setout, position and form of seats, and the form of the café wall and hovering cantilever roof.

Comment by Brian Zulaikha
City spaces are not the product of one person; they are the intersection of many. There exists a plethora of historic linkages and the convergence of an extraordinary series of creative forces. Places have fragmentary and inward-turning histories; pasts that evoke interpretation; accumulated times that can be unfolded; stories held in reserve. This is far greater than the province of the urban designer, who treads a tenuous line between architectural responsiveness and the democratic processes of community consultation and government intervention.
In urban design, there should be skilful deployment of architectural energies, so that the influence of fine buildings radiates outwards, articulating the spaces between in a meaningful way. In most cities, there are buildings of character which have lost their effectiveness through a lamentable context. Chifley Square is fortunate in being surrounded by some of the more interesting towers in the CBD and these can now be seen and appreciated within the curtilage of the new square. No-one commented much on the previous incarnations of Chifley Square. There was a sadly neglected Bob Woodward fountain, which I remember worked as recently as the early eighties. It was a sculptural explosion of ripped earth, covered in tiles, which eventually delaminated into a flower bed. When Chifley Tower was recently completed, the square was dressed with an imported aesthetic similar to the tower. It meant very little to the people of Sydney.
The deliciously curvilinear trio of Qantas House (Rudder Littlemore and Rudder), the Wentworth Hotel (Skidmore Owings & Merrill) and Chifley Tower (Kohn Pederson Fox/Travis) forms the variegated northern perimeter of the square, and in the middle distance to the north rises the handsome trunk of the Governor Macquarie Tower (Denton Corker Marshall). The hard-edged Hunter Street Government Offices (Rodney Connors/NSW Government Architect) forms the southern boundary. This juxtaposition is the geometric basis of the new square.
The square is carpeted over with a grid of cabbage palms. Initially deriving from the columns of Chifley Tower’s curved entry patio, this pattern dissolves to present a series of fortuitous accidental relationships to Qantas House and some less fortuitous connections to the Wentworth Hotel. The trees cross over Philip Street, providing pleasure for the passing motorist.
A glass box café, inserted along the south edge of the site, faces north. Its rear facade along Hunter Street has semi-opaque green glass panels set 40mm in front of a concrete bunker wall-a sign of forbidden entry. Above, the three curvilinear buildings gesture an elusive invitation. Yet inside the square, the hitherto forbidding plane-over a metre thick to house services and storage-becomes a backdrop of light behind the café; successfully excluding the stream of traffic and negotiating a significant change of level.
At its west end, the wall becomes a sculptural element named LIGHTWALL Crucimatrilux. Here, the green glass wall becomes transparent and houses overlapping diagonal sheets of glass, intended to create plays of light and reflection. An aviary without birds or a fish tank without fish: one is forced to look at a detritus of bogong moths, palm leaves, cigarette packets and grime. Its subtlety is perplexing-is it completed? Should water be cascading over its glass diagonals?
Near LIGHTWALL Crucimatrilux, a sculpture of Ben Chifley stands on the grid in place of a palm tree. An image cut from two flat sheets of stainless steel, impressively detailed, narrowly separated by a truss and standing proudly-but not quite tall enough for the square. The cutout is a cartoon line drawing of a fully standing figure in clod-hopper boots-as though the photo on which it was sourced did not have a base.
In rejecting the traditional notion of solidity and 3D representation, the sculpture is a 2D pop art alternative. In my view, the sculptor avoids any expressive interpretation, perhaps preferring that the work stands (sic) on its own merits- WSIWYG. I do not believe this is a comment on Ben Chifley’s character or even an expression of disillusionment with the creation of heroic figures. It begs a complex question for contemporary representation: how much content can a flat sheet of steel contain when it is not attempting a pure minimalist statement?
The café is the square’s major element. The superb granite paving carries into its interior and large and handsome glass doors open the space to the splendid northern aspect, giving an alfresco experience now almost de rigeurfor Sydney. The building stands like a handsome interpreter of the Barcelona Pavilion, appropriately relocated to Australia and a delight to be in.
There are some questions. The domestic architectural detailing of the roof seems at odds with its urbanity. The basic planning solution references its context, yet the chosen materials fail to allow a complete integration. For example, the green glass cladding denies the teal blue spandrel panels of Qantas House; the grey-grunge walls of the café deny the brickwork of the Wentworth Hotel. The international style of the pavilion is decorated with a number of flourishes; not quite redundant and not quite functional. The stainless fins let into the low granite wall in front of the café, the studs supporting the glass panels of the Hunter Street wall and the buttoned timber benches in the plaza all place the design in a context at odds with both the modernist origins of the building and any contemporary critique.
Both the sculpture and the café are the consequences of a schizophrenic approach which attempts to straddle opposing ideas of contexturalism and purism. However, the grid of palm trees lives in my memory, as does the beautiful paving. They have given a renewed energy to the surrounding buildings.
The memorable is that which can be dreamed about a place. Time will tell.

Brian Zulaikha is a principal of Tonkin Zulaikha Architects, Sydney, and has been involved in many collaborations with public artists.

Chifley Square, Sydney
Concept City of Sydney City Projects- Tim Williams. Architect Hassell-design development Ken Maher, Andrew Cortese; documentation and site advice Robin McInnes, Adrian Gotlieb. Café Design McConnell Rayner-Grant McConnell. Artist Simeon Nelson. Project Manager City Projects-Tim Williams. Structural, Civil and Traffic Engineer Taylor Thomson Whitting-Richard Green. Mechanical and Electrical Engineer George Floth-Adrian Carrick. Electrical and Lighting Engineer Barry Webb & Associates-Barry Webb. Landscape Architect Hassell-Ken Maher, Paul Gerlach. Quantity Surveyor Page

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