Sydney swimming. Naomi Stead explores design strategies in the Ultimo
Aquatic Centre and Public Space Design Competition entries.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Entry no. 93 takes cues from the Griffins’ demolished Pyrmont incinerator.

Entry no. 93 takes cues from the Griffins’ demolished Pyrmont incinerator.

Sydney is renowned for its beaches and  its coastal swimming pools, which seem  more like rockpools or walled off pieces of  cean than constructed “pools”. Anyone who  has swum in one knows that particular  pleasure of suspension between nature and culture, of being in an enclosed body of  water as spray breaks over the side. Indoor  pools, on the other hand, can sometimes be  rather noxious places. The benefits of  change rooms and constant temperature  can be counteracted by an overpowering  smell of chlorine, warnings about the spread  of cryptospiridium, and the problem of the  suspended bandaid. Despite the seductive images of sleek, tumble-turning pool  swimmers with which Sydney was plastered  during the Olympics, swimming up and  down the black line seems to be something  done here for fitness, not simply for pleasure.

All this is intended to change, however,  through the City of Sydney’s Ultimo Aquatic  Centre and Public Space Design  ompetition. The competition brief includes  a range of social and recreational facilities: a  collection of pools, a gymnasium, a covered walking track, a cafe, and designated public  space. Envisioned as a gathering place and  a focus of community activity for residents and visitors to the Pyrmont peninsula, the  aquatic centre will reactivate a tradition, of  swimming and water sports in the area, that has lain dormant since the original Pyrmont  public baths, the first to be built in Sydney,  were demolished in 1946. The brief for the  resent competition echoes the social and  recreational function of that earlier facility –  a facility that played an important role in  establishing community identity for the  inhabitants of what was, in the late  nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a  thriving industrial area supported by intense  shipping and trade activity. With the  peninsula now largely de-industrialised, and  with a growing population of ethnically  diverse and highly skilled workers, the new  aquatic centre is intended as an instrument  of urban renewal.

The competition brief offers considerable  challenges: the complexity of its functional  requirements; the requirement for adherence to, and innovation in, ecologically  sustainable design; and the site position,  bounded on two sides by the heavy traffic of  Harris and William Henry streets. It also  provides rich design opportunities, with an  evocative layering of social and industrial  histories, and physical architectural  remnants, across a site that opens eastward  to spectacular views over Darling Harbour to  the city. The brief encourages, but does not  require, the retention of a remnant woolstore  facade on the William Henry Street edge.

Similarly, it invites some expression of the  former Bullecourt Lane, which traversed the  site between two AML&F woolstore buildings  before they were destroyed by fire in 1992.

The most successful schemes are  distinguished by the complexity and subtlety  of their response to these historical and contextual elements. However, as the jury  has not announced its selections at the time  of writing, what follows is an overview of  themes and trends in the entries, and a  selection of specific approaches, rather than  a critical review as such.

With few exceptions, the schemes are  engaged more with the exploration of formal  architectonic themes than with conceptual  oncerns. The dominant aesthetic is one of  hard-edged, articulated neo-modernism..

Perhaps this is due to the influence of Cook  and Phillip Park, the City of Sydney’s most  recently completed pool project on the  astern edge of the CBD. Or perhaps it is a  reflection of wider architectural trends.

Whatever the reason, the “new flatness” is  evident in many schemes, and is particularly  manifest in the use of large-scale images  applied to building surfaces, images which  are clearly intended to function as both  ornament and “sign” or expression of  function. The very need for such “billboards”  indicates the rather generic nature of many  of the schemes – the few designs that  attempt to represent the building’s function  do so in the abstracted language of skeletal  structural expressionism characteristic of the  architecture of sporting arenas. Generally  speaking, the schemes tend more towards  the monolithic than the muscular.

The scheme exhibited as number 93 (a  randomly allocated number, different to the  anonymous entrant number) invokes the  riffins’ demolished Pyrmont incinerator. The  “fall” of the chimney stack is re-presented in  the design’s complex curved roof skin, and  the stack’s elevation is layed over the axis of  Bullecourt Lane in plan. The incinerator’s  distinctive geometrical patterns re-emerge in  the design’s panelled roof skin, in the  disposition and ornamentation of the public  space, and in tile patterning on the pool deck  and pool floors. Scheme number 3 takes its  cue from the natural rather than the built  history of the peninsula, overlaying the site  plan with a map of the Pyrmont peninsula  coastline, as it was in the early 1840s, and  using this topography as the basis for the  disposition and naming of its various pools  and public space elements.

Other schemes make the walking track  into a distinctive design element. Number 55  extends it into a series of three  nterconnecting irregular loops which swoop  around the site as an elevated graded track,  reflecting the amorphous curvilinear  geometry of both the administration building  and the pair of “grassy knolls” covering the  underground pools. This scheme accentuates  its “blobject” geometry by playing against the  orthogonal woolstore remnant, converted in  this case into a gymnasium. This is also one  of several schemes that address the brief’s  requirement to retain views across the site,  and to provide open public space, by  incorporating a trafficable roof. Number 83  takes this approach to its extreme,  reinterpreting the brief away from the  commercial “megabuilding” model to provide  a series of open public terraces stepping  between Harris and Pyrmont streets, the  pools placed on an open roof deck with the  city as backdrop. Scheme number 18  converts the smaller pool into an outdoor  “beach”, and runs this beneath a minimalist  glass building which contains the 50 metre  pool on the top floor.

Both number 61 and number 90 use the  device of the glass-bottomed pool to  dramatic effect; the latter cites such diverse  recedents as the blue grotto at Capri,  Turkish baths in Morocco, and Pyrmont’s  disused sandstone quarries – used last  entury as swimming holes. It extends the  brief with a “subterranean waterscape”, an  underground complex of grottoes, reflecting  pools and carved sandstone niches, lit by  ethereal light filtered through the glass-bottomed  pools above. Above ground, the  scheme is characteristic of a number of  competitors who use the 50 metre and 25  metre pools to define two pavilions,  rticulated and roofed separately, and  divided by an atrium or concourse.

The competition’s only “protest” entry,  exhibited as number 46, is a witty single-panel  comment on the trend away from the “pool” and towards the “aquatic centre”  model, with its connotation of social  engineering through “active recreation”.

Offering an ironic series of pools designed  “in the style of” various national and  international architects, its favoured solution  is a hole in the ground filled with water. This  lone voice is out of step with the rest of the  architectural profession, however, as that is  ar from what the brief demands and what  the other schemes provide. Gone are the  days of the humble local pool: this  ompetition and its entries hail the new  approach – holistic health and fitness, and  the integration of social and recreational  ctivities in a community-oriented facility –  that we can expect from urban aquatic  centres from now on.

The 95 stage one entries  were exhibited at Sydney’s Customs House  in February. Five finalists have been selected  from stage one and invited to develop their  schemes further, subject to a capability  ssessment by an independent adviser. Stage two commenced on April 2. The winner will be announced early July, 2001



Published online: 1 May 2001
Words: Naomi Stead


Architecture Australia, May 2001

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