Paradise Limited

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Paradise Limited

Despite difficulties with the planning envelope and program, Burley Katon Halliday deliver a glamorous six-pack apartment block to a prime site on Sydney’s waterfront.

Photography Patrick Bingham-Hall

top Looking west from the harbour’s edge. above A pebble pond beneath the central staircase, with doors leading to the lawn.

The stone-paved balcony, looking north-west.

Framed view culminating the building’s first floor hall.

A sequence of Tracey Moffatt photographs in the hall to the bedrooms, looking towards the kitchen.

Comment by Paul Berkemeier with Richard Johnson
In recent years, Sydney’s central areas have experienced a boom in apartment construction. Although few projects are distinguished architecturally, there are some exceptions to the general mediocrity. Burley Katon Halliday is one firm which has been designing thoughtful and stylish urban housing. The new development at 28 Billyard Avenue, Elizabeth Bay, is its largest and most ambitious: six spectacular units promising the best of expensive Emerald City lifestyle.
It is a difficult project to review. On one hand, it gives the best that Sydney can offer; a prime inner-urban waterfront location, generous apartments with panoramic views, and stylish architecture and interiors. On the other hand, the building has been compressed and controlled by complex planning and design constraints, producing an outcome which lacks convincing spatial qualities. In the overall composition, the joy and power of many expensive features have been lost. The site is complex. It has an irregular shape, with massing and height dictated by a previously approved development consent for a different design by another architect. In typical Sydney fashion, the site has been the subject of a game of musical chairs, being bought and sold several times in the last decade and subject to various schemes by different architects. The approval had a difficult passage through the Land and Environment Court, with numerous concessions being required to maintain the harbour vistas from John Verge’s Elizabeth Bay House and a small park to the west. The current owner, East Asia Property Group, fortunately had the vision to engage a good team to redesign the project.
The building’s external form is well resolved and makes positive contributions to its street context and to the harbour. The Billyard Avenue facade is particularly successful: it is elegantly proportioned and a modest and appropriate addition to the street. Even the front door and car park entry are pleasingly underplayed. The building’s roof, very visible from the park across the street and apartment buildings uphill, forms a most important ‘fifth facade’. The architects have dealt with this opportunity brilliantly by flooding the roof with water to create a reflection pond which mirrors the sky to create a diaphanous foreground to the harbour vista. The water-reflection theme is successfully repeated on the harbour’s edge, where a black-tiled swimming pool stretches almost from boundary to boundary.
The site drops two-and-a-half storeys from the street to the waterfront lawn. The sectional potential of this level change has been exploited by a central hall which steps down from the front door to the concierge’s desk, then to a dramatic stair hall which culminates in a framed vista of the harbour. This device gives an immediate connection to the view but tight envelope height constraints, combined with the crossover plan of the penthouse, have made the spaces feel uncomfortably compressed. At ground floor, the hall exits to an expansive lawn extending to the pool, harbour and jetty. Here the section is again troublesome, because the ground plane has been excavated below its natural level, causing the lawn to slope up towards the water.
The sectional problem is also evident in the apartments, where the building height limit has dictated low ceilings. This has been exacerbated by the need for structural transfer beams and air conditioning ducts. Although coffers and bulkheads have been well considered to define spaces within rooms, and floor-to-ceiling doors give good spatial connections, the impression is still very tight.
The plan has been arranged to make maximum use of the harbour views, even from the sides of the building, where sequentially projecting bedrooms with curved glazing catch glimpses of the water beyond the side boundary setback.
In Sydney, views are vital to prestige developments and here the outlook is magnificent; looking up the harbour towards Bradley’s Head and Watsons Bay. The design tries to make the most of it, with sweeping curved balconies and clear glazing across the full width of each apartment (and wrapping around the side of the building). But there are three downsides to this strategy. First, the building reveals everything in one hit, with no subtle sequence of revelation, framing or use of interstitial space. Second, privacy becomes a real problem because the vast expanse of glass makes it just as easy to look in as to look out. Third, this openness denies an opportunity to provide intimate, contained space. Ironically, the focus on the view means that the ‘viewer’ has become the ‘viewed’, and the only way to change this is to draw curtains and deny the panorama.
As is expected in Burley Katon Halliday’s work, the internal fitout is very good. In particular, the kitchens, bathrooms and cabinetry are superb (although the colour-back glass used extensively as a wall surface for wet areas is suffering some odd discoloration). Elsewhere, construction and detail are not entirely convincing. The materiality of the exterior, particularly on the eastern elevation, is not fully developed and lacks detail and articulation. These flaws of resolution extend to the structure, which does not give the building a sense of real or apparent order. Circular columns, for example, are unnecessarily and disconcertingly fat, and defy structural logic by shifting position from floor to floor.
The landscape design again appears to have been generated by a need to maximise the view from each apartment. The common lawn, between the building and the swimming pool, is an undifferentiated plane without any intimate spaces or areas of shelter apart from the shade of a frangipani in the north corner. Environmental issues have been randomly addressed. Although the windows on the west elevation have been well protected with shutters and the penthouse has a stylish sunshade wrapping around to the south side, there are large expanses of unprotected glass facing north and east. The apartments are fully air conditioned, probably as a necessity rather than a luxury.
Throughout the project, there are tell-tale signs of arbitrary cost-cutting and short-cut solutions. The drenching sprinkler heads and pipework are extraordinarily crude, especially when seen against exceptionally expensive walls of curved glass. Although anyone living in an apartment would want blinds or curtains to give privacy, no provision has been made for their installation. In a belated attempt to separate public from private space, ordinary terracotta planting tubs have been placed to mark the path from the common rear doors to the lawn. The jetty— which should have been the culmination of the passage through the site as well as a place to celebrate arrival from the water—looks like it was designed by the bridge and wharf carpenter who knocked it up.
The project has suffered from the classic problem of trying to put just a bit too much on the site. One cannot help but think how much better and less contorted the architecture would have been with one less apartment. Nevertheless, it is pleasing to see a building which makes a positive contribution to the public realm, does not detract from the setting of one of Sydney’s most important historic houses, and pushes the constraints of the conventional.
In a lesser building, the flaws would be more predictable and far less significant—but here they are starkly contrasted against the finesse of Burley Katon Halliday’s detailing.
Paul Berkemeier directs his own practice in Sydney. Richard Johnson is the Sydney director of Denton Corker Marshall.

28 Billyard Ave, Elizabeth Bay, NSW
Designers Burley Katon Halliday—architecture David Katon; interiors Iain Halliday. Client East Asia Property Group. Structural Engineer Taylor Thomson Whitting. Services Engineer Vos Partnership. Hydraulics & Civil Engineers Ian Young & Associates. Acoustics Peter R. Knowland. Quantity Surveyor Rawlinsons. Landscape Architects EDAW. Graphics Fabio Ongarato Design. Building Consultant Philip Chun & Associates. Builders avnir Consolidated.


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Last modified: 4-Oct-98.



Published online: 1 Sep 1998


Architecture Australia, September 1998

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