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.