Piano in Sydney

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"I propose, then, that the building will open up, play with the light, the view, the sun, the breezes, the wind; that it might have a less arrogant and more gentle interaction with nature." Renzo Piano.

Text by Graham Jahn. Photography by Martin van der Wal.

Above View from the top of the commercial tower’s western sail, looking to the north-east over the angled louvred roof plane and spire. Top right Context elevation.

It is thirty years since President Pompidou’s controversial competition for a cultural centre in Paris catapulted two unknowns from their London living room into the global spotlight. To have an Englishman and an Italian building France’s most important post-1968 monument was the stuff of intrigue and outright offence. Six failed lawsuits to halt the project, a refusal by French industry to supply the steelwork, and a decade of brutal press debate (the kinder descriptions including "macaroni held upright by steel wires") - it was a dramatic cold-shower start for the young Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers.
Reviewing three decades of work shows Piano has forged a significant repertoire of cultural, residential and transport related structures as well as a number of one-off commissions like the Bari Soccer Stadium and the Ferrari Wind Tunnel. The Piano Workshop continues to rework and advance ideas within a now defined set of materials - machined and cast steel, orange terra cotta and hi-tech glass - similar to the way that the American master Charles Eames worked with plywood and aluminium.
By the mid-nineties Piano was seen as both craftsman and technologist, modernist and contextualist, modest and humanitarian, and a winner of big projects. His concern for the modernist core fundamentals of natural light and ventilation, transparency and detail, and his challenge to establishment values, made him an architect’s architect, while his cigar-laden charm and team approach easily makes him a client’s architect.

It is a truism that the most accomplished architecture in central Sydney is built on the best sites and it is the best sites that consistently attract redevelopment (position! position! position!). As a result, the city has had its best buildings replaced, unwittingly leaving behind its worst, in relatively rapid succession. Examples abound: No. 2 Bligh Street, Francis Greenway’s exquisite mansion for Robert Campbell, was demolished for William Wardell’s handsome Union Club, which was razed for Owings Skidmore & Merrill’s Wentworth Hotel, recently thought to be standing in the way of a possible Denton Corker Marshall tower.
Of the reported twenty-two architects considered by Steve McMillan and Ross Bonthorne of Lend Lease, Renzo Piano was an inspired choice as the designer for the former government-owned site on the corner of Macquarie and Bent streets. Given the principle that each new building erected in the CBD should have even greater merit than the one it replaces, the demolition of Ken Woolley’s well-regarded State Office Block created a high bar indeed. Grounded in experimentation and materials research, Piano represented an almost unique crossover from a building-craft/technology background to the commercial/workplace proposition.
At the announcement of the engagement local architects voiced somewhat confused messages - Lionel Glendenning, for example, referred to the overseas choice as "cultural cringe", while RAIA NSW Chapter President Mark Jones initially expressed his "grave disappointment", a sentiment later reversed when it was perhaps realised that many Australian architects do major projects in other countries.
While the project’s landmark potential - mediating ambivalently between the city grid and the parkland edge - was an obvious aim, a key consideration was to effectively challenge the recently adopted amendments to the Sydney City Plan (LEP 1996) which required podium/tower solutions or "street wall" architecture. The strict compliance with "setbacks" in order to distinguish a "podium" on the Phillip Street site would have easily sterilised the viability of the commercial tower component, which already had a minimum core-to-facade span of between 10 and 12 metres caused by the narrow site constraints. While it had been informally acknowledged that the new envelope controls were a general rule, which might not apply to every site in Sydney’s uneven street plan, it had not been seriously tested.
Prior to the final consortium formation of Mirvac/Lend Lease/East Asia Property Group, Lend Lease Development established a consultant structure which utilised their own expertise through a Technical Services Group (TSG) of architects and engineers. This team supported Piano’s design development by communicating the planning issues and testing the concepts through market acceptance, cost and structural analysis.
In December 1996 Shunji Ishida, Mark Carroll and Piano presented a suite of Italian-built balsa models and faint pencil elevations of the twin building proposal to the Central Sydney Planning Committee. There was a strong bias towards sculptural form, materiality and climate mechanisms, with evidence of test rigs for the facade glazing. In addition to previously explored techniques such as the frameless glass louvre balconies and the terra cotta cladding, Piano explained the architectural ideas and planning aims. Those ideas consisted of separating the skin of the building from the frame - draping the colour-backed "fritted" glass facade like a matador’s muleta around the floor plates so that the building’s true floor plate form was not revealed. In addition, the aims included balancing the conflicts of a visually transparent foyer with active street frontages and negotiating the site slope with a stepping ground plane while staying within the shadow-form cast by Governor Phillip Tower over Macquarie Street and the sun access plane (which creates those diagonally sliced building tops in Sydney).
The smaller residential building was to maintain the street alignment of Macquarie Street for the full building height with glazed-in balconies. The apparent twin sites (with underground link) were to be treated as one amalgamated development for both the purpose of the approval and for the consolidation of the mixed-use formulae for the floor space ratio (FSR) which, when submitted, was 13.03:1.
Having developed elements of the scheme in previous projects but having never undertaken a speculative high-rise office tower before, Piano clearly regarded this as an important project.

The original concepts of a cone-shaped, top-heavy form (increasing floor plate size as the building rises); narrow core width to maximize internal floor space; and facade extensions as "fins" and "sails" which increase wind load high up the building; all created a structural proposition which could be best described as "restrained instability".
The narrow core required the engineering team, led by Rocco Bressi, to include the facade columns and slabs in the calculations for lateral stability. The core finally provided 70% lateral load stiffness and the slabs and tower columns 30% stiffness. The floor slabs spanning between 10.8 metres and 12 metres from core to perimeter have moment-resisting screw couplers providing a rigid and continuous connection for the thickened slab edge junction to the core wall. The building is tied to the ground at basement level by a 1.5 metre thick core raft permanently anchored 16 metres into the bedrock with ten 8,000 kilonewton capacity rock anchors.
Piano’s long-term fascination with tents and curtains is evident in the draped facade of glass, the tent-like ground canopy and the transformation of terra cotta masonry into a curtain-wall. The extended fins at either end of the building exemplify the illusion that the glazed facade is independent of the frame. According to the developer’s technical consultant, Professor Melbourne, the fin extensions reduce turbulence against the facade, while physically embracing the "wintergarden" balconies.
The double glazed window units manufactured in the USA are treated with a ceramic silkscreen "frit" that modulates the transparency and hides the column structures. The units are glazed in place with structural silicone, a recent first for Sydney Council, which normally requires mechanical connections to glass panels. Restraint nibs have been designed into the panels, so that in the future a mechanical fixing could rectify any detected deterioration in the silicone.
Ground Plane
The ground plane design of the original submission included a series of fanning steps under a glass wind canopy with a large forecourt area and a small lobby, part of which was retail. The curved glass lobby walls culminated in an additional bullet-shaped retail pod, plugged onto the southern end of the lozenge-shaped core. This has since been revised to rectilinear glass walls with the retail deleted, which appears to be the better solution. Another major difference is that the southern end of Phillip Lane has been absorbed into a single café covered plaza space with vehicle access to Bent Street removed. This forecourt area is covered with a "spider" cable canopy, supporting a perfectly flat glass weather shield. The design is similar, but not identical (because the under-cable is removed), to the canopy outside the Banca Popolare di Lodi (1991). Rigidity has been achieved from a single cable-form through the stiffening geometry of the upper canopy elements.
Left View of Aurora Place and Macquarie Apartments from the corner of Bent and Macquarie Streets.
Left Typical floor to floor section through the east louvre facade of the Macquarie Apartments. The operable louvres enclose "wintergarden" balconies and act as an active environmental filter, with a set of automated blinds behind each bank. Each apartment has several individually controllable banks. Top centre The "spider" cable canopy over the piazza between the two buildings supports a flat glass weather shield. The canopy is similar to that at the Banca Popolare di Lodi. Top right A foyer in the Macquarie Apartments. Above Apartment interior, looking through the living area to the "wintergarden" balcony with its louvred facade.
Elevation in PlanSection Detail Spider

Top The "spider" castings used in the cable canopy. Centre left An apartment dining area, showing a terra cotta faced structural concrete blade wall and the east louvred facade. Centre right The entrance to the Macquarie Apartments, sheltered by a flat glazed canopy with ceramic fritting on the glass as a shading device. The louvres above reflect palms in the Royal Botanic Gardens. Left Typical vertical section, terra cotta panel with tiles. A Piano trademark, the dry fixed terra cotta elements were procured by Lend Lease from the German manufacturer who provided the material for the Potsdamer Platz project in Berlin and supplied directly to the sub-contractor for assembly.

Aurora Place
Architect Renzo Piano Building Workshop Genoa, RPBW Sydney, Lend Lease Design Group (TSG), Group GSA (documentation), HPA Architects (residential). Developer Lend Lease Development, East Asia Property Group, Mirvac Group (residential). Project Manager Bovis Lend Lease (TSG). Structural Consultants Bovis Lend Lease (TSG), Taylor Thomson Whitting (residential). Mechanical Consultants Ove Arup & Partners, Environ. Electrical Consultants Lighting Design Partnership, Bovis Lend Lease (TSG), John Goss Projects, Flannigan Lawson Engineers. Hydraulic Consultants Bovis Lend Lease (TSG), John R. Keith, DP Consulting Group (residential). Facade Consultant ARUP Facade Engineers. Wind Consultants Mel Consultants. Civil Consultant Jeff Moulsdale & Associates. Fire Consultants Bovis Lend Lease (TSG), Premier Fire Services. Lift Consultants Ron Lane & Associates, Kone. Landscaping Belt Collins Australia. Specialist Lighting Lighting Design Partnership. Signage Minale, Tattersfield, Bryce & Partners. Acoustic Consultant RFA Acoustic Design. Traffic Consultant Masson Wilson Twiney. Quantity Surveyors Rider Hunt, Page Kirkland Partnership. Planning Consultants Briggs Brindle & Chambers, Conybeare Morrison & Partners.
This smaller east-facing residential building on Macquarie Street replaces the former low-scale Premier’s Wing of the State Office Block. The use of reinforced concrete blade walls eliminates the need for space-disturbing internal columns. The dual cores allow many floors to have cross-ventilated planning, with secondary bedrooms facing Phillip Lane to the west, and the living area/master bedroom combinations facing the Botanic Gardens and Macquarie Street to the east. Structural blades within each apartment area stop short of the facade glass, with internal cavity sliders used to isolate bedrooms.
While the original design models turned the corner into Bent from Macquarie Street in a series of soft broken curves, the built design places a single curved facade along Phillip Lane instead, with a straight rectangular grid to Macquarie Street. Each apartment has a large external balcony with a system of operable glass louvres, an early version of which can be found on the Cité Internationale project in Lyons (1986). The highly transparent, low-iron glass eastern elevation is surrounded by a terra cotta clad frame, which is intrinsically elegant rather than contextual.
An important and valuable contribution to Sydney’s building inventory, the project has been successfully realised by a vast team of engineers, project managers and architects, including the Sydney office of Renzo Piano Workshop led by Ken McBryde, and GSA who supported with documentation of both the residential building and the office building.
Graham Jahn is the principal of Jahn Associates

Top left The eastern louvre facade of the apartment building. Centre The partially completed "spider" canopy. Right Looking under the lower fringe of the commercial building facade to the western elevation of the apartments. Below left Ground plan. Centre FEM Core Stresses, showing core wall axial stresses induced by applied gravity loads. Right FEM Global Model Cross Section, a rendered finite element model. The rigidity of the structural solution against the effects of amplified frequency acceleration under wind load was ultimately defined by comfort standards. Measures were taken to reduce the acceleration by inducing natural counter frequencies, this was made technically feasible by modelling the structure through a finite element computer program called STRAND. This multi-output program enables complex sensitivity analysis from one computer model.

Above Aurora Place in its urban context, looking across Farm Cove.



Published online: 1 Nov 2000


Architecture Australia, November 2000

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