Seidler’s final public project turns 10

The Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre in Ultimo, the last publicly commissioned building designed by modernist pioneer Harry Seidler, is turning 10 in August.

Named in recognition of Olympic swimming champion Ian Thorpe, the building is distinctive for its wave-shaped roof and features an Olympic-sized pool, leisure pool, program pool, fitness centre, steam room, sauna and cafe.

The centre’s tenth birthday will be marked with a celebration lead by its namesake Ian Thorpe and the City of Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore on Sunday 27 August, where families will be able to enjoy free swimming classes and other activities, party bags and a barbecue.

The Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre by Harry Seidler.

The Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre by Harry Seidler.

Image: City of Sydney

Seidler’s firm was chosen to design the project following a design competition in 2001, construction was completed in 2007 and the centre opened in August of that year.

It was one of the last buildings to be designed by Seidler, along with the Alliance Francaise building in Sydney, the Waves on Hamilton townhouses on Hamilton Island, the Meriton Tower in Sydney, and an addition to the Marcus Seidler house.

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The Austrian-born Australian architect died in March 2006, before the completion of the project, which was finished under the supervision of his widow, architect Penelope Seidler.

“I still feel excited and proud every time I see the building,” Penelope Seidler said. “It provides a great space for Sydney and I am sorry Harry did not live to see it completed.”

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Built in Ultimo under a City of Sydney planning policy to provide community-based facilities in strategic municipal precincts, the aquatic centre is located on the corner of Harris and William Henry streets, across the road from the iconic Powerhouse Museum designed by NSW Government Architect Ian Thompson and design architect Lionel Glendenning.

A design statement on the website of Harry Seilder and Associates states that the iconic wave-shaped, expressed steel roof structure recalls the character of Darling Harbour, while the colonnade of shaped concrete piloti columns on Harris Street complement other iconic buildings in the precinct.

“Clear glass walls to the east and west facades also reinforce important visual links towards the city skyline, not only for swimmers inside the facility but also through the building from Harris Street,” the design statement reads. “This transparency establishes a dialogue between the activities of the aquatic centre and Harris Street, and by extension, the community.”

The Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre by Harry Seidler.

The Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre by Harry Seidler.

Image: City of Sydney

The Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre received an International Architecture Award from the Chicago Athenaeum in 2009 and an award for Public Architecture from the the Australian Institute of Architects New South Wales chapter in 2008. It has broadly been recognized as a significant example of Seidler’s work, with architectural critic and author of three books on Seidler, Philip Drew, writing in The Australian that the centre represented a “climax of sorts, meshing the severely functional and the playfully sensuous.”

Despite its eventual success, the centre’s design and construction processes were beset by delays and controversy. An initial open design competition launched in 2000, which was not endorsed by the Institute, received 100 responses but was scrapped owing to a reported lack of quality. It was only after the scrapping of this competition that Seidler’s design was chosen from a pool of three design proposals from invited firms.

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Budgetary concerns and city council politics delayed construction until 2004, with then-Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull favouring a curtailed $25 million version of the centre. The succeeding Lord Mayor Clover Moore initially also favoured the scaled-down model before community pressure convinced her to push for the construction of the original concept.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore said more than five million attendees had come through the centre’s turnstiles since it opened in 2007 and encouraged people to celebrate the milestone.

“Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre is a highly valued community facility for residents and workers around Pyrmont and Ultimo,” the Lord Mayor said. “I’m thrilled to see average attendances grow from 200,000 in 2008 to more than 800,000 in the last year.”

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