When large events are held at Sydney’s new Olympic Park and Showgrounds, most spectators will arrive by train-to an airy, soaring terminal designed by Rodney Uren and Ken Maher of Hassell.
Photography Patrick Bingham-Hall
Architect’s Statement by Ken Maher
Comment by Tony Caro
It is very likely that the new Olympic Park Railway Station will figure prominently in the future memories of today’s children. A crucial cornerstone of the Olympic Co-ordination Authority’s public access strategy to the entire Homebush Bay site, this graceful building is both a new paradigm and an adornment to the civic and transport inventory of both the precinct and the city. Its power lies in its conceptual clarity and responsiveness at all levels across the design spectrum.
The functional brief is overt-move 50,000 people (or 30 trains) per hour with reasonable efficiency, comfort and safety at peak Olympic times, or you will have conspicuously failed! When the station opened for the 1998 Easter Show, it swallowed the predicted 36,000 people per hour peak in its stride. This is no mean feat. Whilst the building draws on the tradition of the grand European rail station, it differs in one crucial way, in that it is a through station, not a terminus. Because the platforms are situated below the ground plane to maintain spatial unity and unimpeded movement above, those 50,000 people must be moved en masse, vertically. A coherently accessible system of lifts, escalators, stairs and ramps facilitates this; a tribute to both Ove Arup’s computerised crowd modelling analysis and the architects’ pursuit of a clear movement pattern for passengers.
Architecturally, the building is equally assured. Comprehensively resolved is the apparent contradiction of designing at once an underground facility and a piece of civic architecture. A simple but effective strategy is at the core of this, and from it flows the entire raison d’etre of the building. The platforms are laid at the base of a massive trench, under the ground but spatially connected through insistent light penetration from above and views up to the sky. Below the datum of the ground, form and materials are simple, heavy and massive. Above it, there is a dramatic formal shift to lightness and complexity. This juxtaposition is simple, clear and it works. Sourced within the tradition of modernism, the building carefully avoids any hint of the somewhat arrogant imposition of an explicit metaphor-a design tactic that informs streams of consciousness in some parts of our design culture. Here participants are free to devise their own responses to the built reality. Through the structural and tectonic clarity of the work, these associations flow effortlessly and with variety.
The roof is effectively a vast linear canopy and is primarily responsible for the building’s architectural presence. It is a climactically induced variant of the great glazed roofs of the European rail station type, where cooler temperatures allow a fully glazed canopy. Much care has been lavished on its conceptual and detailed resolution. Consisting of 18 paired, curved, Vierendeel steel trusses straddling rhythmic concrete columns along the building’s edges, the outcome is a folded vault of great spatial richness and strong biomorphic connotation. By sharing a column, the structure supporting each roof bay is articulated from its neighbour, thereby leaving a structureless strip or vertebral joint on the column line. This strip-joint is narrow to limit heat-gain, but wide enough to read the sky through it. The entire superstructure has an air of extraordinary lightness in the manner of a Felix Candela ferro-cement umbrella. It has the ‘thin-ness’ of an origami caterpillar. Interestingly, the architects modelled the roof during the entire development phase in paper and light card. The outcome here is quite stunning because it puts light through the roof precisely where one expects the most structure to be-at the column lines. In this way, the roof from below provides a diaphanous articulation of the building’s tectonic that is evident in both traditional Euro-stations and the work of architects such as Aalto and Kahn.
The sheltering form of the roof has also been used to unify the programmatic uses and furniture of the building. Consistency of materials and furniture, both within the station and out onto its handsome forecourt, reinforces the architects’ intention of seamless spatial continuity. There are also many carefully wrought details and incidents to delight the discerning architectural consumer. From a cultural perspective, the building comes from a different source to the corpus of new work in Homebush, which may be loosely characterised as bold, ad hoc, regional modernism. By contrast, this building is a refined piece of carefully integrated craftsmanship where the design concept is rigorously applied from first step to last. It emanates firmly from the ‘total design’ school of thought best characterised by eminent Euro-based practices. Interestingly, Rodney Uren spent 10 years in Sir Norman Foster’s office, and Hassell, as we speak, are in a design partnership with the same for a major Sydney high-rise.
The outcome at Homebush is a benevolently patrician, coolly assured intervention into an ensemble of good-natured extroverts, whose urban manners are albeit somewhat less refined. The station’s form invites civic responsiveness, yet along its north and south flanks poorly defined open spaces and inappropriate uses deny the tightness and vitality one might expect in close proximity to an important transport hot spot. To capitalise on the clearly defined system of public space that this building so clearly implies, it is hoped that these spaces will be appropriately programmed as Homebush grows, post 2000, into a real city. The architects are to be congratulated for successfully delivering what they had declared they wanted to achieve, and the client group for their clear support of the design initiative.
Tony Caro is a principal of Buzacott Caro, Sydney architects and urban designers.
Olympic Park Rail Station, Sydney