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Fifty shades of beige no more

Catherine Carter

If a tile could ever tell a story, the tiles that line the walls and floors of the Sydney Building would whisper a secret or two.

Of wheeling and dealing over long lunches in long-gone restaurants, romances sparked over the dance floor of the Private Bin, fires flamed and fortunes won and lost.

Walking around the back rooms of the Sydney Building recently with one of the owners, Phillip Keir, I was entranced by the generations of tiles that conveyed the building’s history in a way that words can never do – the art deco black and white tiles covered by the pale pink favoured in the fifties, which were then obscured by acid yellow, brown, and later, more black and white.

Each of these layers serves as a reminder not only of our city’s history (and dubious aesthetic choices), but of the challenge we face as we strip back a building to restore its former glory.

The Sydney and Melbourne buildings are our city’s sentinels. Construction of the pair, referred to collectively in their early days as the ‘Civic Centre Buildings’, began in 1926. While the Sydney Building was opened by Prime Minister Stanley Bruce on 3 December 1927, the Melbourne Building was not completed until 22 February 1946.

old canberra feature

The inspiration for their design, conceived by acclaimed architect Sir John Sulman, was Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital in Florence. They were the first buildings in the nation’s capital to be constructed privately and were built in sections, much like a Paddington terrace. With their colonnades, wide loggias and pleasing proportions, they rapidly became loved landmarks in our city.

But the dilemma we face today, exemplified in the buildings’ “50 shades of beige”, were there right from the day the first foundation stone was laid. As one article in The Canberra Times, published in September 1927, reveals: “round the whole block an arcade is to be built piece by piece by each lessee…” Those individual lease holdings have, over time, created the tired, tatty and erratic façades we face each time we head down Northbourne Avenue.

Those individual lease holdings have, over time, created the tired, tatty and erratic façades we face each time we head down Northbourne Avenue.

Phillip Keir

Phillip Keir

That history brings with it enormous challenges – but they aren’t insurmountable. Phillip Keir is prepared to take on the challenge, and to “play to the strength of heritage and to incorporate stories of the people who have used the building over the last 90 years”.

If ever there was an embodiment of the convergence between the business, arts and property communities, Phillip is it. He started his working life at the Sydney Theatre Company, was chair of the Biennale of Sydney for several years, and heads up the Keir Foundation, a private fund that fosters innovation and excellence in the arts. For 20 years, Phillip published Rolling Stone magazine in Australia. Phillip’s career credentials alone give me confidence that he can create something spectacular.

The light rail lured Phillip to Canberra, but his family history in the nation’s capital stretches back generations. He’s currently undertaking a large renovation of roughly a quarter of the Sydney Building – one which I think could kick-start its renaissance.

“As the Private Bin bar tenancy came to a natural end, it seemed to be time to think the new uses for this building,” he told me. “The announcement of the light rail and the encouragement of greater living density makes a new approach to the Sydney Building possible.”

The task before him is immense, but his vision is inspiring and includes a new upmarket food hall and function center. If you’ve been to Spice Alley in Sydney’s Chippendale, you’ll be able to picture the open-air courtyards and hawker-style dishes serving up from every corner of the globe. Phillip says the Sydney Building’s food hall will present interesting and diverse food offerings day and night, and will be a platform for events, classes and other get-togethers.

The new market will open onto Verity Lane as well as to the new Northbourne Plaza. On fine days, people will be able to “follow the sun from a morning coffee in the laneway atmosphere of Verity Lane through to lunch or afternoon tea on the western facing colonnade to pizza and a drink at the upstairs bar in the evening.”

“We want to see people using Verity Lane, which serves as natural gathering place for people,” he adds, and points to the use of the laneway during the experimental You Are Here Festival as an example of how “entertainment can meet food in an urban setting”.

Phillip promises the market will bring together young and innovative operators with an emphasis on fresh, affordable and locally-sourced food, prepared in front of the customer. “We want the market to be truly accessible,” he adds.

The footprint of this part of the Sydney Building is also being extended, with an additional floor creating a function venue that will accommodate 300 people standing. This is exciting in itself, as very few heritage venues in Canberra have the capacity host such large shindigs.

Undoing the damage the building suffered in the 1960s and 70s is a huge challenge, with many illegal and haphazard extensions and alterations needing to be rectified. There is a long list of other items too, from lighting in the laneways to waste removal, that are keeping Phillip up at night.

The new design of Northbourne Plaza – submitted for approval in August – will make a difference to how people use both buildings, Phillip says, as wider verges will provide pedestrians with extra space and give restaurants more room for al fresco dining. And moving the bus stop, which currently “ties up the four sides of the building” will also help to activate the precinct.

Phillip’s vision is inspiring, but one person alone can’t fix these buildings. Each has multiple owners, so we need to develop a plan that brings everyone together. We need to establish a consistent design philosophy to make better use of the internal courtyards and improve the consistency of the façades. There are many levers at our disposal to support this – from fast-tracking planning approvals to providing financial incentives.

But let’s also applaud the visionaries like Phillip who are willing to back Canberra. He promises to create an “interesting new urban space that will celebrate the layers of history and show Canberra in a new light” and I, for one, can’t wait to see what colour tiles he chooses.

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Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up Indigo Consulting Australia where she provides specialist business and communication advisory services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010, and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017.

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