Building Review of Substation Number 175

It sounds like exactly the kind of design project you might set students in a school of architecture: design a six-storey mixed-use residential building, on a footprint of 4.8 by 9 metres, within and above the shell of an existing substation, and at the head of an inner-urban pocket park. Requiring a virtuoso performance in tight apartment planning and intricate stair layout, as well as opening larger questions about urban density and the intense use of city land, it would be a challenging project indeed. So it is perhaps appropriate that Philip Thalis, of Hill Thalis Architecture and Urban Projects, who worked with Laura Harding on Substation number 175, is also a half-time academic in architecture at UTS. (Therefore also, incidentally, a colleague of mine, which I note in the interest of disclosure.) With its quietly polemical character, this small tall building can also be read as a ‘lesson’ in urban consolidation, calling on precedents in Japan and other very dense urban environments, but quite unlike other buildings in Sydney.

The existing substation was a two-storey dark brick number, one of many such unobtrusive gems dotted throughout the Sydney suburbs. These nuggety little substation buildings were humble but graceful items of urban infrastructure, and decommissioning has now made some available for other uses. Number 175 is no exception, and the elegant composition of its original street façade has been kept intact in the new project, such that the entry to the two upstairs apartments now uses the existing substation doorway. This opens onto a minute foyer and then a stair, which winds upward and around and through the two apartments in an intricate twisting puzzle of vertical circulation.

An anomaly in legislation allowed a height limit of twenty-five metres for the tiny site. But while this proportion makes the transverse section drawings seem almost freakishly tall and slender (peopled, in Harding’s charming and whimsical drawings, by no fewer than nine people and a dog) in its context the building is actually not so startling. It is dwarfed by the neighbouring slab to the north, and comparable in height with other buildings across Devonshire Street. The internal effect of its vertical stretching is to give the different rooms of the apartments a very different character, as you climb higher into the tree canopy.

The building turns a different face towards its Western, park frontage, replacing the previous blank party wall that was painted with a mural by Peter Day. This new façade has a carefully composed, de Stijl-esque window, hood, and balcony treatment, its integral red sun shades both providing both a bold graphic element, and an indicator of the life within. Along with the new café that occupies the building’s ground floor, this façade will serve to enliven and define the park below. This park is currently a rather dismal affair, very heavily trafficked and used by smokers, but generally the preserve of greasy pigeons and dead lawn, bisected diagonally by a row of chained bollards. A new Eastern edge will hopefully rejuvenate this small piece of public open space in the dense inner urban fabric of Surry Hills.

One of the most interesting elements of this project is the procurement process that comes with the client being simultaneously owner, developer, and builder. The project was thus undertaken on a ‘partial services’ basis, where the role of the architect is one of layout, schematic design and liason with council, and the client then decides how the building would best be constructed, and consults with the architect as they build it. This means that the details are not always ‘designed’ as such, but are worked out collaboratively during the process of construction. On the face of it, this seems to be an ideal, even utopian arrangement. The architect is neither pincered between the competing interests of a separate owner and client, nor expected to have resolved every single detail and eventuality before construction begins. The skill and experience of the builder is also properly valued and exploited. And sure enough, Thalis describes the relationship between builder and architect in this case as ‘a very productive collaboration’.

He also notes, however, that such a process brings new considerations to the design – where architects have diminished control over construction, it is wise to make the building as easy as possible to build, avoiding the ‘moving parts’ of complex or unconventional elements. Thalis acknowledges that the aim of such a process is not necessarily an ‘exquisite object’ building. But in this project, to my mind, it is here that the weaknesses of such a procurement process also become evident. While the exterior is sleek and well clad in its zinc skin, a few of the building’s internal finishes, materials, and detailed finishing are jarring. Of course there is nothing wrong with cheap and cheerful, but in contrast with the quality of the overall design, it does tend to stand out.

But these are minor quibbles, as are my other criticisms – that the size of the windows to the bathrooms and the stair are surprisingly mean, that the sill level in the topmost bedroom feels too high, that the rubber tiled floor finish in the upper apartment’s living area seems drastically out of place in a domestic setting, and that the top of the retained substation window does not align with the finished ceiling height of its new room. What is more important is the larger agenda that the building works to open, about its place within the city.

The building is thus, in Thalis’s words, a ‘counter-project’, a kind of built argument or quiet manifesto against the current profligate use of urban land. It aims to show that density can be good, to demonstrate how space in the city can be fully and intensely exploited, and to argue that if all such space were used to its full capacity there would be no need to encroach outwards into rural areas for at least fifty years. The polemical nature of this argument may contrast with the polite good manners of the building itself, but this doesn’t make it any less radical. After all, sometimes a whisper is louder than a shout.

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