It was a long time ago and in another country …..

'The past is unpredictable' - old Soviet joke

 I made a joke recently about the shape of a cake and the cook responded by saying 'what about the Edgecliff Centre', implying that one of my buildings was also a bit odd in some way.  My remark had been light hearted, there was nothing wrong with the cake which had risen unevenly because of some quirk in the way the oven heated, and although the cook hadn't spoken with malice I was a bit hurt.  No, hurt is too far too strong a word, irritated that no one appreciates the full saga we went through on that bloody building, and how it all affected the final design.

 Every architect must have a similar story, and like me they must have learnt that there's no point in remonstrating or going into details; you can either make a joke of it or bite your tongue.  I'm not making excuses understand, I've always taken the view that whatever it is, if it's part of the problem it's my responsibility as the architect to resolve it to the best of my ability.  So fifty years later I'll try and exorcise the devil by explaining what happened; it's a good story and one can always learn from the past!

In 1960 I returned to Sydney after six years working overseas and set up a combined architecture and planning practice with George Clarke and Peter Yeomans.  Multi disciplinary practices are more common now but they were unknown then and our initiative was rewarded with planning commissions all around Australia.  Our office was in New South Head Road in Edgecliff, a suburb close to the Sydney CBD and there was a boomerang shaped, twenty-nine acre parcel of land opposite known as the St James Glebe.  The land had been granted to the Church of England one hundred years before to provide an income for the upkeep of Francis Greenway's St James Church in the city. It had been subdivided, mostly into small sites on which poor quality terrace houses had been built on a narrow road pattern; it was designated as a slum, and the church had by default, become a slum landlord.

It was clear to any student of cities that given its fashionable location, with Darling Point on one side and Woollahra on the other, that this was prime real estate ripe for change in the economic sense. Redevelopment was also logical in a public interest/planning sense, as it was close to the CBD, was well served by public transport and could clearly accommodate many more people at higher densities. And all those factors served the greater aim that we will not become sustainable if our cities keep expanding with low-density suburbs lacking public transport.

The NSW State Planning Authority had already identified the site for redevelopment so we thought we were very smart when we were appointed to advise the Glebe Administration Board (GAB) on what to do now that the ninety-nine year leases were all falling due. It was exactly the sort of multi-disciplinary job for which our practice had been started.  In one fell swoop one of the biggest political problems of any redevelopment, the acquisition of a large site by resumption (currently an issue at Melbourne's Royal Park for the E-W Link) was avoided, and with the leases falling in, redevelopment was also made easier in an economic sense. As it turned out, the political cost became too great some ten years later, but first, this is what happened. 

Both the main road frontages of the site were affected by road widenings, and the Eastern Suburbs Railway, part of a 1927 plan for Sydney's rail system prepared by Dr Bradfield of harbour bridge fame, was planned to run under our site parallel to the New South Head Road frontage.

The railway had been delayed first by the Depression and then the War until it had become a Sydney joke for anything unlikely to ever happen, but now it was to be built as far as Bondi Junction.  We needed to know the precise location and levels of the railway tracks if buildings were to be constructed above it.

Although the redevelopment was seen as mostly residential, advantage was taken to locate a seven-storey office building with ground floor shops over the new railway station. The conventional wisdom was to decentralise new offices around suburban stations to reduce pressure on the CBD, and for the same reason a bus station was proposed over the railway station; Eastern Suburbs buses were to terminate at Edgecliff and commuters would finish their journey by train, thus reducing congestion on Sydney's narrow city streets.

All this was complex in both bureaucratic and practical senses, and in the end getting buses in and out required building a tunnel.  The departments were so slow to act that we had to bring forward a formal planning application to build the Edgecliff Centre (see photograph below) to force them to make decisions.

edgecliff centre

The delays by the authorities were matched by difficulties the GAB had in finding development finance. In the '60's office develop-ment was confined to the city centre and the real estate people advising the Church were cautious and conservative about building offices out at Edgecliff.  Although finance was eventually found, these property consultants had a defacto veto on all aspects of the project; if they didn't like any aspect of the design, they only had to say 'you'll only get 60% of city rents with that design', and that was usually enough to kill off whatever it was.

The size and location of the office building was determined by the position of the railway.  The structural columns were located on either side of the tracks, and the geometry of the situation dictated that the core of the office building (containing the lifts, stairs etc) should be located between the railway and the road.  In such a position the core would then be central in the building and the office floors worked out to be double the size of most city office buildings.

Most city sites in Sydney were small and the buildings covered the whole site with the core located on one side of the office floors.  Except for the circular Australia Square tower, central cores were not the norm in Sydney and this was a concern to these advisors.  However the rule of thumb for efficiency of office buildings is that the nett lettable area to gross floor area should not be less that 80%.   With a central core and larger floor areas, our ratio was over 90%, and more lettable area for the same cost meant more profit, so we won that battle.

But the thing that made our lives a misery during the working drawing stage was the appointment of a project manager to 'co-ordinate' the documents; read 'reduce the cost'; it became trench warfare fought every inch of the way! 

At weekly progress meetings, this guy would question all the consultants; he would ask the electrical engineer for instance, what lighting level he was proposing on a typical office floor?  When the engineer told him that the lighting layout would provide so many lux (a unit of illumination), he would then ask how much the construction cost could be reduced by lowered the lighting level by 10%, and as a consequence, how much would the running costs be reduced?  It's called 'value engineering' and they are not unreasonable questions, many of these rule of thumb standards could probably be lowered without any loss of amenity. It's also hard to maintain there wouldn't be any saving although this is often the case. 

Normally the engineer proposes a layout that experience tells him will provide a standard lighting level, and he has difficulty in reducing it by such a small amount, particularly as the sizes of standard products involved like the ceiling tiles and fluorescent light fittings can't be easily changed.  But this project manager wouldn't take no for an answer and many hours were spent in examining every detail of the building like this. 

Another larger example; the building had been designed with sun hoods to shade the north- facing office windows and reduce glare in summer, as well as reducing the airconditioning load and therefore the running costs.  He insisted we prove that they really would save money, otherwise they out!  None of the professional rules of thumb were taken for granted and although many of the things examined were dead ends, all this niggling did, of course, reduce the cost so it became a very economic building. 

We ended up digging the tunnel for the railway as part of our building contract and years later the railway came through and built the station under our building. And despite the doubters, on completion the building was fully let at city rents and has been fully let ever since!

This project manager clearly wasn't stupid and accepted that aesthetic considerations had a money value and had to be taken into account, but as they were hard to quantify they definitely came last in his equations.  It was a very educative experience that toughened us up for later projects but drove us spare at the time.  One could argue that professionals shouldn't simply rely on experience and this was only what should have been done anyway, but if so fees would have to rise as all the consultants found that our job costs far exceeded our fees!

As well as losing money, an additional worry was constant sniping by an architect who lived nearby who criticising the look of the building in the Press when it was only half built.  And years later an advertising agency was allowed to put illuminated signs on the western end of the building exhorting passers-by to shop there! It was long after my involvement but the signs didn't improve the building and no doubt it has all contributed to adverse comments.

So while it's fair to say that it wasn't an easy ride, I don't resile from the design that was evolved in such difficult circumstances.  And I also accept that people can only judge things on the final result and can never know all the factors I've described.

The Edgecliff experience gave me a sympathetic understanding of how difficult the design process can be when profits are the foremost concern, and as a result I have professional respect for any architect who fights through all the problems to a real functioning building, whether I like the visual design or not.  

The second stage of the Edgecliff Centre was an extension of the retail shops with a bus station on the roof and a tall apartment building on the Ocean Street corner.  Although we planned all this in detail, the successful developer came with his own architect. However we did complete two low-rise residential buildings overlooking Trumper Park, and the Goodwin Retirement Village was built at the Paddington end of the site, and these buildings are still fully occupied and functioning well.

But as Bob Dylan was saying about then, the times they were a'changing, and citizen action in the '60's across the valley in Paddington (in which I had been closely involved) had led to the whole of Paddington becoming a conservation zone.  The residents of the St James Glebe had become used to much lower than market rents and naturally didn't want to move, so with the Paddington example fresh to hand, they campaigned to stop the redevelopment. 

The Church was vulnerable to public pressure, accusations were made that they were indifferent to the plight of the poor, lacked Christian principles and were only concerned about money.
They buckled in the face of this public criticism and it became clear after a while that this situation couldn't be resolved; the Church had turned into a reluctant developer and didn't want to continue being a slum landlord either.  In the end we recommended they should sell off all the houses and this is what happened. 

It was a painful learning experience for a couple of 35 year old architects and planners.  We were too inexperienced politically to foresee and forestall all the things that happened.  Big projects like this have to have a good case and have un-wavering political support if they are to succeed, and momentum has to be maintained if democratic opposition is to be overcome.

With its very economical construction cost, a higher percentage of lettable space than normal and fully let, I suspect the Edgecliff Centre has been an investment milch cow for the Church.  It may not be my best loved building for whatever reasons, but it isn't a bad building in a visual sense, it was well built and was ahead of its time in an environmental sense.  Not that there aren't things I'd change with hindsight, but I'm satisfied it's the best that could be achieved given the limitations of bottom-line commercial architecture and political circumstances at the time.

My wife says no one wants to hear all this old stuff, and that I should move on; and except for the provocation of that cake I have!  I'll just have to continue to grin and bear it when people make cracks about my buildings; it may be unfair but it comes with the territory!

Don Gazzard LFAIA
August 2013.