When an internationally recognised architect achieves the translation of a shimmering vision into a completed building, what becomes of the lofty intentions to create habitable art? Apart from having a handy ice-breaker or conversation-starter for a dinner party flat-spot, how are the occupier’s lives made any different by the designer’s vision? Or is the signature façade just appliqué on an otherwise nondescript commodity high-rise block?
It was with these sorts of questions in mind that I approached Harry Seidler’s distinctive Horizon Tower in Darlinghurst on an overcast and sticky October day in 2002. The tower stands distinctly free of Sydney’s high-rise forest, challenged only by the relatively squat Westfield tower several blocks away. My mission was to walk from Pitt Street right up to the tower—to explore its surrounds and to look inside if I could. As I approached I was struck by the tower’s tall, slender form, pristine against a blue-grey antipodean sky. On the top of the hill, its clean lines and symmetry of its undulating rippled grand piano balconies all the way up 43 floors made stark contrast with the inner-urban grime of Darlinghurst. Nearby graffiti and discarded needles demarcated the de-architected zone.
Standing at the secured front door, nose pressed to glass, I observed four black leather Barcelona chairs in the wide-open foyer, perfectly aligned, facing each other in pairs on a large modern rug. It struck me that the distance between each pair of chairs was too great to have a private conversation. For a fleeting and surreal moment, I could see Seidler and Mies van der Rohe sitting there, the latter sucking on a Cuban cigar, not bothering to discuss anything across the space but acknowledging one another nonetheless. Not that the Horizon Tower is overtly modern. Its stickleback balconies, reminiscent of a grand piano, and the changes of orientation at the Tower’s higher levels is far too lyrical for a modernist to tolerate but equally sufficiently devoid of ironic reference to satisfy a postmodernist. Perhaps the irony is that Seidler’s waves have no equivalent on the nearby flat-as-a-puddle harbour, and the ocean beaches that daily throw up 2.5 meter curls are a 40 minute ferry ride away. That aside, the transparency from foyer floor to the external approach and its celebration of tensile-reinforced concrete form construction invite momentary comparisons with Chicago’s best post-war monuments.
Horizon was one of the first of the ‘branded’ apartment towers to be offered to the inner-city Sydney and Melbourne markets. In 2001, architect Andrew Nimmo of architecture firm lahznimmo wrote on the phenomenon:
The whole approach to marketing; the naming of the project, the project graphics, even the typeface is intrinsic to brand identification. By association, appropriate marketing helps to fill in some of the design detail that has yet to be created. Using the film analogy, it is a little like deciding to see a film not just on the basis of who is in it, but who has made it, what the plot line is, and what the poster looks like.
Harry Seidler was, by this stage, a big enough brand to make such a project successful. Long criticised for taking sweetners to planning authorities to counter density and height restrictions, Seidler has a reputation for playing the Designer Deity effectively.
Horizon was controversial for two reasons. Like Seidler’s follow-on project (Cove Apartments in The Rocks), Horizon exceeded height restrictions which led the architect into a public slinging match with residents and heritage advocates. Then, after completion, it was revealed that its builder Grocon had constructed the tower without adequate insurance cover. This only came to light after the owners started to notice construction problems, particularly leaking shower membranes. Many of the showers reportedly had no membranes at all, leading the owner’s corporation’s barrister to dub the tower ‘The Horror Zone’.
My gaze was interrupted by the appearance of not Harry or Mies, but a uniformed security guard. He asks me what I want, I tell him I just want to see the building up close.
‘It’s just an apartment tower’, he assures me.
‘The lifts don’t always work… the car spots are small’, he offers. ‘You should see it here on New Year’s Eve, we turn people away from midday’.
‘Why do people want to live here?’, I ask, seriously.
‘Close to the private girls’ school (immediately across the road), walk to the CBD, investment’.
‘So do people talk about the tower any differently from other towers with a view?’, I ask opportunistically.
‘Perhaps not’, he says. ‘Apartments start at $380,000’.
I now wish I’d pulled my cheque book out on the spot. As of today they now start at close to $700k, leaking showers and absence of building insurance notwithstanding.
Realising that the guard wasn’t going to offer me a personal guided tour of the penthouse, I commenced my walk back to the CBD where I was staying. The building was undoubtedly impressive with its unflinching commitment to the almighty harbour view, improbably thin concrete balconies and the structural simplicity and openness at ground level. Architect Graham Jahn has called it ‘the most elegant tall residential building in Australia’. But to call it monumental is an understatement.
Horizon stands in complete denial of its surroundings as it rises incongruously from inner-urban fabric. It dialogues with nothing and reflects only its designer’s identity. But some monuments work, their extreme idealism and exhibitionism somehow leading to a celebration of design. This is one of them. As for the branded tower, some would argue the concept highly successful, given the apparently continuing high demand for these projects and their solid performance as appreciating assets over the last decade.
My question was answered in part. The designer’s vision was certainly expressed in the art of manipulating space in this building. And presumably the apartment’s floor plan, orientation and internal design have merits that set it apart, such as the feature that the living space and master bedroom are identically sized so that they may be reversed. But I couldn’t help feeling that the artistic merit of the place would be overwhelmed by the gargantuan scale of the views from up there.
Could I live in one of these designer sky-boxes? Of course. For a while. But sooner or later I’d be seeking out a dusty nook in a cramped Colonial terrace café down in Darlinghurst or Paddington, just to re-establish some connection with the city’s convict-hewn sandstone past.