Placemaking is an overused word, but the best places evolve through “skilled curation” says the architect and visionary behind Barangaroo South, Ivan Harbour. (Photo: Brett Boardman)
Harbour led the design of the 22-hectare masterplan for Lendlease’s Barangaroo South and the three tall towers at its heart, International Towers Sydney. He's also designed five buildings, two already occupied, within Lendlease’s new development at Stratford, International Quarter London.
Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners is behind some of the most eye-catching and iconic buildings of modern-era London. Among these are the Leadenhall Building by senior design partner Graham Stirk, and affectionately known as ‘The Cheesegrater’ for its wedge-shape, and the Lloyd’s building, which was the youngest structure in the UK to achieve a Grade 1 heritage listing.
London’s planning system – “based on subjectivity not objectivity” – lends itself to daring design, Harbour reflects.
“While there are some formal controls – like protecting views around St Paul’s for instance – Margaret Thatcher’s government scrapped many of the established controls such as floor-to-area ratios. Authorities still have a strategic development plan – you can’t put a power station in a residential area – but it’s really up to the architectural team to argue for what they think is the most appropriate development.”
It’s not an easy process, Harbour admits, “because you invite useful critique from all stakeholders”. But, in general, London’s approach “has made us more inventive”. The “rules-based” planning approach in Australia leaves our cities more constrained and less innovative, he adds.
Where Australia does lead the world is in workplace design, Harbour says. “Australians understand that working at a desk is just one activity, and a lot of work takes place in other parts of a building or precinct.”
International Towers Sydney, for example, “stage sets” with big, warehouse-style floorplates that provide flexibility and encourage new ways of working. “You can isolate or bring people together. The bones of the building don’t prevent you from creating your own world.”
Following the success of International Towers Sydney, Lendlease “told me they would never do another central core building again, as these tend to be rigid and hierarchical and it is hard to bring people together when the centre of the building is filled with lifts”.
But Barangaroo South’s success is found in the “tight urban grain” as much as in the tall buildings. “You never read the scale of the buildings because you are captured by the activity on the street level.” It’s a quintessential example of density done well.
The secret to great places
Emerging research underway by the Property Council suggests ‘place’ is now a key ingredient of city competitiveness. Despite the perception that great places evolve by ‘happy accident’ they are deliberate and intentionally created.
“‘Placemaking’ is an overused word, but great places are created with critical mass of activity. And that can only be generated by numbers, obviously, and also by the mix of building types and uses,” Harbour explains.
Skilled placemaking is an exercise in sleight of hand. “It can’t look curated.”
Harbour says he was “slightly nervous” about curating the urban space at Barangaroo. But on reflection “giving a site to one developer who is thinking about placemaking and creating a sense of character is a clever move, because it allows that developer to curate the environment and surprise everyone”.
Barangaroo South didn’t break the rules, he says. “We established new rules.” Since then, the precinct has become a global case study for retail activation and recently took home the top retail development prize at the 2019 Property Council of Australia / Rider Levett Bucknall Innovation and Excellence Awards.
Harbour says his “throw-away statement” at the nascent stage of Barangaroo was “that it was more successful after 30 days than Canary Wharf was after 30 years as a people place”.
Canary Wharf, London’s second CBD, “was daring and bold at its time, but it is only now starting to knit the ingredients together that we need for a thriving city”. With time it will become more like Barangaroo, he says, as it “slowly comes to grips” with the new world of work. Canary Wharf’s challenge is to “break down the edges” between the buildings, their “grandiose lobbies” and the surrounding streets.
Curating new communities
Harbour’s brief at International Quarter London, which is on the Property Council’s study tour trail later this month, was to extend the idea of the “stage set”. Smaller spaces on large floorplates and clear connections between floors help companies to “bring multiple-level communities together with the same sense of place,” he says.
But International Quarter London’s challenge is much like that at Canary Wharf three decades earlier: how to entice people away from an established and buzzing city centre. While Stratford is less than 10 minutes to Liverpool Station, it “still suffers from the stigma of its past”.
“Barangaroo may have been on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ but it was still very much in the centre of the city, and so it was a pressure release valve. At IQL, there’s still pressure to build.” And the signs are good, as universities, arts and culture are committed to the growing community.
What role do iconic buildings play in curating these new communities?
First and foremost, a successful building is “one that serves and inspires the people who use it”, he says.
Harbour is reluctant to single out any favourite buildings. “It’s a hard question to ask an architect. It’s like being a doctor – the case in hand is always the one that is most interesting.”
But any building that “challenges the status quo” grabs his attention. He’s interested in how buildings fit into their context. “Are they bullies? Or do they benefit their neighbours?”
The best buildings engage with the streets around them, because “private buildings have the same obligation to the streets as public buildings do”. And the best buildings invite a conversation rather than offer a “blind monolith of reflective glass”.
Buildings must also be economical. “I’m not interested in buildings that spend money by being flamboyant. Cost is always a constraint but when it’s dealt with cleverly you get a better building.”
How many buildings fall into that category? Not many, he laughs.
Harbour’s message to Australia’s property industry is emphatic.
“Don’t do as you’ve always done. Think about what you could do and how you could improve on what you last did. Be prepared to throw everything out the window to make the next development better for everyone. The key word is everyone, because we need to get society on board to deliver the best places.”