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Sydney’s costly affair with extravagant aquatic centres

Sydney’s costly affair with extravagant aquatic centres
August 12, 2015

Reports that the cost of the City of Sydney’s planned new aquatic centre at Green Square in the city’s south have mushroomed from a projected cost of $50 million to a potential total of more than $90 million brings in to focus the Council’s spending on its aquatic centres over recent years.

Continuing a strange trend by the City of Sydney of choosing architects who have not previously designed an operating aquatic centre, the planned Green Square aquatic centre is part of a major urban regeneration project being developed half way between Sydney’s airport and CBD.

The chosen architect Andrew Burges, beat 143 other entries to design the city’s largest swimming pool complex with a concept inspired by Sydney’s beach pools.

Whether the ambitious and attractive design functions efficiently when in operation remains to be seen, but many industry insiders have their doubts about whether design aesthetics can combine with practical and efficient ongoing facility operations given past experience with the city’s Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre and Cook+Phillip Park Aquatic and Fitness Centre.

Opened in 2007, at a landmark location in Ultimo on a site overlooking Darling Harbour, the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre, cost a massive $40 million. 

Designed by noted modernist architect Harry Seidler, the route to the development of this facility, with its signature curved roof design that suggests a breaking ocean wave, was not straightforward.

In 2000, the city announced an open design competition for the project but after receiving about 100 entries, the competition was scrapped, and a new competition was held among three invited firms.

In late 2001, a jury chose Harry Seidler's firm to continue with the project.

The eventual design, Seidler’s last before his death in 2006, with its wave shaped roof, won considerable acclaim and several national and architectural awards.

Sydney-based architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly commented “this is actually one of Harry Seidler's ... finest, works. It's a slightly silly, maybe a bit fatuous, metaphor outside, but inside it's just a breathtakingly beautiful room.”

Philip Drew of The Australian wrote that the pool was a "climax" of his Seidler’s work, "meshing the severely functional and the playfully sensuous."

While loved by the architectural world, for operators the building has earned less praise.

To design his curved roof, Seidler side-stepped the design brief delivering half of the aquatic space required, and limited leisure water, and an undersized gym.

Poor understanding of the corrosive nature of chemicals rising from the pool’s water has also led to considerable corrosion and maintenance problems within the building.

In addition, while the wave roof can be admired from the Sydney CBD, pool users can’t admire a view of the city as Seidler, whose style has often been referred to as ‘brutalist’, chose to design a glass wall facing Ultimo’s Harris Street while only providing pool users with a terrace from which to admire views of the city.

In addition, the orientation of the wave-shaped roof will never lend itself to the installation of solar-panelling should the facility’s operators choose to reduce energy costs in that way.

Similar corrosion problems have also occurred at another of Sydney’s ‘iconic’ aquatic and recreation centres, the Cook+Phillip Park Aquatic and Fitness Centre, located in the heart of the Sydney CBD near St Mary’s Cathedral.

Opened in 2000, the facility was built to a design by Lawrence Neild, whose architectural experience had largely been in the design of academic institutions and hospitals, but unlike Burges and Seidler did have some experience of sport facilities having been head of master planning for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and having designed the Sydney Olympic Park Tennis Centre/Sydney International Tennis Centre.

Imaginatively located beneath Sydney’s Cathedral Square, the facility has been dogged by operational problems since its opening in 1999.

These have included changing rooms with egress by the deep end of the facility’s 50 metre pool, a labyrinthine area of leisure water that demands the presence of numerous lifeguards at all times and corrosion issues relating to poor ventilation.

As a result, just 15 years after opening, the facility is due for a multi-million dollar refit.

In defence of Neild, he was working with a location in front of a historic cathedral and had to meld a design complementing public space with an aquatic and recreation centre.

As Neild told architectural journal Architecture AU in 2012, he had “special affection” for the Cook + Phillip Park Aquatic and Fitness Centre “whose innovative structure supports a system of pools and paving that make its roof into a fine civic space in a sensitive area of the city, forming a complex piazza that serves both as the parvis (open space) of St Mary’s Cathedral and as the forecourt for the Australian Museum.”

However, what those who use aquatic and recreation facilities, and those who manage them, require are functional spaces in which they can safely and securely make the most of their efforts to achieve, exercise and improve – not award winning architectural statements that are impractical and expensive to run and maintain.

Surely, when designing such facilities, architectural form can combine with function and it may be an idea that authorities and patrons responsible for the design of aquatic and recreation facilities learn from part mistakes and take on board the knowledge and experience of those who know how such facilities operate?
Nigel Benton

Images: The design for the City of Sydney’s planned new aquatic centre at Green Square (top) and Harry Seidler's award winning Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre (below).

Leisure architecture and the great value debate is explored in a feature by  Facility Design Group (FDG)  principal Stephen Johansson in the July/August 2015 issue of Australasian Leisure Management.

4th November 2014 - WINNING GREEN SQUARE AQUATIC CENTRE DESIGN BRINGS A BEACH TO CENTRAL SYDNEY

1st July 2014 - SYDNEY POOL ACKNOWLEDGED AT ARCHITECTURE AWARDS

17th June 2014 - NEW AQUATIC CENTRE PUTS HEART INTO SOUTH SYDNEY’S GREEN SQUARE

20th November 2013 - NEW MOSS VALE WAR MEMORIAL AQUATIC CENTRE SAVES MILLIONS BY USING NEW PROCUREMENT MODEL

11th August 2013 - LEISURE BENEFITS FROM FEDERAL ELECTION FUNDING COMMITMENTS

28th February 2012 - CITY OF SYDNEY APPOINTS YMCA TO MANAGE MAJOR AQUATIC AND FITNESS FACILITIES

17th June 2010 - IAN THORPE AQUATIC CENTRE REACHES 1 MILLION VISITORS


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