The peacock dress of a new office building in Sydney’s Surry Hills belies its ingeniously modest design. By Naomi Stead.

The quiet glamour of 52 Reservoir Street

The exterior of 52 Reservoir Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, designed by the architecture firm SJB.
The exterior of 52 Reservoir Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, designed by the architecture firm SJB.
Credit: Brett Boardman

Imagine you’re an architect. You’ve been asked to consider the design of a commercial office building in Sydney’s Surry Hills. It’s a plum location near Central Station, but a tricky site – south-facing, skinny and long, bounded by tall buildings on either side, with only a narrow frontage onto Reservoir Street, and a tiny – like genuinely tiny, only about one metre across – opening to Foster Street at the back.

The obvious thing would be infill: to build in the space between the two adjacent properties, especially given that the footprint is already small. But this would result in a dark tunnel of a building, with access to natural light only via the two narrow ends, leading to dingy and joyless spaces on the lower floors and requiring vast amounts of energy to illuminate over the building’s lifetime.

There is also the problem of managing the circulation – where will you put the foyer, lift core and fire stairs? Disgorging all of that onto Reservoir Street will take up all your precious frontage and leave a street edge that’s largely dead.

It’s a classic spatial puzzle. Back in 2018, three architects were offered the chance to resolve it, to win the job in competition. This competitive design process is mandated by the City of Sydney for projects over a certain size, height or capital value – an approach that is very interesting considering how, while it is customary all over the world to require design competitions for public buildings, it’s much less common to require them for private, commercial projects. Under the City of Sydney model, a private developer foots the bill for a competition in return for a reward of additional floor space or building height. The outcome, ideally, is “design excellence” for all.

In this case, back in 2018, one of the jurors was Camilla Block, the renowned Sydney architect. She notes that “often in a design competition what you hope for is [one scheme that’s] a cracker – so the decision is a no-brainer, and it’s just unanimous”. In this competition, one design – the work of SJB Architects, under director Adam Haddow – had an ingenious, unexpected solution that solved all of the challenges in one move.

As is always the case with good design, their idea seems both obvious and inevitable, although it is neither. The solution was to pull the building back from its neighbour on the western boundary – creating a new laneway to allow side entry, bring light all the way down to the lowest floors, free up the entire Reservoir Street frontage for a ground-level restaurant and, most excitingly, to unlock a cross-site connection between Reservoir and Foster streets that is open to public foot traffic during daylight hours.

Surry Hills has changed a lot since the days when gangs of larrikins roamed the streets, their cut-throat razors at the ready. A century ago the suburb was synonymous with crime, poverty and slum life; now it’s the preserve of middle-class professionals, creatives and the “young rich”. Reservoir Street sweeps down through the middle of all this, dropping steeply between Crown and Elizabeth streets. It’s lined at the top with terraces and small shops, halfway down by a pub and cafes, and then – as the road falls away and the buildings get taller – six- and seven-storey brick buildings that were formerly occupied by the rag trade and are now home to apartments and studios. At ground level are gyms, shops, a coffee roaster. Right down near the bottom was, until recently, a low-rise light industrial building sandwiched between tall neighbours, owned by the Fracks family and engaged unobtrusively in the sale and service of air compressors.

A site like this is worth a motza and prospective buyers have apparently been sniffing around for years. But it had, remarkably, been owned by the Fracks family for a century until they were finally ready to develop it – for which they engaged Michael Grant of Cornerstone Property Group. Haddow and Grant have worked together before, including in the highly acclaimed Casba mixed-use development in Waterloo. The project at 52 Reservoir Street has turned out to be another happy confluence: the Fracks sought a quality building as an asset to remain in family hands; Cornerstone, as developer and secondary client, recognised the value of design beyond financial return; and architects SJB brought their inventiveness and verve to bear on a building that is functionally clever, makes a genuinely lovely contribution to the street and gives a priceless gift of connectivity back to the public domain.

Cities are always arenas of contestation between private profit and the public interest. Architecture is the locus of that conflict, with government as the mediator between state and capital. The desire for contributions to the public good – including sustainability, quality urban places, greenery, character and liveability – vie against the need for a return on investment. What is interesting in how the City of Sydney mediates this is its placing of design at the heart of public policy, a strategy that has often – perhaps most often – resulted in a win-win situation for council, developer, architect and public. To wit: a new speculative office building is not often the cause for great intrigue among architecture critics. But this one is something special.

It’s not remarkable for its functionality: 52 Reservoir Street is a pretty conventional eight-storey boutique office building, with a roof garden, two retail food and beverage tenancies on the ground and cycle storage and end-of-trip facilities in the basement. Some of its internal workings are notable – the clever disposition of the service core, for example, plus the rigorous structural grid and unobstructed floor plate – but those are not likely to excite many folk other than architects. The roof garden may be lush, in every sense of the word – shaded by a scallop-edged concrete slab and surrounded by verdant garden, with views from Sydney Tower in one direction to the Central Station clock tower in the other – but few people will ever get to see this, other than the lucky tenants of the building as they eat their lunch.

The building also doesn’t draw attention through its form. Polite to its neighbours, it maintains a consistent massing and frontage to Reservoir Street, picking up floor levels and height lines from the adjoining buildings, aligning its parapet and stepping higher levels back in order not to overbear or overshadow neighbours or the street. The rhythm of columns and window bays is unobtrusive, reflecting the pattern of the early and mid-20th-century warehouses in the vicinity.

It’s faced in brick, like the former industrial buildings around it. But this is where things get interesting. These are bricks like you’ve never seen – their custom-made blue-green glaze as lustrous and rich as enamel. Visiting the building, I couldn’t get enough of this surface – the variation and depth of the colour, the aquamarine and lapis, the shine and glimmer, like swimming through a kelp forest. The effect is amplified by a gentle inward scoop in each window bay, with these indents deepening at ground level into inverted curved-glass bay windows with deep ledges for passers-by to sit.

Overall it’s a strikingly beautiful, generous façade achieved through the use of one stunning material on an otherwise highly decorous building. And then there is that side lane – a long top-lit slot, 2.5 metres wide and 40 metres long, lined on one side by the smooth precision of the new building and on the other by the remnant rough-textured brick of its neighbour. Unblocking this vein lets the city flow through, offering a new moment of permeability in the pedestrian network.

SJB are explicit about their aim to build “beauty, delight and joy” into all of their buildings – an aspiration that is not so common, at least not in commercial architectural work. At the same time, Haddow speaks of the need for “background” buildings in a city, as counterpart to the “foreground” ones.

Certainly it’s true that – with obvious exceptions, including the one on Bennelong Point – Sydney’s architectural culture is famous for well-mannered and sober architectural expression that’s sometimes deliberately plain, without a great emphasis on formal expression and facadism. This is often placed in contrast with the “funkytown” exuberances of Melbourne architecture, some of which is very inventive indeed. But if this building is a backup singer, even standing quietly in line, it’s clad in peacock sequins so gorgeous that it just might steal the show.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "Quiet glamour".

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