Architecture as Storytelling: Quay Quarter Lanes


I will not do it to be the first person to compare a city to a forest, but it’s an analogy that I like. Cities and forests are collectives defined by the elements that compose them and the relationship between them. And as with a forest, a beautiful city cannot be made in an instant. When creating a new part of a city, planning and design is required, of course; but much of the city’s character comes from the wear and tear of habitation, time, the layering of stories, the relationships between buildings and with people. These things take time. The Quay Quarter Lanes development, on a short block at Sydney’s Circular Quay, has done much to create a piece of city character using history, scale and materials, as well as art and architecture as narrative to produce a new urban place that defies its relatively young age and controlled genesis.

The development consists of five buildings around a pedestrian lane behind Customs House: two are pre-existing buildings from the sandstone era, three are new and four of the five are owned by AMP Capital. The fifth building belongs to the Gallipoli Memorial Club and was renovated at the same time by Lippmann Partnership.

Sydney’s Quay Quarter Lanes sits between the historic Customs House and commercial skyscrapers.

Image: Rory Gardiner

The “Alternative Design Excellence” process began in 2014 with a call for expressions of interest, from which SJB, Silvester Fuller, Studio Bright, Carter Williamson and Lippmann Partnership were chosen, with Aspect Studios as the landscaper. The practices, along with the developer’s design leads and City of Sydney representatives, met regularly in collaborative design workshops. These meetings negotiated the exchange of services, factories and parking lots in such a way as to benefit all the buildings and to interconnect them in an efficient and innovative way. One building hosts the loading dock, another the entrance to the car park. Much of the rooftop installation went to the tallest building (SJB), providing other opportunities for lower buildings – for example, Studio Bright’s rooftop terrace and Silvester Fuller’s solar panel. A site-wide strategy of crossings and pathways was developed, allowing most buildings to have four visible and accessible elevations. Each apartment has been carefully thought out from the inside to ensure it has views and light without compromising privacy, which is quite a feat, given the tightness of this site. The smart and generous process maximized the amount of street-level activation.

The lane that forms the backbone of the development is pleasant and protected, unlike the open and more public space of the Quay hall. The ground floor facade of the Studio Bright building is artfully recessed, and a tiny public plaza is positioned on the grounds of the SJB building, meaning the lane varies in width, like a creek bed. After dark, there is enough light for safety without destroying the night. Overall the development sits comfortably between the relatively low scale of Customs House to the north and the vaulted heights of commercial buildings to the south.

The backbone of the development, Loftus Lane, provides a human-scale refuge, unlike the open space of the neighboring Quay lobby.

The backbone of the development, Loftus Lane, provides a human-scale refuge, unlike the open space of the neighboring Quay lobby.

Image: Rory Gardiner

Interestingly, all architectural practices were considered “emerging” and, relishing the opportunity to be part of this city-building project, they certainly gave it their all. I imagine that every week at design studio meetings, they worked to not only develop their designs to satisfy the customers and the city, but also to earn the approval of their respected peers. This favorable competitiveness creates a kind of multiplier effect, where the atmosphere of design excellence provides the impetus for ever better work.

The idea that cities should be “fine-grained” recognizes that good cities are designed for humans who enjoy walking around, interacting with each other, and being part of the place. Some bad cities feel like they were made for photographers in helicopters or for passengers in cars moving at 100 kilometers an hour. In good cities, construction begins and ends, entrances are marked and streets cross, all in a rhythm that seems suited to the speed of walking. Research shows that the part of your brain that is activated when you walk is also the part where new ideas, innovations and creativity come from.1

I have now visited this site several times and each time I have learned something new. I first visited when Sydney was coming out of one of its many COVID-19 lockdowns and most offices were unoccupied. Most recently I visited in the evening after a performance at the Sydney Opera House. The other day I went to look inside the apartments and had lunch. With most apartments now occupied, Carter Williamson’s Hinchcliffe House restaurant was so busy I couldn’t find a table; instead, I ate at the cafe in the densely packed mini-square inside the alley. The neighborhood is booming. Can there be better approval for a project that was completed only a few months ago?

In the SJB building, the lower (commercial) floors respond to the scale of the tower opposite, while the Romanesque bricks of the upper (residential) floors are on a more human scale.

In the SJB building, the lower (commercial) floors respond to the scale of the tower opposite, while the Romanesque bricks of the upper (residential) floors are on a more human scale.

Image: Tom Roe

So how did different practices design individual buildings that communicated with each other and supported public space? How did they create a place steeped in history and depth in what would be considered, in terms of urban creation, as a wink?

Materially, there was a common decision to use mostly brick – partly to respect the sandstone buildings around the development. But otherwise, each building differs significantly from the next. Silvester Fuller opted for blond brick and, on the lower levels, massive bronze windows; Studio Bright used beautifully designed black and steel gray bricks with aluminum horizontals; and SJB have stacked elegant liver-colored brick apartments on a monolithic facade of polished concrete offices. Carter Williamson has carefully under-cleaned the heritage sandstone of Hinchcliffe House, using its wool shop past to create exciting openings for the new restaurants and bars inside. Tied together by Aspect Studios’ landscape design, the buildings are like individual works in a curated group art exhibit. Each contains an appropriate level of detail, decoration, and variation to catch the eye of the human creatures that inhabit the place, without showing off unnecessarily. There’s a lot going on – many voices have been allowed to speak at once, like in a ‘real’ city, and this contributes to the organic, rather than fabricated, feel of the neighborhood.

Artist Jonathan Jones (Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi) was commissioned to create four pieces for the site. Integrated into the basic elements of the wall, floor and ceiling, his work steeped in history amplifies the place and the architecture. Here a pattern in a prefabricated wall, there a high tide line of oyster shells. A trail of ginkgo leaf shapes in the paving that recycle materials from one of the demolished buildings. And above, a ceiling that lights up in waves as you walk below. Telling stories both pre and postcolonial, Jones’ plays force us to slow down and pay attention.

The Silvester Fuller Building nods to its historic context at its base but gives way to larger openings higher up, allowing each apartment to take advantage of its particular location.

The Silvester Fuller Building nods to its historic context at its base but gives way to larger openings higher up, allowing each apartment to take advantage of its particular location.

Image: Rory Gardiner

The experience of living here would be quite different from having a lunchtime banh mi. Buildings are small for this part of town. Nestled among sleek corporate towers, the scale of their shared spaces seems more pleasing, with the sole exception of the lower part of the SJB building: it uses multi-story arched windows to indicate the commercial uses of those floors and respond to scale of the nearly -completed 3XN building across the road on Young Street. I wish this facade hadn’t continued down the driveway – the scale is too grand to appreciate, and the Roman brickwork used for the upper floors would look lovely touching the ground in the driveway. The brick canopies of the Silvester Fuller Building are structurally too improbable for my tastes – but I agree that’s probably the point. And I wish the Studio Bright rooftop wasn’t marred by noisy kitchen exhausts. But there’s so much to love about each of these buildings that I don’t envy the judges of the Australian Institute of Architects’ NSW Architecture Awards, whose job it is to assess them individually.

The ground floor facade of the Studio Bright building is set back slightly but significantly, and a small public plaza is positioned on the grounds of the SJB building, meaning the lane varies in width like a creek bed. After dark, there is enough light for safety without destroying the night. Each apartment has been carefully thought out from the inside to ensure it offers views and light without compromising privacy.

The developer’s decision to opt for five distinct architectural practices for this development is key to its success. We each have our own dialect, pet hates, fascinations, talents, and weaknesses that make the outcome of one practice different from another. Developers and the City of Sydney have shown a huge commitment to allowing architects to discuss and revise, to pursue multiple iterations and to design in the heterogeneity that cities need for us to feel they are real places. Unlike other relatively new developments in the Sydney precinct, Quay Quarter doesn’t feel like a corporate Disneyland, where character is left to the mix of franchised food and drink.

I believe this way of working – where a diverse collection of architectural voices are used to recreate a city – is the future. Sydneysiders immediately responded to Quay Quarter Lanes moving in, chatting and shouting, and it’s wonderful to see. Every forest needs its creatures.

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