The architect Philip Cox recently told us what we already knew: Star casino in Pyrmont is by far his worst building. Needless to say a Star flack was immediately reassuring the media that almost none of Cox’s 1997 design had survived the casino’s recent renovations. Whether the casino genre is a likely inspiration for good architecture need not concern us here – for his part Cox declared casinos a toxic genre and wished he’d never designed one.
More interesting is Philip Cox’s ambivalent reputation in the design world despite 50 years of high-profile productivity. Cox designed two Sulman Prize winners while still in his 20s and was widely touted as the next big thing in Australian architecture. His career certainly delivered on this promise in the quantity and success of Cox Architects’ output in Australia and overseas. Yet Cox’s own profile has declined almost in proportion to his success. There are some obvious reasons for this, one being that Cox is the architect most associated with Sydney’s 1980s public building boom – his Sydney Exhibition Centre, National Maritime Museum, Sydney Aquarium and Sydney Football Stadium are all designed with a steel structural language that is functional and communicative but not these days particularly trendy.
Another reason is the sheer variety of Cox’s output and his work in specialist building types including within walking distance of the Powerhouse the unfortunate casino, the television studio extension to the ABC Centre, Harris Street, the neighbouring UTS Design, Architecture and Building faculty building and the UTS Library and Haymarket campus building in Chinatown.
The Powerhouse collection holds models of a variety of Cox buildings and projects, most of them donated by Cox Architects during the 1990s. These projects include the Bangkok aquatic centre pictured above, a resort, an unbuilt office building and a civic centre. We also hold models of three Cox stadium designs including an Olympic Stadium designed for Sydney’s successful Olympic bid and Khalifa Stadium, Doha which will be a World Cup venue (if the 2022 World Cup actually takes place in Qatar).
These are important artefacts given that Philip Cox more or less invented modern sports architecture in Australia. Before Cox designed the National Athletics Stadium (Canberra Stadium) during the 1970s, Australia boasted perhaps one state of the art sports venue – the aquatic centre designed for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics by John and Phyllis Murphy, Peter McIntyre and Kevin Borland.
The Melbourne Olympics was to be centred on a new Olympic stadium and a design contest was duly held but in the end economic stringencies dictated that a new grandstand was added to the existing hodge podge of structures surrounding the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Which was pretty typical of major sports venues at that time; integrated stadium design was virtually unknown here despite being a feature of sport in the Americas and Europe for some decades.
Cox’s design for Canberra Stadium created a modest but important venue; its suspended, column-free roof was part of the future of stadiums world-wide. Cox’s design was no doubt influenced by the Munich Olympic Stadium of 1972, with its ethereal, tent-like structure – an architectural rebuttal of the monumentalism of the Berlin Olympic Stadium and everything associated with it.
However Cox advanced the stadium genre with his next major project, the Sydney Football Stadium completed in 1988. Now 25 years old, with its public spaces a little run-down, it remains an outstanding example of the ability of good stadium design to capture and enhance the atmosphere of sport. These effects are achieved partly by the concentration of seating near the half-way line, plus the fact that the roof is contiguous with the seating, creating an enclosure that traps sound. The result is a stadium which can be a memorable place to be even when it’s only part full (which it usually is; Sydney is not a great town for sporting crowds). The encompassing suspended roof is also the main visual feature, widely copied in stadia throughout the world, for example at Paris’ Stade de France.
More generally the SFS was one of the first of a new generation of stadia designed to make an urban and architectural impact beyond their role as sporting venues. This change has mirrored the economic and cultural mainstreaming of sport, a phenomenon of recent decades across the world. Governments these days spend up on sport as catalysts for infrastructure, tourism and image-building.
Since 1988 Cox has been involved with at least one more ground-breaking sports venue: the National Tennis Centre, Melbourne. Boasting a retractable roof over the main arena, the Australian Open’s venue has since been imitated by other venues including two of the other Grand Slam tennis centre courts. Now known as Rod Laver Arena, the tennis centre is a forerunner of a trend towards flexible venues, adaptable to concerts and different sports to maximise their earning potential.
In November I’m planning to attend a match at Philip Cox’s latest sports venue, AAMI Park in Melbourne. This unfortunately-named stadium has won a swag of awards for its integration of roof, seating and service structures, building on the essence of the SFS. It’s also said to be a terrific place to watch football and I’m looking forward to the experience.
Philip Cox’s main public profile today is as the leading architect critic of the contemporary Barangaroo and Darling Harbour projects. While no doubt partly motivated by the fact that one of his best-known buildings is to be demolished as a result, Cox has gone where few architects have have dared to tread in questioning the economic and urban justifications for these projects.
He doesn’t mince his words either: ‘I’m worried about the scale and quality of architecture at Barangaroo…I hate the idea of the Packer intrusion into it. And the faux headland is a joke. Anything faux is suspect. You could say the present government has absolutely fucked up the entire waterfront between the Haymarket and Millers Point…the whole length of the city’.
Philip Cox has said that he is not interested in sport but is happy that people enjoy his sport architecture. I suppose he wasn’t interested in gambling either but perhaps there is less to enjoy in gambling and its architecture. Cox’s sport buildings have given pleasure to many people but within the design profession he’s gained too little respect for this achievement.
Charles Pickett, curator