A fresh new curvilinear approach to design is emerging in urban Sydney that challenges the uniformity of endless rectangular street edge buildings that respond to the orthogonal grid so liked by planners.

Just look at the recently opened Barangaroo Reserve with its flowing shapes as it reinterprets the original topography rather than conforming to the rigid form of the concrete container wharf that straightened the flowing landscape a few decades ago. Balancing this recreated naturalistic form is an adjacent architecture that also challenges the uniformity of the straight line. The submissions for the Crown Resort Hotel’s development application are now due, so another debate will arise over whether the straight line of the previous container wharf should dominate, or whether design should be more along the lines of the organic sculptural form by architects Wilkinson Eyre.

Despite some commentators complaining that uniformity is being driven by private sector developers, it is actually government planners with their planning policies along with their local government equivalents with tick-the-box rule books that are forcing mono solutions on the city. This is understandable as government planners are generally checking projects against the rules rather than taking a more creative role.

The sculptural Crown Resort by Wilkinson Eyre Image via Lend Lease

The sculptural Crown Resort by Wilkinson Eyre
Image via Lend Lease

Luckily for Sydney, some projects like Barangaroo’s Headland Park and many of the Barangaroo buildings are not coming out of a planning rule book but are being designed to reflect their special place on Sydney Harbour. Many of the private sector drivers of projects want to break from the rules, and that helps their marketing to potential purchasers of apartments or office space.

It is not easy to be different as planning controls call for designs to be contextual so that they blend in with neighbours, and urban designers say it is the public space that matters with the buildings as a backdrop. A one-off, exotic looking building can set off alarm bells in planning departments and this fear of difference leads to more of the same.

So where are the new innovative buildings coming from in Sydney? It seems to me that the boom in apartments is leading to a number of developers daring to be different so they separate themselves from the pack. Iwan Sunito’s Crown Group is a good example where two recent designs by Japanese architect Koichi Takada are clearly different than their neighbours.

At Green Square, Infinity by Crown Group is a flowing roller coaster of a building that wraps around a central courtyard with a 16-storey oval opening to the north that lets sun into the public space. The same team is developing Sydney by Crown on Clarence Street in Sydney’s CBD with two dramatic circular structures that define the buildings top.

At Barangaroo, a beautiful layered curving series of platforms by architects Collins and Turner for a restaurant complex for Lend Lease sets itself apart from its neighbours. The amazing flowing form of the Crown Resort Hotel designed by Wilkinson Eyre is a very different building from the typical square box. There is also the Richard Francis-Jones Cloud apartment building with a shape like its name.

R1 by Collins and Turner Image: Lend Lease

R1 by Collins and Turner
Image: Lend Lease

Over the ridge at 200 George Street, Mirvac has also engaged architect Richard Francis-Jones to create even more curves and flowing shapes for a new high rise office building. The same team has broken the planner’s grid in Green Square with a tall curvilinear apartment building.

200 George Street by Mirvac

200 George Street by Mirvac

There are more special buildings that are challenging the uniformity of the planning system in the pipe line but each must battle with tick-the-box planners who have their vision of an ordered city.

The recent flowering of nonlinear, sculptural buildings and the new headland park at Barangaroo are beginning to set a new theme for Sydney architecture and landscape design that evokes the character of the flowing harbour bays, the curving beaches and the billowing sails on the water that are so much part of the spirit of Sydney.

There is an historical lineage for these forms that begins with Francis Greenway’s curvilinear staircase at Liverpool Hospital, Walter Burley Griffin’s flowing layout of Castlegrag and of course Utzon’s Opera House. There are domestic examples like Stan Symonds’ Seaforth House or Reuben Lane’s Breen House. There is the work of Harry Seidler including Australia Square, Horizon Tower and the very non-uniform Frank Gehry building for UTS.

The unusual, fragmented brickwork of Frank Gehry's building for UTS

The unusual, fragmented brickwork of Frank Gehry’s building for UTS

There is, however, a dilemma in advocating against uniformity and for innovation, as this could ultimately lead to a chaotic city. If those commentators who attack uniformity follow their logic to a natural conclusion, we would have a city of competing objects with no cohesion. The truth, of course lies between the two.

Cities like Sydney need an urban structure but they also need the points of difference – the contrasts. It is getting the balance right that leads to good cities. Like a pendulum, the critics of a uniform city will swing design to points of difference and ultimately to chaos. Then the pendulum will swing back to the need for more uniformity. Right now the swing is away from uniformity and therefore away from too much planning control. With enlightened developers and their talented architects and projects like the new Barangaroo Headland Park, we may get the balance right for Sydney.