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Q & Architecture: stitching new precincts into the urban fabric

Associate Daniel Chieng on stitching new precincts into the urban and cultural fabric of cities.

Architects, urban planners and designers mention precincts all the time. What role do they play in the cultural dynamic of cities?

I think about cities as a bodies. Buildings comprise the organs, public transport represents the capillaries, and precincts make up the various systems – all of which, together, contribute to a healthy, sustainable city network.

As urban populations around the world increase – and it’s estimated that around 5 billion people will live in cities by 2030 – smart precinct design will form a large part of the answer to urban density. Precincts are about connectivity, about creating high-quality mix of buildings and places that are cohesively linked. In city CBDs, precincts might be more focused on the mix of commercial, retail, hospitality and cultural spaces. Whereas larger precincts surrounding a city might include residential in proximity to workplaces, schools, shops, services, hospitality, cultural venues and parks, all connected to a good public transport network.

When urban planners and designers discuss the idea of the 20-minute city, they’re talking about a city where most people live within a precinct that connects them to all these places that they visit frequently, ideally within a 20-minute walk or bike ride. Well-conceived precincts deepen people’s connections to their communities. They are designed to encourage walking as well as shopping and eating out locally, which in turn should reduce traffic on urban roads.

They also have huge potential to implement sustainable waste, electricity and water infrastructure.

You’ve worked on several projects within existing urban contexts, including projects at Barangaroo, Pitt Street Mall and, most recently, Brookfield Place Sydney. What are key components that lead to creation of successful urban precincts?

It might sound obvious but it’s all about creating spaces that a truly people focused. Precincts have the potential to play multiple roles in people’s lives. We describe the ideal precinct as a place where people work, stay and play and those transitions from one activity to another – where, say, an office worker meets a mate for a drink or to catch a performance or visit an exhibition after work – should seem easy and appealing.

For this to happen, architects and designers need to create interesting venues and spaces within a precinct – places that have a sense of atmosphere that will appeal to exciting hospitality and retail brands, brands that have their own profile and pulling power. These spaces need to be visible, which might mean catching the attention of pedestrians. It might also mean designing spaces that will gain traction in the media and, even more importantly, on social media.

Brookfield Place Sydney [designed by Make as Design Architect and Architectus as Executive Architect] accomplishes this on many levels. One example is the inclusion of a new rooftop bar and restaurant at one of the precinct’s two restored heritage buildings, Shell House. Set around the building’s early modernist clocktower, this is quite a remarkable new hospitality destination with views of Wynyard Park. It’s easy to see it becoming a destination not only for the workers in the new, adjacent commercial tower but for people and tourists from wider Sydney as well. It will be a real drawcard of the precinct.

As you mentioned in your question, before I joined Architectus, I was involved in projects at Barangaroo, which is now widely regarded as an exemplar in precinct creation. One major emphasis of what we did at Barangaroo was to establish the precinct as a hospitality destination, not only with beautifully designed, character, harbourside destinations, but by attracting brands that would capture the public’s attention. The developer understood that if you have thousands of people coming to work in an area, you can’t neglect the retail and restaurants.

In the 18-months leading up to the opening of Barangaroo, we created pop-up hospitality tenancies. This included inviting a very high-profile chef and his entire restaurant staff from Copenhagen to Sydney to fill the tenancy for ten weeks. Long story short, the pop-up was a huge success and a great hook to draw crowds to Barangaroo right from the start. We had harnessed the power of a recognisable brand very early on to set the tone and build public anticipation for what the precinct could and would go on to become.

Figure 1: Aerial view of Brookfield Place Sydney

Brookfield Place Sydney

Can you describe a city where neighborhoods enrich and enliven urban life?

There are so many. When you consider the world’s great cities part of what makes them interesting is that they are carved up into these dynamic precincts and regions, each with its own specific atmosphere and place within the cultural mix. New York is an obvious example; its precincts such as SoHo, Brooklyn, the Meat Packing District, Queen’s, Broadway and the Upper East and West Sides punctuate a city of overwhelming size and scale into smaller, legible parts.

Here in Sydney, I think the Darling Quarter is an example of world-class precinct. It is a venue that can facilitate so many activities for all age groups and types of people, and it’s an especially great precinct for families – a unusual thing in cities.

Brookfield Place Sydney was a rare project as it stitches a major mixed-use commercial development above a significant new passageway into Wynyard railway station. What are some of the opportunities and responsibilities that come with creating a precinct above a busy metro connection?     

Wynyard Station is one of Sydney’s busiest train stations. In the past, it was quite difficult to navigate. We felt a responsibility to create a seamless arrival and departure experience. The transition between the underground station through to George street needed to feel clear and intuitive, so that commuters could arrive at their destinations on time and feeling relaxed.

We undertook extensive pedestrian modelling which helped inform three highly cohesive routes into the underground station. These spaces were designed to create in the impression of space and visibility, which are important elements of a good wayfinding experience. We emphasised connections not only to George and Carrington Streets but within the Brookfield Place Sydney precinct, including the new commercial tower, Shell House, and 285 George Street. Stitching fine grain retail and hospitality tenancies throughout the precinct played a big part in this, and the design team and the client saw this as one of the key opportunities to activate the precinct. For example, Wynyard Lane runs through the precinct and activating hospitality spaces along that lane was an emphasis of the project.