Terrazzo is a distinctive, composite building material that comes in various colours, often used in flooring. Terrazzo in pink hue seems to have been particularly popular in postmodern architecture of the 1980s and 90s. It dominates the upper reaches of Harris Street in Ultimo, comprising most of the street front on the eastern side of the block between Ultimo Road and George Street.
The buildings responsible for this onslaught are Ancher Mortlock and Woolley’s ABC building (1989) and Philips Cox’s Peter Johnson Building (PJB). Both these structures have a monolithic, yet playful, jumping castle-like appearance, similar to Terry Farrell’s much maligned SIS building on the Thames (1989-92).
The ABC building in particular features massing that might be compared to the UTS tower building nearby, only instead of grey, roughcast cement, the smooth, pink terrazzo evokes the floor of an art deco hotel in Miami. The combination of deep window recesses on the upper levels and the lack of textural detail in the surface of the terrazzo make it seem as though the building is swollen, like the evenly stung skin of a giant pink hippo.
Both ABC and PJB have thick barrier-like facades that thrust out into the street, creating a shadowy arcade frequented by university students and journalists hurrying to stimulant and restoration centres nearby also know as cafes.
The abundance of thick building materials is largely due to the heavy traffic on Harris Street, which is known as one of Sydney’s most polluted areas. The combination of the assertive facades, lack of sunlight and constant traffic make the area a particularly hostile for foot travellers.
Anyone wandering the area hungry for more terrazzo will be revived by the sight of The Prince Centre in Haymarket, which emerges after a short walk along Ultimo Road, eastwards towards the CBD. The glazed internal stairwells, made from marble (a nice touch), and wraparound balconies on one side are perhaps the most notable features of the building, in addition to the Chinese Noodle House that has attracted a cult following over the last couple of decades.
The Prince Centre is more glossy and translucent than the comparably matte terrazzo, bulky walls and dark glazing of the ABC building and the vaguely vernacular PJB, with its shed-like, corrugated awnings. It looks very slippery and is not a building I’d like to try and abseil down when raining. If, however, I was hot with a fever or hungover on a summer day, I would like to press my face against its cool, slick surface and wait for relief. Reference points that make sense of its aesthetic are airports, bathrooms and chemists, rather than the grander, monumental buildings suggested by ABC and PJB.
While these buildings are worthy spectacles for lovers of terrazzo, the crowning glory of the area can be found on the other side of Central Station. The Centennial Plaza office complex at 260 Elizabeth Street is a configuration of three office towers and a series of peculiar stairways and gardens that are little bit like a half-arsed architectural realisation of an M. C. Escher or Giovanni Piranesi. This elevated pedestrian zone is likely to disappoint anyone expecting something like network of raised walkways around the Barbican Centre in London. However, if all you’re after is a handy shortcut between Albion Street and Elizabeth, the complex will meet your needs.
The overwhelming impression is of gigantic, mirrored eyewear and a Los Angeles sunset, or an obscure, gigantic bathroom device, not unlike the new towers at Barangaroo. Thankfully there’s no trace of the Tooths Standard Brewery that occupied the site from 1875 to 1980, unlike the twee efforts made at nearby Central Park to retain some of the Carlton and United Brewery. The complete absence of the previous structure allows an uninhibited view of the places where businesses can go to “uncover their potential.”
The Terrazzo Project (2011) is an initiative set up by Lausanne based industrial designers Stéphane Halmaï-Voisard and Philippe-Albert Lefebvre, which hints at the possibilities the material offers beyond the generic salmon pinks. The high level of flair evident in projects such as this might be the seeds of a future where this often maligned material is more widely revered. If cement and besser blocks are currently migrating from the fringe to the mainstream as markers of cool, then perhaps terrazzo and glass bricks are where it’s at in the years to come?