December 2013 - January 2014

Arts & Letters

North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club

By David Neustein

North Bondi SLC and surrounds. © Anthony Browell

Reinventing an Aussie icon

Earlier this year, writer and media personality Wendy Harmer embarked on a tour of the 21 surf clubs on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. She recounted her disappointment in a Sydney Morning Herald article:

With a few exceptions they’re a desultory collection of cack-yellow concrete boxes. Heavy and lumpen and dreary. Any charm they’ve had now well and truly obliterated over the years with a mish-mash of ill-conceived additions. It struck me that on every side they’re surrounded by new, private homes that are breathtakingly bold and beautiful. Then, there’s the surf club, the proverbial ugliest house on the best street.

The new North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club inverts Harmer’s aphorism: it is a beacon of sophistication within an increasingly lurid locale. Glittering, shell white and studded with crystalline windows, the clubhouse emerges from a bland tableau of concrete, tarmac and withered lawn. Unlike the hulking blocks of luxury apartments overtaking the beachfront, the new building is elegantly proportioned and modestly scaled. It stands apart from the pastel hues, tourist tat and fast-food neon off Bondi’s Campbell Parade. Indeed, according to Sydney architect Frank Stanisic, “The only bad thing about this building is that it makes everything around it look very ugly.”

Designed in association by architects Durbach Block Jaggers and Peter Colquhoun, the new building replaces a drab brick edifice erected in 1933. The monolithic old clubhouse had no door to the street; a lone entrance from the beach was guarded by a prominent “members only” sign. “It was so recessive that you would almost forget it was there,” says Durbach Block Jaggers director Camilla Block.

A little over a decade ago, North Bondi members voted to raise funds for a new premises. Plans were drawn up and the local council approved a development application for a beachside glass cube. But one member, in particular, would not support this proposal. Born in Bondi, Peter Colquhoun grew up directly behind the old clubhouse. He attended Bondi Public School, as his children do now, and has been a club member for more than 30 years. Colquhoun runs his own architecture consultancy and hosts Channel 7’s Sandcastles series. He found himself compelled to speak out. “The design was un-visionary and unacceptable,” he says. “The commission was for the Bennelong Point of the east coast of Australia, but the design that was drawn up could’ve been anywhere. It could’ve been a civic building in North Ryde.”

Arguing that “surf clubs are Australia’s cathedrals”, Colquhoun persuaded the club to allow him to nominate a worthy architect. “Neil Durbach was at the top of my list,” says Colquhoun. The Durbach Block Jaggers director had been one of Colquhoun’s lecturers at university, and the firm’s award-winning Holman House featured in Sandcastles’ first episode. The design of the Holman House, suspended over a 70-metre-high cliff in Sydney’s Dover Heights, heightens and attenuates its ocean view. Window boxes jut towards distant headlands and the horizon is strung along a glass strip in between. Sculptural, playful and cinematic, the house is characteristic of the work of Durbach Block Jaggers.

Durbach and Block, both from South Africa, began working together in Sydney in the mid 1990s. Longtime staff member David Jaggers became the practice’s third director in 2011, and Stefan Heim, who was the architect for the surf club project, is due to be named the fourth. While still perhaps best known for its spectacular residential work, Durbach Block Jaggers has contributed a series of memorable public projects. These include Commonwealth Place, a symmetrical park that creates a forecourt to Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle, and the Brickpit Ring, a slender elevated walkway above a disused quarry in Sydney’s Olympic Park. With the UTS Thomas Street Building (a large science and health faculty designed in association with BVN Donovan Hill) yet to be completed, the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club is the most public of Durbach Block Jaggers’ projects to date.

Yet despite its prominent location, the Surf Club was not public by default. The club is an exclusive domain, accessible only through membership or private bookings. The architects activated the project’s public potential by envisioning “a loop from top to bottom”, with the club’s occupants recast as performers as they move around the building. Outdoor spaces are sculpted out of the building’s mass, as if eroded by restless tides. Beginning at the street entrance, dramatically tapering stairs lead down to the beach. Wrapped in an open verandah, the street level contains the lifesaver operations room and gym. A ramp connects gym to beach, where Speedo-clad members bask in a north-facing courtyard. At the building’s summit are public function rooms connected by an open-air terrace. Here, a sweeping blue wall embraces the beach panorama. Protected windows peer through the battlement, providing vantage over the headlands. “The club is like this orchestrated carnival, where people are always in motion,” says Block. “It’s an architectural promenade, only everyone is semi-nude, sandy and wet.”

The “architectural promenade” is a term invented by the 20th-century Swiss architect Le Corbusier to describe architecture as a choreographed sequence of movement through space. Just as Colquhoun ushered Durbach Block Jaggers into this project, they, in turn, opened the door to Le Corbusier. “Corbusian elements regularly find their way into Durbach and Block’s work,” explains architectural writer Robert Bevan in the Australian, “in the way a rap artist may sample a class hook.” Le Corbusier is an unlikely surf club reference – he drowned while swimming in the Mediterranean – but he pops up everywhere in the clubhouse. Coloured skylights that punch through the ceiling are miniature versions of Corb’s La Tourette monastery “light cannons”, while a projecting concrete gutter has been borrowed from his Ronchamp chapel. For the architectural aficionado, these references trigger recognition and delight. But the use of high-architecture references is also subversive, an intellectual agenda hidden in plain sight from unsuspecting surfers.

This isn’t to say that the architects are arch outsiders, playing games at the expense of their occupants. Block and Durbach are both residents of the area, and they use Corbusian language not to make follies but to frame and curate the setting. Every aperture within the clubhouse is exactingly placed, from the street-level slots that allow views through to the waves to a full-height window that seems suspended over the serpentine street. The North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club provides an episodic sequence of Bondi’s beauty, selectively capturing the surrounding drama while excluding the banal.

While this new addition to Bondi’s boardwalk foregrounds their work, the architects have been careful not to block the stage. They successfully argued to shrink the building’s footprint from what had been previously envisaged. The club’s storage spaces were relocated to a basement, allowing for the provision of open space both around the building and atop it. The result, according to Durbach, is a building “both bigger and smaller” than its predecessor.

At the heart of the clubhouse is the Hall of Champions, a double-storey vestibule spanning beachfront to street, lined with photographs of medal-winning past members. Here, Durbach points out the changing physiques of surf club members over the years, with the lithe, healthy-looking frames of 1950s competitors giving way to the rippled abs and inflated biceps of their present-day counterparts. It’s a perfect analogy for the transformation of Bondi itself, from a low-rise beachside suburb with a tram running through it to the three-dimensional diagram of property speculation that it is today. The North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club not only sets the standard for surf club design but also reminds us that bigger rarely equals better.

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.

@dneus

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