Jun 11, 2024

Rozelle Interchange exhaust stacks set to divide Sydney

This was published 11 months ago

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It’s the latest piece of public art poised to polarise Sydney: an ambitious sculpture of twisted steel, zinc panels and green plants adorning – if not quite obscuring – a trio of enormous exhaust stacks at the Rozelle Interchange.

City West Link motorists would have already spotted the first shrubs affixed to the easternmost tower, while the other two remain bare concrete slabs jutting out of low-rise Lilyfield.

Artist’s impression of the finished smoke stacks at Rozelle, where the WestConnex motorway meets the Anzac Bridge.Credit: Studio Chris Fox

They will sit above a massive underground spaghetti junction on the site of the old Rozelle railway yard, where WestConnex meets the Anzac Bridge, City West Link, Victoria Road and The Crescent – and eventually the Northern Beaches Tunnel.

The scale of the chimneys is imposing: nearly 40 metres from road height, the equivalent of about 12 storeys. Chris Fox, the Sydney architect and designer tasked with beautifying something many regard as an unsalvageable monstrosity, said it was clear from the start the stacks “would become part of a new horizon line of the city”.

“I knew this was going to be a challenging brief,” Fox said. “The city needs to function, and infrastructure is part of that functionality. But just like people, the city needs more than its basic functionality to be met. Moments of curiosity and wonder give the city a life of its own – make it worth visiting and engaging with.”

Fox said his vision for the sculpture was to “imagine a future where the infrastructure had already become ruinous and overrun with vines and nature”. His studio has been responsible for several of Sydney’s public artworks, including the Interloop sculpture suspended above the York Street escalators at Wynyard Station and Interchange Pavilion at South Eveleigh.

Sydney artist and architect Chris Fox and his “sculptural intervention” at Rozelle Interchange, which is now under construction.Credit: Janie Barrett

But in a marker of how sensitive this project is, Fox would only answer written questions, and his responses had to be vetted by Transport for NSW and the joint venture of John Holland and CPB Contractors.

Independent observers, however, have no such constraints. “I think it’s very problematic,” said Felicity Fenner, associate professor of arts, design and architecture at the University of NSW, and chair of the City of Sydney’s Public Art Advisory Panel.

“I commend Chris for giving it a go, and I think bringing a bit of green and bringing the references to place and travel and also the Indigenous past of the place is admirable. But in the end, it’s sticking a bit of decoration on a really ugly set of concrete stacks that are pumping out pollution.”

Fenner said the design Fox came up with was “the best possible outcome given the really terrible context”. She praised the greenery, its integration with the planned Rozelle Parklands below and its attempt to create habitat for native species.

But she resents art being deployed as an amelioration rather than for its own sake. “If they want to have public art ... make it art. Don’t use the art to fix a problem,” Fenner says.

For critics, or any observer, it is difficult to divorce the sculptural work from the motorway itself. No matter how much they may appreciate Fox’s efforts, if they don’t like WestConnex, they will find it difficult to love the stacks.

“They’re pretty daunting, aren’t they?” says architecture writer and editor Paul McGillick. “They’re very intrusive, and you can’t escape from that, they’re very out of scale. Of course, they’re trying to disguise that with the artwork around it ... I guess that’s up to individuals whether they think that works or not. I don’t find it particularly nice myself.”

But any artwork will always find a fan eventually. Renowned Indigenous artist Tony Albert – whose conceptual work Two worlds colliding adorns the seats at the revamped Sydney Football Stadium in Moore Park – thought Fox’s renders looked phenomenal.

“I love it,” Albert told the Herald. “It’s really quite whimsical and mesmerising. My mind starts to think about various possibilities and futures. I love when sights challenge me and give endless possibilities to why it exists and how it might function.”

A close-up artist’s impression of the finished product. The stacks will sit inside 10 hectares of open public space.Credit: Studio Chris Fox

Fox has been involved in the art project from the very start, helping urban design studio Hassell meet the government’s requirements for the interchange. That’s an important point for Professor Naomi Stead of Melbourne’s RMIT School of Architecture and Design, who worries about artists being tacked on as an afterthought “to make it all look pretty at the end”.

Even so, Stead says having an artist’s input from day one doesn’t guarantee the result will be aesthetically pleasing, you can still end up with the proverbial lipstick on a pig.

“In this project the chimneys really are whoppers – they will be very large and dominant, so there’s no question that Fox’s work will be an improvement on the bare structures themselves,” Stead says. “It will bring detail and texture and human scale to some pretty hulking bits of engineering.”

Chris Fox’s Interloop installation at Wynyard Station.Credit: Josh Raymond

Stead says Fox’s Interloop installation at Wynyard is “a fabulous piece of public art” and shows he can work at scale. “The bigger question is what greater potential there could have been – could the structures themselves have offered something more back to the public domain?” she says.

“In the best-case scenario, you have fully integrated design that brings the aesthetic and functional aspects into total synthesis, meaning you don’t end up with a pig in the first place.”

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