One of three designs for proposed Crown hotel/casino in Barangaroo - this one by AS+GG

Crown Limited released the three competing architectural proposals for its proposed hotel and casino complex in Sydney’s former dockyards, Barangaroo, at the beginning of the month.

The company has grand ambitions for its hotel on “the world’s most famous harbour”. Its overriding objective “is to introduce a landmark waterfront building to Sydney that is timeless and iconic in nature”.

The Executive Chairman of Crown, James Packer, says the designs show the hotel will be “the most iconic building constructed in this city since the Opera House”.

Paul Keating, the former Chair of the Design excellence review panel, has previously argued the building needs to be “a diva on the stage of Barangaroo”.

Crown initially sought expressions of interest from eight international architects (none are Australian). This was reduced to four although one, Renzo Piano, withdrew.

The remaining three contenders (click through to see their detailed proposals) are Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG), Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KOPF), and Wilkinson Eyre Architect (WEA).

Barangaroo has a fraught history as Phillip Vivian, a director of Australian architects Bates Smart, explains in Barangaroo: the towers and the fury. These latest proposals have stimulated controversy too.

In a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 6, the President of the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, Joe Agius, neatly summarises many of the key worries about the way Barangaroo has been managed.

He notes that the Crown plan is one of two unsolicited proposals for hotel/casino developments in Sydney (the other is from the current casino operator, Echo Entertainment).

He charges successive governments with allowing private interests to gain control of the planning of Barangaroo rather than protecting the public interest.

This is occurring again: encroachment on areas previously public, renegotiation of heights, questionable uses, disregard for previous master plans, no public consultation, and proposals so unconscious of their context they may as well be in Dubai.

He goes on to say that James Packer’s comparison of the three designs “with the Sydney Opera House – a public cultural building that is highly responsive to its context – is both ludicrous and offensive”.

There’s a lot going on in this debate. For the moment, I want to make three points about the idea that an internationally “iconic” building is an achievable and worthwhile objective for Barangaroo.

My first point is that none of these proposals actually is iconic. They’re certainly quite different to anything else on Sydney’s skyline, but in international terms they’re run-of-the mill.

A look at cities like Dubai and Shanghai, or the growing number of cities with buildings by the likes of Zaha Hadid and other “starchitects”, reveals that these three simply aren’t attention-grabbers.

You might love them or hate them but there’s no doubting they don’t stand out in the international context like the Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim Bilbao did in their day.

This leads to my second point, which is that the chances of deliberately creating an international architectural icon are microscopic.

There seems to be a popular view that given an enthusiastic client, all that’s required to manufacture an icon is the right site, the right architect and some degree of freedom from regulatory and financial constraints.

But winning iconic status is very hard to come by. There are now literally hundreds of visually arresting, unconventional, stand-out, left-field, zany, over-the-top, etc, buildings across the world.

Frank Gehry alone has already completed 65 buildings and has another 20 in progress (including one in Sydney), virtually all of them relatively unconventional in appearance.

And even if a building is truly spectacular and fabulous, translating an astonishing visual presence into iconic status is by no means assured.

What makes a building iconic is a mysterious and highly uncertain process that’s hard to unpick in hindsight. It’s much, much harder to create apriori.

Eero Sarineen’s design for the TWA terminal at JFK airport pre-dated the Sydney Opera House, yet it hasn’t garnered anything like the same popular attention. The odds of deliberately creating an icon are likely much longer than the odds of winning lotto.

The third point is that Sydney has in any event defied the odds and already has arguably the world’s most impressive architectural icon in the Sydney Opera House. New iconic buildings often come with compromises, so it’s pertinent to acknowledge that Sydney doesn’t need another one to put itself on the world map.

This is a very important and prominent site, but an international architectural icon is unnecessary and almost certainly unattainable.

What Sydney needs on a site like this is an architecturally outstanding building. It doesn’t follow that it has to try and be in-your-face. Some qualities that I’d see characterising the design would be “elegance”, “lightness”, “sympathy” and “gracefulness”.

I don’t agree though with Phillip Agius’s inference that none of these buildings fit their context whereas the Opera House is “highly responsive” to its context. I think describing Packer’s attempt to draw a parallel with the Opera House as  “offensive” and “ludicrous” is excessive, at least in relation to the AS+GG proposal.

The firm’s design might look like an aeroplane wing or an H.R. Giger monster to some, but it also looks a lot like a sail too (as with any building, that’ll depend on the angle).

That was always the claim made for the Opera House – that it fit its context because the shells evoked sailing boats on the harbour.

I think Utzon’s original design owes a lot more to Saarinen’s work than it does to harbour sail boats – I suspect there was a bit of smart marketing there.

One of three proposed designs for Crown hotel/casino in Barangaroo - this one by WEA