Tag Archive: Sydney

Towards Bikeopolis, Part 1

One recent morning I witnessed a rare sight; two children, almost certainly brother and sister, were riding their bikes to school. They wobbled along the sidewalk of a busy road. The boy pedaled ahead on his BMX while the girl’s bike was too big for her, its chain rusted to the point where, rather than shift gears, she walked the slightest rise. Commuters alone in their cars sped by on the way to work, their kids’ schools, gym or supermarket. This being outer Sydney, the street made not the slightest accommodation for the two kids and their healthy, intrepid mode of transportation.

Trash Talk: Griffin’s Willoughby Incinerator Revived

Between 1930 and 1938, Walter Burley Griffin and Eric Nicholls designed thirteen municipal incinerators in various Australian cities. Built in the heart of the Great Depression, these odd little buildings must have been a creative and financial godsend for Griffin, an architect whose splendid dreams were too often thwarted by unsplendid clients. The incinerators, which often sat in suburban streets, were ‘green’ infrastructure avant la lettre, fascinating both as urban history and as a possible model for the urban transformations required by the 21st century.

Urban Planning: A Manifesto

The people of New South Wales have been anticipating the upcoming state election almost since the last election four years ago, never a good situation. As regular readers of our dispatches from Sydney know, the soon to be defeated Labor Government has for the past sixteen years, with its inimitably bland, shiny-suited glee, trashed poor old Sydney. A place which with the slightest effort could be the most beautiful city in the world has instead deteriorated into a kind of Los Angeles without a Raymond Chandler, a Melbourne without intricacy, a Singapore without ambition.

One of the most urgent tasks facing the next state government will be the reform of NSW’s broken planning system, a system I saw in action (if that is the right word) during the disillusioning two years I spent in a cubicle at the NSW Department of Planning.

State of Siege, a New Documentary on Sydney’s Destruction

Having spent the afternoon before this one-off screening at the Nicholson Museum of ancient art, in their new re-presentation of their Egyptian collection through the eyes of Herodotus, I came across this quotation: “Cheops brought the country into all sorts of misery. He closed all the temples, then, not content with excluding his subjects from the practice of their religion, compelled them without exception to labour as slaves for his own advantage. Some were forced to drag blocks of stone from the quarries in the Arabian hills to the Nile, where they were ferried across and taken by others, who hauled them to the Libyan hills. The work went on in three-monthly shifts, a hundred thousand men in a shift. It took ten years of this oppressive slave-labour to build the track along which the blocks were hauled — a work, in my opinion, of hardly less magnitude than the pyramid itself. “The Egyptians can hardly bring themselves to mention the names of Cheops and Chephren [his successor], so great is their hatred of them; They call the pyramids after Philitis, a shepherd who at that time fed his flocks in the neighbourhood.” Will we still despise the New South Wales government in 2000 years? It doesn’t seem so very far fetched. At least Cheops had a sort of vision, the pyramids have a certain stark beauty of their own and they draw many wealthy tourists. The eagerness to destroy and thugishness of the current NSW government is extreme and is it really so much worse to steal people’s labor than their homes? For that’s what we witness in this new documentary. As the environmentalist, bushwalker and businessman Dick Smith points out in his interview, rezoning a person’s land is tantamount to stealing it because they will have no choice but to sell to the developer who puts up two ugly apartment blocks on either side of them. After food and water (and nowadays we are forced to add) clean air, shelter is the most basic human need. Interfering with people’s homes thus pokes even deeper into the human psyche than the layer where Freud put his conception of the libido. The lower levels of government (state, province, local) affect our lives directly in a way the feds cannot. The wonder is that many in NSW aren’t angrier.

A Better Barangaroo (Updated)

In this town called Sydney there is this crazy idea that wrecking a beautiful city in the name of economic growth somehow makes the city big time, that slippery oxymoron, a ‘global’ city. Instead of building places which promote beauty, sustainability and public participation we get the kind of ‘built profit’ which is too witless to even be kitsch. It’s the Australian Ugliness on steroids, everywhere, as charmless and unimaginative as it is profitable. Even the greediest New York developer would never expect to build a forty five storey hotel in the East River, let alone the Hudson, and yet exactly such a monstrosity has been approved for construction in Sydney Harbour, at Barangaroo, the ne plus ultra of Sydney urban planning disasters. Now a group of over fifty eminent Sydney architects, planners and academics has produced an alternative design for the site.

Tangled in Webs

For a long time I was afraid of spiders. My arachnophobia was only cured by moving to a Sydney, a place where some spiders can actually kill you. With the potential of an evil looking funnel web spider under the refrigerator, it seemed silly to recoil at a daddy longlegs. At this time of year — mid-late summer — nonlethal arachnids begin to dominate the bush. With a copious supply of rain earlier this summer, the spiders got an early start. Going down to pick up the paper in the morning means coming back with a web across your face; the same encounter on a bike ride or run is even more unpleasant, especially if you end up eye to eyes with the angry arachnid and its demi-deliquescent protein breakfast. It is one of those moments when you wish nature spoke English — “I’m sorry, but it’s not like wrecking your web gave me any pleasure…”. As the summer progresses we adjust to one another, or they to us; the smarter spiders learn to build their webs up high, with the greatest eight-legged engineers weaving the lowest edges of their webs just above the head of the tallest human.

Frank Gehry in Sydney

A year ago, when Frank Gehry was commissioned to design the new business school for the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) he was asked if he liked the proposed site. His response — “I like the problem” — was both diplomatic and revealing, for UTS, the youngest of Sydney’s four major universities, exists in a part of town with a lot of likable problems. Like NYU, UTS is an urban university with no real campus. This lack is no problem if you have a Washington Square Park, an expansionist attitude and a Greenwich Village to compensate, but UTS is stuck in a defiantly unlovely part of Sydney. Even if it had the beautiful lawns and gracious old buildings of the nearby University of Sydney, UTS would struggle to maintain a physical identity among the dense but generally mediocre surroundings to the west of Central Station. In a sense UTS’ problem is a condensed version of central Sydney’s more persistent malaise; it is not a place where people linger. While Gehry might seem an obvious choice for any university looking to promote, as the current jargon goes, “stickiness,” UTS and Gehry are in fact an ideal match. As his now-unveiled design for what will be known as the Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building reveals, he has solutions to their problems.

200 years in a Day: Sydney Open 2010

Sydney Open is one of the best things you can do in this town. Organized by the Historic Houses Trust every two years, the event allows access to more than fifty important Sydney buildings, many of them normally off limits to the public. A City Pass allowed access to dozens of building in downtown Sydney, as well as properties run by the Trust, which are well worth visiting at any time of year. I purchased a City Pass and planned my route carefully, like a marathon runner at a free buffet, to take in as much as possible, from sandstone Georgian to High Tech and beyond. The buildings covered virtually every period of Sydney’s post-1788 history, and present a golden opportunity for a cheap and cheerful romp through the history of the city’s architecture.

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