Maximum Stupid: Sydney’s Big Barangaroo Blowup

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“The Master Plan suggests an architecture that, despite its scale, will not overshadow any of the spaces that are, in and of themselves, naturally beautiful. The exception to this is the library and hotel pier. A reference to tall ships that once docked at the harbour’s edge and the hotel and library are expressions of the magnificent ability for a building to almost walk on water. This architecture will provide necessary markers in their own right.”

-from the Barangaroo Public Display, March 2010

It’s tempting to divide this article into two sections, “process” and “product” or maybe “means” and “ends.” That would be the mature thing to do. Very serious people throughout the world demonstrate their seriousness with clearly labeled headings and bullet points, and very serious people are very serious about filling their days with processes, products, means and ends.

What is all this about? It’s about cities and in particular the conspicuously empty 22 hectares on the western side of central Sydney called Barangaroo. Check it out on Google Earth and the site’s importance is obvious. Barangaroo is the last undeveloped waterfront land in the middle of a city obsessed with development. Its mutations have traced the transformation of Sydney Harbour since white settlement; a rugged shoreline gradually became a working waterfront lined with finger wharves and manned by stevedores. During the depression it was known as the “Hungry Mile” as too many willing workers lined up for not enough jobs. The filigree timber wharves gave way to containerization and its rationalized edge which in turn hardly put up a fight against Sydney Harbour’s present guise as a place of leisured gazes and big business. Given Barangaroo’s presence in the middle of a growing city, it is hard to deny that some serious buildings should be built there. The only little problem is the question of how and what.

When I alluded to Australia’s poor record of administering international design competitions in my recent article on the Griffins, I was very much thinking of Barangaroo as the most recent example. The site was the subject of an international competition in 2005, a winner was chosen and promptly sidelined. In the current exhibition of the Government-endorsed scheme for Barangaroo, which was chosen as the result of a second, less public tender process, the original winner is downplayed as “an urban design framework.” Justifiable outrage over the mismanagement of the process is complicated by the fact that the original winning design was not particularly visionary. It was no Opera House. After seeing the diverse range of proposals four years ago I suspect the winner was chosen for the way its vagueness allowed it to be progressively abstracted by the political process until eventually nothing remained. This is the problem with urban planning as a discipline. With a little political skill, anyone with a particular agenda can easily navigate planning’s frothy bullet points; soothing motherhood statements suddenly become a proposal to fill in part of Sydney Harbour and build a sixty storey hotel.

Yes indeed, that “exclamation mark,” as former Prime Minister Paul Keating affectionately calls it, is the talk of the town. It is another example of a tactic which is deployed with disturbing frequency these days. Someone powerful makes a patently ludicrous proposal, such as invading Iraq or capturing carbon dioxide underground and instead of being dismissed out of hand, some twisted version of political correctness demands a “public debate.” Usually this debate then results in the ludicrous made flesh. In the public exhibition at Barangaroo, the hotel, which would be built on a 150 metre long pier jutting out into one of the narrowest parts of the harbour, is hilariously described as a “library and hotel pier.” Maybe in the future some masters of PR will shorten this slightly awkward phrase and we’ll enjoy a new architectural typology, the all lowercase, world-first, libraryhotel.

Sixty storeys is a lot to hide, and the exhibition uses all the tricks of an insecure architecture student to conceal its true impact. One recent altercation neatly illustrates this, and some other important aspects of architectural representation. When the hotel proposal was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, the developer’s perspective renderings were, like a starlet’s favorite cinematographer, careful to show the building from its best, skinniest angle. My first reaction was that the architects had been very selective in their choice of view; the willowy ingenue would look more like Oliver Hardy from Darling Harbour to the south. Apparently the Herald thought the same thing and asked the developer for this view only to be told it did not exist. Setting aside the fact that additional photomontages are easy to prepare once a digital 3D model is built, and that an architecture student would be verbally crucified for such a blatantly incomplete presentation, there is this invention called a computer and in the year twenty ten these computers allow anyone to make their own photomontages. The Herald published their own crude but to my eye accurate view of just how big and fat this outrageous proposal would be from the angle most people would see it from. They even unfairly advantaged the proposal by following the infuriating convention of representing glass skyscrapers as transparent volumes. The newspaper’s handiwork apparently got under the skin of the Barangaroo brass and a letter from their chief executive appeared in the paper a couple of days later. The letter, which huffily claimed not only, as expected, the mantle of progress, but the artistic high ground as well, called the Herald’s attempt at architectural delineation “unbelievably rude and incredibly arrogant .” That’s certainly at tad harsher than the gnarliest critique I ever received in architecture school. When I read those words, my friends, I knew that the stew of unbelievable arrogance, greed, condescension, entitlement and self-congratulatory blandness which had produced this immodest proposal was too much and that I had to write something about Barangaroo.

I cannot resist saying a bit more about architectural representation, the words, drawings and models through which architectural ideas are communicated. The residents of any city have a stake in architecture which is proportional to the size of a proposal and to its publicness. If you want to build Thoreau’s cabin in your back yard, then I don’t believe anyone, the government or your neighbors, has a right to question it. At the other end of the spectrum is Barangaroo, which will be an enormous development on public land. In this case, the proponent, a government-anointed private developer, has an obligation to communicate something substantially more than spin to the public. Having a public exhibition is a step in the right direction, but what should they show us? At the heart of this conundrum is perhaps the most dominant species of architectural representation, the digital 3D model and photomontage. For someone in the business, a scale drawing, be it a plan, cross-section or elevation, is far more revealing than a digital perspective, however photorealistic. Scale drawings can be beautifully rendered — as the Griffins’ were — or purely technical, but there is a standard of accuracy which must be met. On the other hand, I am not aware of any lawsuits over misrepresentative 3D photomontages, but I would be surprised, given the immense opportunities for willful fudging and innocent mistakes, if one doesn’t crop up at some point. I have no doubt that most people who attend the public exhibition of Barangaroo will rely on such 3D views to gain an understanding of what is proposed. They certainly won’t be able to stomach the prose on display, which could fill the “Written by Committee” chapter in an anthology of bad architectural writing.

(Incidentally, one answer to this core problem of architectural communication — objective representation versus perspectival propaganda — is quite simple; build physical models. Physical models are to scale and everybody loves them. However, the fact that they are not immune to fudging is demonstrated by one model on display in the Barangaroo exhibition. It shows the ground plane and “library” in loving detail while representing the skyscrapers above as transparent, nearly invisible, shadowless cylinders.)

More broadly, and shoving aside the massive hotel, which might well be some kind of strategic ploy on the part of the developer, what do those shiny photomontages, plans and models tell us about Barangaroo? What kind of place is it to be, and what does this place tell us about the way cities are made these days? If you’re interested I urge you to check out what is available, both on the woefully inadequate official site and elsewhere. For me, the nature of Barangaroo is summed up by that wicked neologism, libraryhotel. Private pays for public. Within the soothing confines of a global airport aesthetic, Barangaroo’s architects, led by Lord Richard Rogers, assume a clear distinction between those areas — the office towers, the hotel — where economic rationalism rules, and public spaces which are paid for by that economic activity. It is amazing, at least in Sydney, how ingrained this pattern has become. If fifty percent of the site is to be dedicated to open space, then it is a simple matter to calculate how much commercial floor space is required to pay the bills and make a profit. Once you have your floor space and a site, a building’s height can be easily calculated and you’re into three dimensions and therefore making architecture. At Barangaroo there is an admirable intention to produce a zero net carbon, water positive development, but surely the cost of this has been comfortably paid for by a few extra storeys.

These sorts of calculations might seem logical, and I won’t deny there is a certain thrill in their simplicity, but bear in mind that the cities of the world are the most complex, indescribable, emotive creations of humankind. We go into a place and the first thing we do is feel. Just as the libraryhotel is grotesquely large, so is the proposed park. What will people do there? How will it feel on a hundred degree summer lunch hour, given the fact that the concrete apron of Barangaroo precludes the growth of large trees?

There are so many alternatives to Barangaroo’s reductivist neoliberal approach to city building, which will at best result in slickness. You could build a city beach, as was proposed in one of the original competition entries. Imagine swimming there on that sweltering lunch hour. Instead of compensating the public with one huge forlorn park, you could have a whole sequence of exquisite little parks dispersed throughout real city streets, like jewels on a necklace. Each park could be designed by a different young architect or artist. Instead of so much open space, you could include affordable housing and artists’ studios among the office towers. What is wrong with idea of building a major symphonic hall on the site so that the Opera House can finally be made to function as a venue for opera? You could build a new branch of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. You could establish an experimental urban farm, or a vertical farm in a skyscraper. A vertical farm would be an incredible tourist attraction as well as a contribution to a saner world. The Barangaroo scheme has been praised for the way it, at great expense, modifies the existing straight edge of the foreshore. That straight edge is unreflectively condemned as a modernist intrusion on the organic harbour edge, but it is there now and not only is it part of Sydney’s industrial heritage, not only would it be cheaper to keep it, but as I stood on the site for the first time the other day I found its unbroken line incredibly powerful. There is a feeling of vastness which is very rare in the middle of a major city. Very serious people might condemn my alternative proposals with a grave shake of the head, but the point is that building on a site like Barangaroo is serious business in every sense of the word. Sydney deserves the best and this must be done right. The famous harbour has been many things since 1788, and whatever is built at Barangaroo has an obligation to imagine what it might become in the future, not just what it is at the moment. The site has a presence which demands a response, not a denial and not the kind of pseudo-whimsical blandness which covers up the true complexity of cities. Cities are places of maximum sensation. Barangaroo needs more than just one libraryhotel, it needs a whole lot of cool things including many different libraries, many different hotels and a sensibility which understands the difference between all of them.

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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