Barangaroo: Not so Fast?

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The western flank of the Sydney CBD seen from Pyrmont. Barangaroo is the blank concrete expanse at center left. Photo © Alan Miller 2010.

The western flank of the Sydney CBD seen from Pyrmont. Barangaroo is the blank concrete expanse at center left. Photo © Alan Miller 2010.

The saga of Sydney’s Barangaroo has finally reached the point where its twists and turns are no longer predictable. The developer Lend Lease and its resolutely faux design, once paced to a seemingly unassailable lead by a compliant government and a shameless PR operation, has punctured a tire. Without a spare tube or pump, they wait by the side of the road for a team car which itself has been totaled. Meanwhile “sandal-wearing, muesli-chewing, bike-riding pedestrians” are gaining fast. No one knows how many kilometres there are to go. Consider recent events:

February 2011

A group of almost sixty architects release their alternative design, “A Better Barangaroo.”

3 March

On the day before his government enters caretaker mode before the state election, Planning Minister Tony Kelly changes the law regarding subdivision of Sydney Harbour to make it harder to stop Lend Lease’s proposed hotel, which would encroach 85 metres into the water. On the same day, Kelly issues three approvals for parts of Barangaroo.

10 March 2011

Australians for Sustainable Development (AfSD) lose their court case against Barangaroo after Tony Kelly’s last-minute exemption of the project from laws on remediation of contaminated sites. After Kelly’s action, Justice Peter Biscoe admits that AfSD would have  otherwise won their case and takes the extraordinary step of ordering the winner to pay the loser’s costs.

26 March 2011

The New South Wales Labor Party is swept from office in a record landslide. The new government is noncommittal on Barangaroo. Opponents of the development gather signatures in a push for a full parliamentary inquiry into the process so far.

30 March 2011

In a post-election interview, former (Labor) Planning Minster Frank Sartor admits that “the government lost its way on Barangaroo. They allowed … too much floor space, they should never have allowed a hotel on the water” and that the “buildings are bigger than they need to be and the public domain has been diminished, the public spaces have been lowered in quality.”

3 May 2011

Sydney Lord Mayor and independent state MP Clover Moore tables a petition with 11,295 signatures gathered by Australians for Sustainable Development in NSW Parliament, triggering a debate on Barangaroo.

5 May 2011

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, chairman of the Barangaroo Design Excellence Review Panel, lashes out at Clover Moore, accusing her of being for “for low rise. She’s for sandal-wearing, muesli-chewing, bike-riding pedestrians without any idea of the metropolitan quality of the city or what Sydney would lose if Barangaroo were to fail.”

6 May 2011

The new Planning Minster Brad Hazzard writes to Keating, asking him to “desist from any denigrating comments”. Keating resigns, saying he will not be “muzzled.”

11 May 2011

During the parliamentary debate on Barangaroo, Minister Hazzard announces that Lend Lease must comply with the laws on remediation of contaminated sites.

12 May 2011

Hazzard announces a “short, sharp” review of Barangaroo which will involve mediation between AfSD and Lend Lease. As part of the agreement, AfSD agree to drop their second court case against the development, which argued that the scheme had been so extensively altered that the original concept plan approval was now invalid. The terms of reference for the review have not yet been released.

So where to now?

The campaign waged against Barangaroo by Australians for Sustainable Development has resulted in a victory I would not have thought possible the last time I wrote on the subject. The Lend Lease juggernaut seemed unstoppable. Now, the departure of Keating and the upcoming mediation would appear to be a much deserved comeuppance for at least the more egregious elements of Lend Lease’s scheme — the skyscraper hotel in the harbor and the profligate Headland Park it was to pay for.

At the same time, a negotiated truce based on such a thoroughly terrible premise as the current design is unlikely to produce the sort of place Sydney deserves. I still believe the best thing would be to start again. To those who say it would be impractical I reply that the site is empty, nothing has been built and therefore the future isn’t written. Barangaroo needs a design whose excellence is its own best argument for itself. What Lend Lease seems not to realize is that if people liked their design, then, um, people would like their design. Minister Hazzard’s decision to place the project under review would have been greeted with outrage rather than relief. There would have been no need for the dubious legality of the process, the dodgy opinion polls, the misleading “artist’s impressions,” the mischaracterization of opponents, the presentation of faits accomplis as public consultation (a low point was the computerized survey at the public exhibition in March 2010 which asked us whingers, sweetly, through gritted teeth, to “Provide feedback on Lend Lease’s design of Barangaroo South: What do you like?”). Lend Lease’s implacable insistence on conflating urbanism and PR has, among other things, wasted a lot of time and money. Sydney may be a very troubled metropolis, but I don’t yet see a public uprising demanding that the harbor be replaced with skyscrapers.

So start again. It will feel good. Whatever compensation needs to be paid to release the government from its contract with Lend Lease will be considered small change a hundred years from now, just as the Sydney Opera House’s cost overruns have been covered many times over by the billions of dollars it has poured into the Australian economy over the past thirty eight years. Scrapping Paul Keating’s headland park alone would save $200 million dollars.

Hill Thalis' competition winning design, 2005.

Hill Thalis’ competition winning design, 2005.

I have great sympathy for Sydney architects Hill Thalis, who long with architect Paul Berkemeier and landscape architect Jane Irwin won the original “East Darling Harbour” design competition back in 2005. The moral basis of all subsequent criticism of Lend Lease is that they did not win that competition (in fact they lost in spite of having two entries on the final shortlist of five). Philip Thalis has been the most articulate public critic of Lend Lease’s scheme, and I would not be surprised if his office spent more money opposing Barangaroo than they ever won from the competition (Hill Thalis’ official submission to the Department of Planning contains many serious grounds for objection which the media never bothered to report).

The great virtue of the Hill Thalis scheme was the way it set up a clear framework of streets which demarcated between public and ‘revenue generating’ space. It encouraged the making of a real city by establishing a structure within which architects and designers of the future could, over time, create delightful, surprising and perhaps controversial buildings, parks and squares. Such an urban mise en scène is a considerable accomplishment, especially in a city with a childish tendency to skip straight from salad to dessert.

I feel genuinely torn. While a return to Thalis’ design would be about a thousand times better than what is likely to result from nipping and tucking Lend Lease’s macello maldestro, best of all would be a new competition with a new brief. The original competition brief did not offer entrants sufficient freedom to explore the limitations and possibilities inherent in the economic rationalist approach to city making. The competition, like almost everything built in Sydney and many other contemporary cities, was based on an assumption that “development” in the form of big commercial towers would pay for “public space,” whose definition was circumscribed in the brief by the requirement that 50% of the site be dedicated to parkland. The limitation was literally visible in the result, with most entries clustering big anonymous buildings together to the south of an enormous undifferentiated park.

Diagram showing the shadows thrown by Lend Lease's Barangaroo design on 20 June at 9 AM.

Diagram showing the shadows thrown by Lend Lease’s Barangaroo design on 21 June at 9 AM.

While the economic rationalist (or neoliberal) approach is not my favorite way of making cities (I think history shows mixed results at best), to get the best results out of this particular sow’s ear all parties need to rigorously interrogate the cost/benefit equation in order to most benefit the public. At worst, economic rationalism gets you something like the Lend Lease scheme. The government gives up representing the public in favor of greasing the wheels. One developer takes over most of the site. The part of the site which pays the bills is given over entirely to the cheapest version of what the market thinks it wants at that moment — cubicle-filled 85 metre wide towers with the ‘quasi-public space’ where they meet the ground given over to retail and cafés, the assumption being that you can buy your right to the city for the price of a cup of coffee.

Lend Lease's plan and the neoliberal city. What is to the right (Barangaroo South's festival of the stacked cubicle) pays for what is to the left (Paul Keating's genuine fake Headland Park).

Lend Lease’s plan and the neoliberal city. What is to the right (Barangaroo South’s festival of the stacked cubicle) pays for what is to the left (Paul Keating’s genuine fake Headland Park).

The real tragedy comes with what ought to be the public benefit. The arbitrary “coves” to be cut into the straight edge of the Barangaroo site are promoted as land “given back to the harbor” when in reality they are a cost which, in the neoliberal approach, must be paid for by however many more square metres of air conditioned trading floors behind mirrored glass. Keating’s genuine fake headland park is an extreme example (how many hectares of real bushland could be preserved for 200 million dollars?). The critical point is not that nothing profitable should be built on the site (though it ought to be beautiful and green), it is that no one asked the people of Sydney whether they would prefer those arbitrary cuttings to the experimental vertical farm, art gallery, opera house, theatre or library which could be built on the valuable land they obliterate at such great cost. No one even bothered to explain that there was a choice.

No design has yet lived up to Barangaroo's heroic blankness. Photo © Alan Miller 2010.

No design has yet lived up to Barangaroo’s heroic blankness. Photo © Alan Miller 2010.

With the right brief, a fresh competition will encourage creative people from around the world to be stimulated and not sidelined by these tradeoffs. It will require much more than transposing Piazza San Marco (with or without billboards) or Central Park onto Sydney Harbour. It will require a design which simultaneously celebrates the heroic blankness of the site and encourages incremental development over time, the kind of near contradiction which often results in a masterpiece. I myself haven’t yet come up with or seen such an idea yet, but I know we need to put ourselves in a situation where as many clever people as possible devote their imaginations and obsessions to this site and this city. Sooner or later at least one of them will, in the shower, the subway or walking in the woods, come up with the idea which absolutely nails the site, just as Utzon did 54 years ago on the next headland to the east.

Barangaroo, process and product, has been hijacked by powerful men with blind faith in that terminal oxymoron, “the global city.” The underreported part of Paul Keating’s “muesli” diatribe was his criticism of Clover Moore’s “microscopic view of the world.” It was a revealing comment, for that view, as microscopic as possible please, is exactly what our city needs.

The Berkshire Review’s coverage of the Barangaroo saga can be found at the following links (though several other articles take a passing swipe at it):

Maximum Stupid: Sydney’s Big Barangaroo Blowup


Barangaroo Revisited: ‘And Here’s a City I Prepared Earlier…’


A Better Barangaroo (Updated)

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.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Great piece of writing, and of help to my university assignment. Much appreciated.

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