The Barangaroo Review: Your concerns are important to us but we do not share them

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Barangaroo from Clyde Reserve, Miller's Point. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Barangaroo from Clyde Reserve, Miller's Point. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

I. “My Final Bellyache”

The results of the “short, sharp” review into Sydney’s Barangaroo development project have been released in the form of an 87 page report (available here, 28mb pdf) in which the word “outcome” appears 88 times. Though all sides have declared some version of victory in its wake, it is hard to see the report as anything other than a final rubber stamp for the developer Lend Lease. Whatever its misgivings, the report requires no modifications to the current plans. Any critique is blunted by a salad of weasel words and praise for the “world class people working on Barangaroo.” Whether or not anyone has the power to undo this mess, it’s clear no one has the guts.

The proposed hotel in the harbour has always been the most visible symbol of Barangaroo’s overreach and much has been made about the report’s supposed “axing” of this most egregious incursion, but the actual wording is both less definitive and more revealing:

While Lend Lease has zoning and Concept Plan approval for the hotel in the harbour, this Review suggests that it would be a significant demonstration of goodwill to relocate the hotel to elsewhere on the site. At the very least, we believe that Lend Lease and the Government should agree to abide by the outcome of a specially constituted Design Review Panel which should be asked to review the merit of the location of the hotel with a publicly accessible process as if the rezoning had not occurred.

If the use of the word “goodwill” evokes a hostage situation, then that is precisely how this saga feels. With building approvals in the bag, Lend Lease doesn’t have to change a thing. We’re meant to be grateful if out of “goodwill” (and possibly only after receiving compensation from the taxpayer) they decide to spare our harbour.

The report is highly critical, to the extent that bureaucratese is capable of expressing criticism, of the way the Barangaroo design was communicated to the public. This is the great contemporary mea culpa: my actions weren’t bad, just badly communicated. Of course in architecture, communication is usually inseparable from action; the building itself does not exist until the very last potato chip of travertine is glued onto the last cinderblock wall. In writing on Barangaroo, I and others have deplored the way a project on land belonging to the public was allowed to become an ad campaign different only in scale from the ones which sell Gold Coast condominiums. Propaganda has not just hidden the true impact of the design, it has made it impossible for the general public to truly participate in the project as anything other than passive consumers. As the ad campaign proceeded, ranging from selective wide-angle renderings to wrapping Sydney newspapers in cartoons, the real deal was done behind the scenes.

Even if the review’s criticisms in this area were emphatic, they would be meaningless since there are no consequences:

this Review has been consistently advised that consultation about the project has been more a selling of a decision than a genuine effort at community engagement to improve the outcome, and that there is a lack of transparency in relation to the project. Perceptions about the adequacy of consultation and transparency are often influenced by the extent to which the commentator likes the outcome, but these comments have been made widely enough for this Review to conclude that the Barangaroo Delivery Authority and Lend Lease need to upgrade their approach to consultation, communication and transparency. These are a core skills and perspectives for the 21st century – as important to governance as financial management.

They can “Upgrayedde (refer Idiocracy (2006))” themselves until the last kilobyte, but there is nothing to stop Lend Lease starting work tomorrow based on the approvals it gained as a result of such poor communications. The report gently observes that

there is a major issue in relation to public communication in relation to design. The quality of the design work underway is something to crow about, but it is difficult for the community to support it if they don’t know what is going on, or if the professionals appear to be in conflict with each other. The BDA needs to develop a new communication strategy focussed on ensuring accurate information about design issues is easily available.

Who are these professionals? Are they the many professionals critical of Barangaroo or are they the professionals working on Barangaroo? Are professionals meant to always agree, or to “appear” to agree? Does the community have no option but to support the professionals in their midst?

Whatever this means, it is precisely backwards. I don’t think anyone would deny that Lend Lease and the Barangaroo Delivery Authority, with the full backing of a state government from which they were largely indistinguishable, “crowed” as loudly as they could to promote their design. What remains unanswered by the report is how, even after relentlessly promoting their design in the most flattering (and often inaccurate) light, there was still enough opposition to warrant an independent review? Surely toning down the propaganda would have resulted in more public opposition, not less. And I have no idea what “accurate information about design issues” is, but I can tell you that it’s not easy to find a simple up to date plan of what is proposed. This failure is serious and ought to call into question the entire process. As Hill Thalis, the winners of the original competition, wrote in their submission:

The contradictory nature of this documentation is compounded by the difficulty required to access it. It is questionable whether a non-professional person would to be able to find, access and interpret this information. It is extremely difficult for any professional person to do so. This is an unacceptable situation for any public project – let alone such a publicly significant and publicly owned site.

As to whether the failure of Barangaroo’s “communications strategy” was by design, disorganization or incompetence, the report remains silent. Like the US debt deal, it sets a ruinous precedent by rewarding those who crow loudest.

In some parts of the report, the bureaucratic sensibility runs wild to the point of unintentional self-parody. The section on contamination recommends “that the Barangaroo Delivery Authority be required to fund a peer review of the site remediation plans” but that the “Review does not believe that it is necessary to defer the works for the Basement Car Park or the Headland Park until the peer review is completed.” So why bother? In the section on “Design Excellence,” the review recommends a “‘snapshot’ design review be undertaken to assess and advise on the quality of forthcoming proposals and to reassure the community” even though “it has found no cause for concern in the Project Approvals to date. These should be allowed to proceed without delay.”

So before moving on, let me offer my own “short, sharp review”:

Barangaroo, process and product, is terrible.

Clyde Reserve, Miller's Point, Sydney. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Clyde Reserve, Miller's Point, Sydney. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

II. “No surprises, please”

The review into Barangaroo was conducted by two Melbourne urban planners, Meredith Sussex and Shelley Penn. If I could ask them one question, it would be this:

Why does Melbourne get Federation Square and Sydney Barangaroo?

One of my favorite places in Sydney is Clyde Reserve, a small park with a coin-operated barbecue, some maritime themed play structures, raggedy pigeons on raggedy grass and a few stalwart gum trees and she-oaks on the cliff top above the northern end of Barangaroo. When I worked in the city, I would happily use up half my lunch hour walking all the way out there and back to scarf down my sandwich. The park is quiet, there are no lunchtime power boxers and you can’t see the Opera House from here. There is virtually no design to the park at all other than the inadvertent spatial power of its position, visually commanding and yet physically apart from the harbour city. Clyde Reserve is hidden in plain sight. It feels like the last forgotten place in Sydney. With Barangaroo stretched out below like a dockworker on a cigarette break, one can dream its future here better than anywhere else. The flat concrete rectangle which may be ugly in a conventional sense becomes beautiful enough to shed, just for a moment, its political burden. For a moment it becomes just a place again.

Soon Barangaroo’s faux-headland park will rise to meet little Cyde Reserve. For the dominant school of urban planning such connections, as when Mark Zuckerberg speaks of  helping “people connect,” are an unalloyed good, but for Clyde Reserve that moment of connection will be the last moment of its poetry. All that matters about it, everything except its physical presence in two dimensions on a map, will be obliterated. Connect everywhere to everywhere else and you have an airport, not a city. In great cities, little surprises like Clyde Reserve proliferate. For every Piazza San Marco there are ten Campo San Lorenzos. These cities understand that not all pearls need be connected.

What is so galling about Barangaroo is the sense that nothing unexpected will ever happen there. I’m sure there will be food and wine festivals, buskers and maybe even the occasional protest march, but what seems almost impossible, almost deliberately excluded in the current design is any encouragement of the almost imperceptible human surprises which happen in cities, the whispered jazz of the streets. It is hard to imagine anyone finding a place for themselves in Barangaroo in the way that I “discovered” Clyde Reserve. Cities endure by allowing this inexhaustible discovery without ownership. Shares in public space can be divided infinitely and only gain in value.

Instead of, to use Koolhaas’ phrase, the “irrigation of territories with potential,” Lend Lease and its world class people have mercilessly defined everything at Barangaroo, or, more precisely, everywhere. The same people will come and do roughly the same things in the same places every day. The site is divided into three, not the more interesting one or two or three thousand. Recreational activities will range from drinking milky coffee to shopping to jogging. The faux headland park, praised by the report (and what does it say that the only major aboriginal “Cultural Facility” in Sydney will be buried within it, along with a parking lot?), will evoke the outline of the original headland and nothing else. There is no room, no time allowed for ambiguous or resonant forms and juxtapositions (and the Sydney Opera House is a masterpiece of resonance and ambiguity — light and heavy, almost sails, nearly shells). Barangaroo seems indifferent even to the harbour which justifies its existence.

However precisely, however eloquently, sardonically or passionately however many intelligent people voiced their disquiet, it could not stop the Barangaroo juggernaut. An argument which might involve ideas about beauty, fairness, sustainability or history, an argument worded to provoke the collective imagination to imagine better, passes through the brown filter of the the planning system to become a “concern” about such things as “Scale/Density,” “Contamination” or “Governance,” easily dismissed with a magic hour rendering and a few soothing paragraphs. Communication becomes impossible across the divide thus created. In the end not only does a terrible design get built, but we never even discuss it properly. We never understand why or how or what it says about Sydney that this was allowed to happen. The developer says ‘la la la,’ the politician says ‘la la,’ the planner says ‘la’ and the bulldozers roll in. It’s pretty bizarre that a new neighborhood can be the result, I mean outcome, of a seemingly involuntary process; like digestion, the result will not be pretty.

Tobias Hitze/Alan Miller, The Architect Contemplates His Own Faeces (pietà for one), 2011, pencil and found media.

Tobias Hitze/Alan Miller, The Architect Contemplates His Own Faeces (pietà for one), 2011, pencil and found media.

Reading the report, as closely as it is possible to read such a document without acute mental distress, it seemed to me that to have built, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, the Barangaroo that is in our hearts would have required a miracle beyond even the two-thirds of a miracle they managed over on Bennelong Point. To have navigated a truly outstanding new urban space through the perils of a Sydney design competition, a commercial tender process, a discredited planning system, a mostly disengaged populace, a rapacious developer and a gaggle of consultants, bureaucrats and committees using only the means available to the architect seems inconceivable and that is a big problem for our city. Hill Thalis, Paul Berkemeier and Jane Irwin’s competition winning design for Barangaroo was a promising beginning because it was modest enough to allow others the chance to fill in its urban grid. Melbourne’s Federation Square had an extremely rocky gestation (grippingly documented in the film Inside the Square), but the result, whether or not you like its architectural expression, is undeniably real public space, and plans for the upcoming Federation Square East look even better than the original. It seems obvious that a project as big and profitable as Barangaroo ought to have more cultural goodies than a Melbourne street corner.

The cities which knock big projects like Barangaroo out of the park are by definition places where such…deep breath…outcomes are possible. Their planning laws are not necessarily more progressive or their architects more visionary, but they are places where certain expectations are implicit. While Sydney’s landscape certainly deserves the best, to expect its present culture to suddenly produce twenty two hectares of greatness is like expecting Eddy Merckx to come out of retirement to win the 2012 Tour de France. Cities need to keep themselves in form. A design culture, for want of a halfway decent term (perhaps the Editor could provide something in German), is not something you announce on a billboard or devise in a cabinet meeting. It’s written into a city at every scale, from curbstones to skyscrapers. It is allowed to speak for itself. Big time architects instinctively know when to pull off a masterpiece and when to lend their signature. You see it at university when a student morphs from a digital blobster to a bush modernist between one semester and the next, depending on who their tutor is.

What you won’t find in any report or newspaper article on Barangaroo is a description of The Tutor’s Expectations, or to be wordy, the cultural assumptions behind the project. Did it start off well? Was the decay gradual or sudden? Who fought for what? We’ll likely never know, not because of the abhorrent secrecy which veiled every important decision from view, but because the most important assumptions were left unsaid. It was clear to all that the goal was “delivering outcomes” and being “open for business” rather than creating the kind of public space which could be loved and discovered by the people of Sydney and their descendants for many years to come. Homogeneity trumped variety because it is easy. Now that the report is out, Barangaroo’s supporters and opponents can conduct peer reviews, move hotels and slim skyscrapers all they like, but the assumption of greedy mediocrity is as ineradicable at this point as a puddle of cheap Aussie Shiraz on marble.

Great architecture has always required enthusiastic, critical, patient and assertive clients. In a 21st century democracy, at least for a project as big as Barangaroo, it also requires something much harder to define or recognize — the participation of the general public. The seeming conflict between visionary clients and the crowd causes some writers and architects to use the many masterpieces commissioned by despots as an argument against democracy, or at least an argument that it is incompatible with great public architecture. The former is abhorrent, the latter lazy. If cities from Melbourne to Grand Pari(s) have used the mess of democracy to produce contemporary architecture which speaks eloquently of our times, it behooves us to find out how they did it.

Barangaroo nous appartient. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Barangaroo nous appartient. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

It is possible to design a version of that quality of fascination I find at Clyde Reserve, but there is no box to tick for poetry. One of Barangaroo’s greatest failures of imagination is that it never sought to design new ways of inspiring the public to imagine the future of what, after all, is their site. The report itself perpetuates the attitude that the public are there to be persuaded and reassured rather than engaged. It is no wonder then that “Design Excellence” becomes a key performance indicator rather than something Mephistopheles sells for souls. Sure, the plans were exhibited for the required period, the letter of the law was followed, but where was the attempt to enliven Sydney’s resolutely dreary expectations of itself? The failure is dire, far more damaging than a mere injustice because the great divide in our cities is not between the bourgeois and the proletariat, but between professionals and the public upon which they operate. The ideal Barangaroo — so impossible to imagine now, even from the heights of Clyde Reserve — would have provoked that public, but from a desire to create possibilities rather than destroy them. The provocation ought to run both ways. That Barangaroo might have been less ingratiating, less shiny than the one we’ll get, but it would have aged with dear old Sydney for as long as it could surprise her.

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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