The Best and Worst of Sydney Urbanism, 2011

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Sunset at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Sunset at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Unlike movies or the performing arts, architecture is not seasonal. There is no year end rush in which all the Gehrys and Koolhaases are “released,” no popcorn summer in which the Barangaroos and Ground Zeros of this world try to blow out our eye sockets with their empty spectacle. Cities just go on and on; one must make an effort to pick a moment and look back if we are ever to figure out just what on earth is going on.

Though cities are, as we are often told, complex creations in constant flux, every city projects a generalized aura of its own well-being, stasis or malaise. This may not tell the whole story and just as a great concert or exhibition can be ruined by a bad mood, we must consider our own point of view, the ideal vision of our own city that we all, I hope, carry around in our heads. 365 days is enough time to witness a city at its best and worst and to assess whether things are generally becoming better or worse. I won’t win any awards for originality in saying that the Sydney of 2011 is not the best Sydney of all time; like a depressed friend, it is not its usual itself. The Sydney of lush streets cascading with unruly greenery, the Sydney of “untidy terrace houses and the restless activists who inhabited them,” described by novelist Geraldine Brooks in this year’s Boyer Lectures,  is more and more the plaything of the Tidy Town Brigade, the developers in pointy shoes and the government planners in wrinkle resistant white shirts.

Sydney is more and more a city unfolding as the result of an argument. When one is constantly forced by our crude discourse into simple positions for or against Barangaroo, density, heritage preservation or bike paths, it isn’t surprising that the delicate little grace notes on which this city relies as much as any get stomped on in the scuffle. One may win or lose political arguments, but the strident mentality required to win them is incompatible with the reflective speculation needed to produce real architecture (see Sydney Opera House, 1966). In contemporary Sydney there is the feeling of a great ironing out of things, of everything bad happening too fast and everything good slowed by endless debate and second thoughts.

Every piece of architecture is both itself and a speculation on the world. The “best” list which follows does not recount battles won or political points scored; everything on it is a tangible example, however small, of an alternative Sydney, of the Sydney we could have and may for all I know be on the way to having. If it was easier to write than I expected, most of the items on it are tentative, nascent, unofficial and subtle, that is different in kind from the frighteningly entrenched and officially-sanctioned evils on the “worst” list. There are eight on each list because there ended up being eight on each list.

The Best

8. Local Government*

It is often observed that Sydney, a city of 4.5 million people and 41 local councils, is one of the world’s more over-governed cities. There is always pressure to streamline by amalgamating councils, and perhaps some good reasons to do so, and yet this is fairly rare. Even though there are 4.5 million council horror stories in the Emerald City, people like the idea of local government and instinctively cling to it as a bulwark, however illusory, against too much centralization.

Local government is about more than which wheelie bins to put out each week. Whether your local council works for the forces of light, darkness or stupidity has a visible effect on the streets and buildings around you. Thanks to the impenetrable hierarchy of processes, policies, public servants and elected councillors of which they are comprised, local councils seem almost destined for mediocrity, and yet some have managed something close to vision. Parramatta Council seems to be encouraging bold plans for reconnecting the city’s second most important center with its river, a place of great historical significance and physical potential which could be, with the right design, more an alterna-Sydney than a sub-Sydney. Marrickville Council in the inner west held a competition for a new library whose shortlist miraculously includes one entry, by Daryl Jackson Robin Dyke in association with Lacoste and Stevenson, which seems exactly right. Proving that Sydney can still build genuine public buildings, Willoughby Council built the very impressive Concourse — a complex which includes a 1000 seat concert hall, a 500 seat theatre and a new library. They also opened Walter Burley Griffin’s Willoughby Incinerator as an exhibition space. A fascinating coalition of Penrith Council, the Penrith Panthers Club and the French Embassy engaged Parisian urbanists Campement Urbain in a process which seems to take inspiration from the public’s ideas, beginning with a video work entitled What is Missing?, rather than treating “public consultation” as, literally, a box to be ticked. Contemporary urban planning generally seeks to create frameworks, such as zoning, within which the market decides what to build. Looking through the opposite end of the binoculars — by asking what is missing? — has exciting implications.

Ornament is no crime at the Willoughby Incinerator (1934). Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Ornament is no crime at the Willoughby Incinerator (1934). Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

7. Building the Education Revolution

Building the Education Revolution (BER) was a big part of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s economic stimulus plan passed at the height of the global financial crisis in early 2009. The idea was to spend a lot of money ($16.2 billion) fast on school buildings, a rush which produced a lot of non-architecture in the form of the many standardized beige school halls which now grace Australia’s school yards, but among the 24,000 projects were a few gems. Some schools managed to build enduring works of architecture in spite of the mad rush. A few of these projects were designed by young, talented architects who may otherwise have had to wait many years for the opportunity to design a public building. Examples such as Scale Architecture’s Covered Outdoor Learning Space in Sydney and McBride Charles Ryan’s Penleigh and Essendon Grammar Junior School in Melbourne cheerfully and cleverly embraced their low budgets.

Because of the extreme haste with which the money was spent, BER had its problems, but it’s a real pity that it (and the “pink batts” scheme to spend stimulus money insulating houses — a good idea badly executed) was so thoroughly trashed by the populist media and the federal opposition.

6. 1 Bligh Street

1 Bligh Street, Sydney’s first six star green building, is a sign of one area in which things have definitively changed for the better. Whether or not one supports the idea of building new skyscrapers, the high end office market now demands those stars, a change which we can only hope means the end of the road for the straggling descendants of the international style which clutter new world cities. The greening of the office building seems to be an international trend, with the refitting of buildings like the Empire State Building and the Willis Tower in Chicago (formerly known as the Sears Tower) an especially encouraging sign. In the case of 1 Bligh, holding up all the the chilled beams, tri-generation plants and black and gray water pipes, is a very fine piece of architecture, a building which throws out sensible but stodgy urban design rules of thumb in favor of a more dynamic and thoughtful celebration of its particular street corner. The myth that green architecture is ugly must now be well and truly debunked.

1 Bligh Street. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

1 Bligh Street. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

5. The Temporary Becomes Permanent

While the big-time infrastructure Sydney needs remains mired in reports, studies and planning, the city has begun to embrace, perhaps as a coping mechanism more than bread and circuses, temporary architecture. This has taken the form of the various festivals which now nearly fill the calendar — the Sydney Festival, the Writers’ Festival, Vivid Sydney, the Film Festival, Art & About, the Crave Sydney International Food Festival, Sculpture by the Sea and the Sydney Architecture Festival among others. Like BER, some of these have presented opportunities for young-ish architects to temporarily redesign parts of the city, most notably through the City of Sydney’s laneway art initiative. Temporary architecture is fast, sketchy, public and instinctive. When there is enough of it, temporary becomes the new permanent.

The greatest of Sydney’s temporary extravaganzas, the Sydney Biennale, returns in 2012.

4. The Art Gallery of NSW’s Stealthy Transformation

The city’s noble institutions, particularly the Australian Ballet, the Sydney Symphony and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, all had stellar years. As 1 Bligh Street implies an alternative to the traditional office building, so AGNSW’s new Kaldor contemporary gallery suggests an alternative to the big shiny museum extension. What on a superficial level is a windowless basement cheered up with a bit of travertine and some nice lighting, is also an example of an institution making the most of itself on footprint which must now be truly exhausted. Dropping $35 million worth of contemporary art into Sydney’s blue-ribbon art museum is provocative, both for the way it takes on the Museum of Contemporary Art, itself now building a new wing, and for the way it rebalances, or perhaps un-balances the collection as a whole. There is the implication in the Kaldor Family Collection, I hope, that it could be the beginning of a new period of expansion for the Gallery. The site in the Domain is difficult but not impossible and apparently outgoing director Edmund Capon has left behind some ideas. Perhaps a superb new wing, substantially devoted to aboriginal art, could built out from the existing building over the Eastern Distributor freeway as a bridge to Woolloomooloo…

Shaun Gladwell's Approach to Axis Mundi, 2007, projected on the facade of the AGNSW. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Shaun Gladwell's Approach to Axis Mundi, 2007, projected on the facade of the AGNSW. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

3. UTS

Like the AGNSW, but in an entirely different idiom, the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) is making the most of its constraints. As always, there is uncertainty as to when and whether all the projects will be built, but their program is ambitious, ranging from a business school designed by Frank Gehry to a new faceted interior by DRAW for the, currently misnamed, Great Hall. UTS is stuck at the ragged edge of the Sydney CBD, an area which is not so much dangerous or dirty as, like many quarters near major railway stations, too transient to spontaneously develop its own character. In such a context UTS’ embrace of bold, visible, very contemporary architecture makes sense. With the massive and not half-bad Central Park development going up across the street from UTS, this area is about to change dramatically. Dare I call it the anti-Barangaroo?

Models of the Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building, designed by Frank Gehry. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Models of the Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building, designed by Frank Gehry. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

2. The Rise of the Bicycle

Whether one gets one’s heart rate up by reading the vitriolic anti-lycra rants of the local Murdoch press or caressing the carbon fiber in one of the high-end bicycle boutiques on the western side of the Sydney CBD, it is obvious that there are more and more bikes on the streets. The age of Bikeopolis seems to be dawning. This is ranked so highly on the list because of the many collateral benefits for a city when more people ride bikes. Aside from the clear environmental advantages, the second coming of the bicycle is a sign that cities throughout the world are, slowly, at a steady 20 kph, growing up.

Many political arguments today, as always, revolve around the nature of freedom. The pressures of our time increasingly reveal the fundamental difference between those who assert their freedom to be assholes and those who seek to protect their freedom not to have their freedom taken away by the consequences of someone else’s insistence on being an asshole, whether by running a leaf blower or a coal seam gas installation where once spinach grew. The automobile is the epitome of this freedom which takes. The rider of a bicycle is uniquely free, free to ride wherever, free to let their thoughts wander, but free in a way which not only takes nothing away from anyone else, but which gives back by encouraging the sort of fine-grained, clean, lively city most of us crave because it means the greatest, literally the densest, freedom of opportunity for the greatest number of people. If the bicycle forces us to actually build this city, what could be more valuable than that?

That said, the rise of the bicycle is the most tenuous item on this list. The bike share schemes so successful in other parts of the world have failed to take off in Brisbane and Melbourne, likely because of Australia’s mandatory helmet laws. Sydney remains the most scary place I’ve ever ridden a bike, mostly because of the unprovoked aggression of many drivers, an attitude shamefully encouraged by the anti-bike rants alluded to above. If I’ve been riding seriously for twenty years and find the local roads hellish enough that I hardly ride on them any more, I can only imagine how intimidating it must be for new riders. Helmets off to them.

Skidmarks. Evidence of fixie activity on a bike lane in Pyrmont, Sydney. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Skidmarks. Evidence of fixie activity on a bike lane in Pyrmont, Sydney. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

1. Clover Moore

The presence of Clover Moore, Sydney’s Lord Mayor, extends across most of this list. Moore’s accomplishments are both real and, because of her city’s inertia and her many powerful enemies, vulnerable. Unlike the mayor of a major American city, Moore has limited powers over a limited area, not much more than downtown Sydney and a few surrounding suburbs. Under her leadership the city has built many high quality bike lanes, but the network of which they are intended to be a part is only half-built and the feeder routes which would lead into it are controlled by other councils. If it is not completed, the risk is that the half-built network, like a highway which suddenly turns into a dirt road, will be written off as a failure. Though her policies, illustrated in the city’s 2030 plan, reflect the mainstream of contemporary urbanism, the lord mayor’s fight is endless. If the City of Sydney wants to build a platform over the railway tracks between Redfern and Central Stations, perhaps the most transformative project it could undertake, it means years of meetings with the proverbial alphabet soup of state agencies, each with an incentive, the inertia of stasis, to say ‘no’ or, more cunningly, ‘ask the guy in the next cubicle.’ Ditto with light rail down George Street, a plan now facing a few more years of study despite its recent endorsement by this bureaucracy. Though it’s always dangerous to pin too many hopes on a politician, Moore seems at the moment to be the most powerful force for good in this city. She is indispensable to Sydney’s future, even if her council did approve the new Westfield (see below)…

The Worst

8. Westfield City Centre

Some time after reviewing the new Westfield shopping mall on Pitt Street in the city, I decided to revisit the building. Was it really so awful, or was that desperate clenching of the stomach, that itching of the skin to the beat of my palpitating heart just symptomatic of my own mall-itis? Visceral reactions to architecture, good or bad, are worth paying attention to. I ploddingly ascended the mirror-clad escalators to the food court. My hands balled themselves into fists. It was lunch hour. It was hell. I had to get out.

Inside Westfield City Centre. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Inside Westfield City Centre. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

7. The Venice Biennale Pavilion

The stoush over the competition to design a new Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was about much more than one two hundred square meter building, to be built half a world away for less than the cost of many Sydney houses. Though more an Australian than just a Sydney story, the dynamic of emerging, progressive (and not necessarily young) architects seeking a chance in a market dominated by established firms is perhaps most pronounced here, as is the stylistic gulf between a progressive, experimental architecture and the warmed-over modernism in which most of our buildings are built. At issue, as much as the definition of an “open” competition, was the spirit which the whole exercise was undertaken. What were the Australia Council’s preconceptions? Beyond the brief, the jury or the rules, every design competition has its own spirit, something the architects who win them instinctively pick up on. If some competitions, such as the one in 1957 for the Sydney Opera House, seek experimentation and risk, the Venice competition was presented with, as Rory Hyde, the co-host of The Architects radio show said, all the pizazz of “a stationery order.” Though most of the firms on it do solid work, the recently announced shortlist — comprising Bud Brannigan Architects, Denton Corker Marshall, John Wardle Architects, Johnson Pilton Walker, Peter Stuchbury and Sean Godsell — is remarkable for its conservatism even given the unprepossessing process from which it resulted. After all the controversy, one would have expected it to contain at least one surprise, if only as a token gesture. 2012 will reveal all.

6. Talking Down Architecture

Simon Mordant, Australian Venice Biennale Commissioner downplays expectations for the new pavilion:

This is an art space, it’s not an architectural competition…We need a functional exhibition space that works for the artist and complies with the Venetian authorities’ requirements. And that’s going to be something that’s far more modest.”

Barry O’Farrell, the Premier of New South Wales, explains why the recommendations of the design review into the height and bulk of the office towers at Barangaroo will not be implemented:

If we keep debating the design it will never be built. Given the volatile nature of world markets, we simply cannot afford to delay Barangaroo while we look at alternative designs.

Nick Greiner, former Premier of NSW and advisor to the O’Farrell Government, describes his “vision” for the new convention centre site in Darling Harbour, an area of 12 hectares (note: the Guggenheim Bilbao was built on time and under budget):

I think the wow factor of that whole precinct doesn’t have to come from a great building … in a Guggenheim-in-Bilbao sense…It doesn’t mean it’s not a great building in the way it fits, the way it looks. But the reality is that there simply isn’t a financial willingness on the part of the government or any of the users…Someone has to pay for it at the end of the day and if you are going to pay for several hundred million dollars beyond what is good design, good function, good fit, I’m not sure anyone’s going to pay.

Gents, great architecture requires great clients…

5. Slow and Expensive

Why does a 5.7 kilometer light rail line built on existing tracks cost $176 million? Why won’t it be built until 2014? How could a 200 meter pedestrian tunnel to Barangaroo possibly cost $286 million? Why is a Brisbane-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne high speed rail line projected to cost $100 billion? How come Perth was able to build 72 km of urban railway, including tunneling under its downtown, for only $1.22 billion? Why does a paperback of Norman Douglas’ Old Calabria cost 40 bucks?

4. Density on Density

The question of urban density, how and where to increase it, is the point where Sydney’s urban discourse needs to be at its best and where it most reliably falls apart. It’s an old story — the market decides. Other than a few nice apartment buildings built in and near the city, in the vast majority of the sprawling metropolis extremely ugly, usually expensive apartments built by low-end developers replace gardens and old houses. The city eats itself and anyone who objects to its table manners is called a NiMBY.

3. Local Government*

I have an idea for a kind of Morgan Spurlock-style documentary called Democracy Man. The subject of this film, a progressive-leaning type, I hope not me, would agree to a period of total political engagement. Every time he is outraged by something in the news or his own experience, Democracy Man is denied the comfort of a nice whinge. For the purpose of our entertainment and enlightenment he would be forced, a letter writing superhero, to try to change everything that outrages him, whether by writing to his political representatives, starting petitions, running for office or organizing protests.

Dealing with local government is somehow dispiriting even when you win. The cinder block walls one runs into are long, high and smoothly rendered. As a result of the opacity of what should be the most transparent level of government, those in power tend to be those with a taste for the boredom and petty intrigue of the cubicle, in other words, those one least wants in power. Politics is necessary, we need it, as Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan said in a recent talk, “like we need sewerage and like sewerage we should want it to work properly and well, but we should not make too much of it.” Politics corrupts good architecture not just through the obvious compromises of the political process, but by replacing subtle, porous thoughts — the kind which design the best spaces — with downright, hectoring ones, the kind which press down hardest in the middle of the night.

More concretely, let’s imagine Democracy Man walking through the main public space in my local area. It’s a pretty indifferent sort of outdoor square surrounded by a certain famous brand of shopping mall, the kind of space whose entrance is celebrated not with a triumphal arch, but with a list of “Rules & Regulations” too long to fit on one sign. Today something is different. It feels awful. D.M. looks up and sees that speakers have been bolted to every lamp post. Out of each one oozes the treacliest of Muzak at a volume just too loud to ignore. There is no way to escape it.

Democracy Man writes an impassioned and reasoned letter to his local councillors pleading the case that Muzak is an affront to dentist’s waiting rooms, let alone a public square (they don’t pump Vivaldi into Piazza San Marco, you know, not yet anyway…). He even closes the letter with a greasy little compliment (“thank you very much for all your hard work”). One or two of the councillors write back, saying that they have referred the matter to staff and thanking him for his letter. A few weeks later a functionary writes D.M. a longer letter thanking him for his letter and explaining that the blessed Muzak, as ordered by the Elected Councillors, as piped through speakers ably installed by the Professional Staff, as endorsed by a process of Public Consultation, has led to a marked reduction in youth crime, above all loitering and skateboarding, and that, thank you for your letter, none of the other Democracy People have complained.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington and its ilk have given Democracy Man false hope in the power of eloquence. Is there anything he could have said, any magic word which would have changed their minds?

But this is serious. This month Woolahra Council in Sydney’s east voted to chop down three 80 year old, healthy Moreton Bay Fig trees in Yarranbee Park on the shores of Rushcutters Bay. Many locals objected. Many of us who are not locals, but know the history of the Green Bans, or the battle which saved the Queen Victoria Building from being turned into a carpark would have thought that the era of such redneck vandalism was over. Various reasons were given by Council and the Orwellianly-named Rushcutters Bay Parks Enhancement Group, but whether the trees were to die to open up water views for the apartments behind, to make space for car parking or, absurdly, to create a version of the Champs Élysées in a suburban street, anyone who has ever admired these gracious trees would not just think, but would know in their entrails that such destruction was obscene. There is something about fig trees in particular. Those trees are every shimmering color in Sydney’s living dream of itself, the great Sydney, the best Sydney, and everything that her destroyers shall never be.

Democracy Man is no superhero. He has only words to play with…until he decides to chain himself to a tree.

2. Barangaroo

What can you say?

Barangaroo has turned out about as badly as it possibly could have. It’s pointless to rehash the various problems with the project, especially now that (see #6 above), the state’s highest elected official has clearly stated his indifference to design. The hotel over the water may be gone, but the project’s aggressive and banal spirit remains in those 85 meter wide skyscrapers. Consider the following small point: even if one were to accept everything else about the project, why must all three of the big towers, containing some 300,000 square meters of office space, be designed by the same architect? Did the Barangaroo Delivery Authority get a three for the price of two deal? What possible justification is there for deliberately seeking monotony? Did no one in any of the meetings suggest hiring some other architects for a bit of variety? I genuinely don’t understand.

Blah, blah, blah. I really can’t say any more.

The only hope for 2012 is that “Barangaroo Central,” the portion of the site between the office towers and the genuinefake Headland Park at the northern end, will end up chock full of “cultural facilities” as a kind of grudging compensation for putting up with the horror of the rest of the development. There is talk of a new lyric theatre, an outdoor amphitheater and other nice things.

1. Nihilistic Urbanism, or, Don’t Take Out Your Bad Mood on the Sydney Opera House

Some cities are more loved than others. One can be very cross at a city, as Bostonians often can’t stand their Red Sox, without ceasing to love it. It’s when people stop caring, stop carrying around that ideal dream of their own place, that things really start to go downhill.

Last week the architecture critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, Elizabeth Farrelly, wrote what I though was a sickening article asking “how much do we love the Opera House?” At issue was the long-proposed renovations, now projected to cost $1.1 billion, which would among other things try to rectify the well-known shortcomings of the Opera Theatre (bear in mind that $1.2 billion is being spent on Lincoln Center, the SOH’s unlovely contemporary). The article rehearsed a litany of critiques, most of all that one of the busiest performing arts centers in the world, a place which has given joy to millions, was a mere “scuplture.” Farrelly played both the ball and the man, Jørn Utzon, who is no longer around to defend himself.

Before the article appeared, the question of whether or not we love the Opera House was a non-issue. After it appeared, letters to the editor stumbled in on both sides, and suddenly we had on our hands the stupidest “debate” in the world. Suddenly one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century was a problem. The Sydney Opera House was being, not just critiqued, but called into question. I was surprised by the number of people who seemed so suddenly and righteously offended by something so benevolent, so willing to discard as “a white elephant” a building which, in spite of certain practical shortcomings caused by the failure to build Utzon’s original design, I had assumed was as universally loved as Notre-Dame (both are gothic buildings in a way…).

A discussion of the merits of the renovation plans is beyond the scope of any silly season list. One can legitimately critique the proposed renovations, and the ones that have already taken place, but spending money on the such things as the arts is what cities do when they have confidence in the future. My question is, if we don’t love the Sydney Opera House as unconditionally as a member of our own family, what do we love? If someone is willing to give up on a building which has given us more than ever a building gave a city — and failing to renovate would be tantamount to giving up — then what wouldn’t such a person give up on? I fear that this is the sensibility which controls, and is building, Sydney. I fear it is the dark, slimy thread linking the Opera House haters, the tree choppers, the frackers, the developers, the angry drivers, the neighbor blowing leaves in the rain, the local council indifferent to reason, the politician running against beauty. These personages of our age seem to float in the same cesspool of nihilism, as though it is somehow sophisticated and mature to hate most that which is most obviously beautiful. Don’t be surprised when, one moonless night, the Opera House gets fed up enough to dive in the water and swim away.

The Sydney Opera House by night. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

The Sydney Opera House by night. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

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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