Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Let’s make the quay a full-time party piece
ARCHITECTURE SUMMER ARTS
by E M Farrelly
OK, say it’s true. Say, for the sake of argument, that Circular Quay really is Sydney’s symbolic heart, its west-of-west demographic centre notwithstanding. And say that, especially at this ceremonial time of year, we all start, mentally, to gather around the quay as peasants around a fire, warming our spiritual hands.
Is the quay up to it?
As far as the world is concerned, there’s no question. Sydney is a harbour city, with Circular Quay as its focus and its party piece. The foot count too, around the quay, on Bicentennial and Olympic Bid nights as well as plain Sunday afternoons, supports this view.
Spatially, this seems reasonable. Ever since Sydney was born, its citizens have lamented the city’s narrow streets, blaming them for dampness, disease, fire, putrescence, overcrowding, overbreeding and moral deformity, inter alia. Space was ever short in downtown Sydney. And although, until the AMP’s first skyscraper in 1962, Circular Quay was barely respectable, much less desirable, it does provide bucketfuls of space.
But how good is the quay, really, as a piece of urban design? God did his bit with aplomb, but what has nurture added to nature? Why, despite the water and the glam and even the Opera House, is there still that niggling sense of not quite having got there? And is it fixable before 2000?
It’s not as if the quay has lacked design input over the years. Not only Joern Utzon but Harry Seidler, Lawrence Nield, Andrew Andersons (the Bicentennial paving-and-plaNting job, MCA conversion, new Coca-Cola Museum and the anyminute-now East Circular Quay building, in that order) and Ken Woolley have each left an architectural thumbprint; and that doesn’t include the might-have-beens. So why does Circular Quay still feel like pearls without a string?
Coherence problems of this kind can be dealt with either by reinforcing the container – the “wall” around the edge of the quay – or by vivifying the central space. Except that the central space (you will have noticed) is mainly water.
Occasional visionaries, undaunted by such detail, proffer Circular Quay as Sydney’s “water square” – just like St Marks, only wetter. This fanciful but seductive notion is almost sustainable for special events such as water-based Australia Day ceremonies and the like, but loses credibility when it comes to the everyday. What kind of a square is it that only gods can walk on?
Some, in response, have bravely proposed reclaiming a strip of waterfront – which gives somewhere to walk, but never had any legs, politically. So that leaves the question of the container. How might the quay’s peripheral elements – the pearls – be arranged to impair a sense of being someplace, instead of just en route from the office to the opera.
The answer, despite popular impulse, is not to pull it all down, even if we could afford to. Sure, the gap where the CML buildings used to be gives a nice green view to Bilsons, Doyles and any incoming liners. But there’s more to making a place than just rolling out the panoramas. Good urban design choreographs the experience, the being there – not just the view.
And the East Circular Quay building, when it comes, will not be great architecture – no quay needs more than one prima donna – but will approach the Opera House with confident deference. More importantly, it will define the quay, offer a variety of conditions in which to sit/talk/drink by the water’s edge, and entice the pedestrian with a gradual, glimpse-by- glimpse unfolding of the great white lady.
Opposite, on the western arm, the Hyatt is an even more ordinary building, but with similarly good urban manners; containing the quay, beckoning the pedestrian, offering places to be. Its new rooftop pavilions, recently approved, will ameliorate the stunted look from which the building has always suffered – although they can do little, regrettably, to overcome the embarrassing attempt to fake sandstone with concrete.
Next along is the passenger terminal from which one Bilson eater can wave over seas to another, giving the quay an extra role, perhaps, within some culinary pincer movement. Then the passenger terminal – great spot for a party but a hiccup in the pedestrian flow; then the MCA-side gap where the cinematheque should be. A cinematheque here, as proposed but still unfunded, would establish a second cross-water link with the new art cinema at East Circular Quay. It would also breathe life into the quay-as-culturalprecinct idea, otherwise subject to severe between-election dieback.
The Cahill Expressway is the last big question mark, last tarted up just when everyone else was trying to pull it down. The refurbishment was inconspicuous, admittedly, consisting mainly of multiple coats of paint, a lift which kills the Alfred Street colonnade for walking purposes, and some dangly skeletal things meant to divert the eye from the grunge.
Now, though, that ideas of doing in the expressway (what Pat Hills used to call “Joe’s road”) have themselves been undergrounded by the hefty price tag, the primary question, about remaking the water-city link, concerns transparency.
There are two obvious ways of dematerialising the Cahill to act as a portal to the sea, rather than a barrier from it. These are widening the central gap so that – with the rejuvenation of the old building – Customs House Square can extend to the water’s edge between the legs, as it were, of the expressway; and stripping away as much flesh as is possible without affecting the structure’s traffic-bearing capacity.
As architect Tony Caro’s recent scheme has demonstrated, the square that results from such an exercise is not huge (in world terms) but it would more than satisfy Sydney’s ceremonial needs. The very meagreness of our streets makes us reluctant occupiers of urban open space, and a vast square, such as many propose, could easily feel under loved.
This is one good reason, among many, for keeping the quay contained. To feel really alive, the place should be packed, not with trinket shops but with cinemas and museums, shops and galleries. There should be a dozen Puppys (who says Sydney can’t outdo Goulburn?), two dozen oyster bars and a different experiment every month in what the new Coke museum attempts, however disappointingly, to take an icon of ordinariness (yes, yes, Warhol in 3-D) into high art.
Then, perhaps, we could stop treating the quay as our front room, and start living in it.
Two Illus: Quay boundaries…the Cahill Expressway (above) and the Hyatt building (right).
Photographs by James Alcock