Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Grass is good, the zealots cry
E. M. FARRELLY
ONE of the standing furphies of modern Western life is our vain lamentation over what the critic Simon Schama has called “the annexation of nature by culture”. Vain not because nature ought to play second fiddle but because, historically, the nature-culture relationship is quite as capable of creativity as of destruction. Otherwise you have to shrug off the whole of civilisation as a form of original sin.
This unfertile tension – mixed with just a tad of personal animosity – underlies the current hoo-ha over Cook and Phillip parks. Grass, however forlorn or neglected, takes automatic moral priority over any form of building or artifice, especially if said grass is further sanctified by some sort of claim to historical existence. Hence the wild cries of “monsters”, “mania” and “alienation” that have greeted Sydney City Council’s proposal to build a new pool along the William Street edge of Cook Park.
Regarded soberly, though, the C & P controversy is neither cut nor dried.
You might think they’d be pleased. Sydney is seriously low on public pools, although swimming is one of our fastest-growing and most broad-band of fitness pursuits, for mums and babes as much as brawn-builders. But unlike London, for instance, which has the vilest climate and no noticeable concern for physical health but is nevertheless blessed with dozens of bath-houses left from the last, more gracious century, central Sydney suffers a conspicuous dearth of public swimming amenities.
Private clubs exist, but they’re expensive and often only marginally swimmable. There’s the Boy Charlton, prettily sited but really only accessible to cross-Domain joggers travelling Speedo-light. And there’s Prince Alfred Park, which is emphatically other end of town, attracting only 80,000 visits a year to Willoughby’s half-million. If we really want to prove the CBD’s livability for the middle-middles as well as the Connaught-types, a decent, accessible, all-season public pool is definitely on the list.
Next comes the where question. To be capable of evening use, the site must offer parking, as well as a street address and nearby public transport. The William Street site is within 10 minutes’ walk of five railway stations and all major city bus routes, as well as most of the city centre and two major schools.
None of this is disputed, and the brouhaha would never have erupted had the ideal site not also been part of an existing city park, which woke the Angels against Alienation.
Sydney has a long tradition of building in parks. Bandstands, bowling clubs, cricket grounds, child-care centres, showgrounds – film studios even – and pools. The reason is obvious. Parks are pleasant and, even more irresistibly, available. On the other hand, parks are priceless public goods. In many cases they survive only because the very act of stealing the common from the goose, as the ditty goes, is so very controversial.
Question. Is building on parkland inherently evil? Or does it depend on the particular park, and the particular building?
In this case, the parkland is underused. East-sloping, raddled by over-size roadways and a bowling club of no discernible charm or popularity, glaringly outshone by their glorious uphill neighbour, Cook & Phillip reek of neglect – not solely due to some of their longer-term residents.
To remedy this sad state, and work simultaneously on the pool problem, the city has proposed an ambitious management plan for C & P parks. The plan runs a palm-tree plaza along College Street, complete with reflecting pools, providing the forecourt that the cathedral has always lacked and linking it formally with both the museum and Hyde Park.
THE oversized roads which now crisscross the parks once carried double tramlines. In the new plan the roads are grassed over, then reinscribed with a fig-lined path on one diagonal (Boomerang Street) and a pencil-thin water stair on the other, so that Captain Cook can continue, from his Hyde Park perch, to see the sea. These moves, with the realignment of Cathedral Street to hug the Domain car park, more than double the available green space.
The next piece of the strategy is simply to replace the existing bowling club, which boasts all of a couple of dozen playing members, with a swimming pool complex expected to draw some 350,000 annual visits. No greater area would be used by the pool than has been alienated by the club for the last 100-odd years. No shadow would be cast except onto William Street. With all this, and a more than 100 per cent increase in open space, who could quibble?
Quibble they nevertheless do. Arguments range from the “heritage” value of the roads, to the superiority of passive over active leisure, to the old nature-culture lamentation stuff, to talk of the important city “gateway” at William Street, to the loss of potential views from the
august galleries of the Australian Museum.
Views? One might querulously murmur. Museum, views? Ah, but we’re talking potential views here. The museum, most vocal opponent of the city’s C & P plan, has ideas of reorienting its internal galleries to exploit the Hyde Park views and of establishing a major new entrance on William Street, somewhat along the lines of Barnet’s 1874 proposal.
Never mind that the Barnet proposal covered much of what is now William Street in its efforts at self-aggrandisement. Or that few contemporary architects could claim Barnet’s surefootedness when it came to the grand gesture. Whatever they do next could hardly be worse than the museum’s various exercises in self-mutilation over the previous half-century.
There’s no reason why the museum shouldn’t turn sideways, if that’s what it wants to do. Equally, though, there’s no reason why it should expect Cook and Phillip parks to remain as its doormat in perpetuity.
No reason, either, why a pool on William Street has to look municipal. No earthly reason why such a public building couldn’t respond to the museum’s civic presence, present or future, in equally dignified, contemporary terms. In this way the William Street “gateway” would be more clearly defined than ever, only heightening the drama of the park.
The city offers Cook and Phillip as a contemporary park precinct. Still green, still leafy, but with terraces, waterfalls, Moorish walled gardens and tai chi courts in thoroughly modern, multicultural manner. Arguably the design itself, for both park and building, still needs refinement and simplification. But as a strategy for resuscitating the park, substantially increasing the city’s open space quotient, creating a new public amenity and offering an exciting urban opportunity, you’d have to say it’s pretty hard to beat.
Two Illus: On the drawing board … the College Street Bowling Club, Boomerang Street, and Cook Park looking from the Australian Museum towards St Mary’s Cathedral, and a sketch of the proposed new city park looking back towards the museum.
Photographs by NICK MOIR