Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
FINGER WHARF DEBATE HAS GROWN UGLY AND IRRATIONAL
THE Woolloomooloo finger wharf, protected by law until July this year but widely rumoured now to be facing imminent demolition, seems likely to become a casualty of capitalism’s failure, just as it was both a product and a symbol of its success.
It is a figure-ground problem: people seeing white shapes on black glean an altogether different picture from those seeing black on white, but each knows his or her version unequivocally to be correct. This particular fracas, however, is marked by an almost theological intransigence.
In this case, the opposing values are history and nature: some see nature as strictly unimpeachable, upon which any intrusion becomes a vile blemish; while others cherish the shaky edifice of civilisation as a good in itself, to be defended in situ from the unholy forces of naturalism, philistinism and straight political expedience.
One side would happily demolish not only the finger wharf but the bunkers, Wharf 11 and the Boy Charlton pool, returning the whole bay as far as possible to nature (or at least to “the people” – the two being seen, inexplicably, as natural allies); the other would lovingly recycle the building, but keeps falling at the final, crucial fence – how in these straitened, self-funding times to make the threatened creature pay for itself.
The statistics are well-aired. Built between 1910 and 1914, the wharf, at 401 metres long, is the largest timber-piled wharf in the southern hemisphere(some say the world). Unlike most of Sydney’s finger wharves, it employs an innovative top-lit central roadway which, with a mid-length crossing and two-storey “side-aisles”, gives the interior a peculiarly ecclesiastic quality. Depending on intensity of use, the building offers something between 16,000 and 50,000 square metres of usable near-inner-city floor space, and almost a kilometre of invulnerable harbour frontage.
The arguments for and against its retention are, on the whole, familiar -size, use and above all cost – but beneath them run the silent subtextual premises. Like so many battles it comes down to like and dislike; a question of perception. One lot admires the building’s visual, spatial and structural distinction, while the other sees it as a frightful eyesore which any bay would be very much better off without.
“Ugly” is the word used; a term of such subjective finality as to deserve no place in rational debate of any kind, aesthetic or otherwise, but whose repeated use by the likes of the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Alderman Jeremy Bingham, and the director of the Department of State Development, Ms Rosemary Howard – foes of the wharf from way back – indicates how far from cool reason the debate has now come, and the positive vehemence of the anti-wharf forces. Virtually every type and tier of politician in the land – Alderman Bingham, Mr Greiner, Mr Hay, Mr Keating and countless bureaucrats between – is actively determined to see the wharf go.
But even the cost argument is by no means clear cut. Certainly it would be more expensive to refurbish the wharf as luxury housing than simply to let it rot, but those are not the only or the best options. A more apt comparison is between, on the one hand, making good the piles and superstructure to a point where the building could be let or sold as a site for any of a hundred different uses; and, on the other, demolishing the structure, cleaning up the harbour floor and restoring the foreshore to a pleasurable, if not altogether”natural”, state.
The costs, including a year’s interest, come to roughly $20 million and $18 million respectively, and even this small difference is further diminished in the light of what you’re left with; a huge, usable, dignified building in one case, a large slice of synthetic “landscape” in the other. What are cities made of – mass or void?
As always, however, the real argument operates at an emotional level; the wharf, say the contras, is too big. It overfills the bay and obscures veritable centimetres of sacred water view from the NSW Art Gallery coffee shop (not to mention State Parliament). The wharf’s removal, it is held, would allow the bay in some mysterious way to revert to its natural state, which anti-wharf propaganda has lately come to describe as a “fjord” (although rather a flat, swampy fjord, as Alderman Bingham gracefully concedes).
In fact, the marina favoured to replace the wharf, and for which the bay has been recently and specifically re-zoned by precisely those authorities who so resent the wharf, will leave it quite as full, and accessible exclusively to the wealthy few.
All this has been the subject of an inquiry, and the commissioner has filed his report. But still some matters of principle bear examination. How much do we, as a society, value our built history? Why, according to the nature lobby, is a marina acceptable where shops and cafes – much more publicly accessible -are not?
Why did the State Government first encourage the Pivot Group to submit only the higher of its proposals (five storeys, instead of two) – and then disallow it on just those grounds? Why have all players, including the Heritage Council, so meekly accepted the notion that only a foreshore hotel development can render the wharf worth saving? And was it within the Heritage Council’s brief to allow the demolition of an allowedly superlative building for reasons which are primarily economic?
As it happens, the council’s capricious lifting of its own permanent conservation order on the wharf may turn out to be a blessing, allowing a much freer and more inventive re-use than would otherwise have been possible.
You can’t legislate for excellence. Mr Philippe Robert, a Paris-based specialist in adapting industrial white elephants and who was in Sydney until last week conducting a master class on the wharf at the University of Technology, says that it is “a question of talent”.
His classes generated enough ideas to show that new life for the wharf is more than possible – a series of floating “clip-ons” housing concert chambers, galleries, cafes, studios and theatres like (or unlike) Aldo Rossi’s fairytale Teatro del Mondo in Venice; a terraced, grassy slope hiding parking for perhaps 500 cars and stepping over the expressway to the bay, from which thousands could watch cultural events of one kind or another happening on the wharf; and various proposals for l
inking the wharf, physically and economically, back into the city infrastructure – including a possible new Woolloomooloo train station on the existing overhead line.
The finger wharf’s potential to generate a very special, very harbourside, very Sydney kind of place is immense. We should be wary of forfeiting it to that numbing iterative chant “nature good, building bad” – especially as a subtle procurement ploy for yet another marina. Rushcutters Bay is nice, but does Sydney really need more of the same next door? A simple mental flip may reverse the picture.