Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
One small step for Martin Place
E M FARRELLY E. M. Farrelly is architecture and urban design critic for the Herald.
WHAT, you may well ask, is the story? All that fuss, two years ago or more, and still nothing. Martin Place is unchanged. Same old random clutter of seats, bins, trees, monuments, kiosks, paving types, light standards, flag poles, air vents, public art and what might loosely be termed entertainers.
Well you’d be wrong on two counts. One, the arrangement is not random: everything, every plaque, platform and planter box has been plopped fastidiously on-axis, specifically to prevent anyone ever being able to see Martin Place, top-to-bottom, as a whole. Two, the Place has changed. The revamp has started. Careful scrutiny reveals the new absence of four cylindrical concrete planters. A small start, yes, but a clear demonstration of adding value by taking away. Less can indeed be more.
Martin Place is Sydney’s closest approach to a formal, civic space. And yet, aptly perhaps, it has always been characterised by bitsiness: expediently conceived, intermittently constructed, maintained in bursts of occasional enthusiasm, about one per generation, and furnished with genuine flea-market abandon. But let us call it flair and decades of accumulated flair have left it aching for a thorough hoovering.
The early Sydney Post Office moved around a bit. When, in 1830, it first settled on the corner of George St and St Martin’s Lane, it emphatically faced George, ignoring the skinny service alley, which extended less than half way to Pitt Street. And, indeed, the 1874 incorporation into the rebuilt post office of that generous, vaulted colonnade (carved from the same Moruya granite as the Bridge pylons) was precisely in order to relieve the oppressiveness of that undernourished laneway. As the GPO grew towards Pitt Street, so did St Martins Lane, in both length and breadth; the widened George-Pitt block was opened in 1891 (renamed Martin Place the following year); the Pitt-Castlereagh block about 1900, and the final extension through to Macquarie completed in 1935.
So Sydney had a ceremonial street, but what of the character of the place? The 1927 construction of the cenotaph, marking the enlistment spot of many Australian WWI servicemen, anchored the western end permanently as one of the primary and most solemn symbolic hearts of the city and the colony.
For all this significance, traffic swirled around the cenotaph until 1970. But Sydney had long sought a major civic space and the idea of a GPO-front town square, as touted by George Clarke and others as early as 1954, became the germ for the entire pedestrianisation exercise. This western (cenotaph) segment was the first, and is arguably still the most successful, stage of the malling of Martin Place. This success is due to gravity, as well as gravitas – an observable pedestrian tendency to trickle down a sloping surface and pool at the bottom. Together, this sense of repose and burnished significance, the sun that sneaks over Challis House onto Barnet’s glorious, honey-stone GPO facade, and the dappled shade of the planes, overcome the cerise horror of the seats. The multitudes lunch there anyway, all guano and fibreglass notwithstanding.
Not so the higher portions of the Place. Sure, people hang around, half-watching flip-capped skateboarders flout municipal prohibitions, or the old joker with his electric organ on the astro-turf stage. But the dignity has gone, along with the sense of place. The street wall, so confident in its containment of the lower portion, is eroded by office towers craning for light and view in the stratosphere, blocking sun and generating wind at street level, and providing precious little compensation by way of streetside shopping. Even on a good day, those upper parts of Martin Place are unshakeably inhospitable – a condition due in part to the irremediable fact of being an east-west street, rather than north-south. So, what can civic improvement achieve?
The strategic choice was between sombre dignity and carnival floss. The council’s plan, prompted in part by the irreducible nature of the Place, and based closely on the 1993 Denton Corker Marshall Masterplan, emphasises the former. The principle is to unify and simplify, bringing the street furniture, planting, lighting into an overall order, and restricting their location as far as possible to five-metre activity strips on either side, leaving the main axis free for pedestrian
movement. Elements which cannot be moved off-axis will be lowered or made transparent (glass balustrades around the station entrances, for instance).
This offers, for the first time, the possibility of seeing the whole Martin Place – tiny Macquarie Street figures seen from George – and of a real ceremonial dignity. Tactically, this requires vacuuming the clutter, and ordering what remains; directionally, it requires final relinquishment of the attempt to flossy it into a funfair.
The Masterplan involved millions of dollars, including moving the amphitheatre. The council’s initial implementation stage has a mere $1.6 million to spend, so the transformation will be less than shattering. But it’s worth watching all the same.
The planters have gone. The next few months will see the refurbishment of the Lloyd Rees fountain – with black granite cladding instead of that horrible brown stuff, a reduced height so that you can (just) see over, and a glass balustrade – as well as eight new trees either
side. A handsomely designed ramp will be installed up near the Reserve Bank, giving access for wheeled persons – not before time – and footpaths will be widened at each of the cross-streets. Street furniture will be replaced on single-species principles: eyes peeled for the elegant new light standard, due to be prototyped mid-year. The Barbarella seats will go (wouldn’t it be good to replace the green garden variety too with the Council’s handsome new Hyde Park bench or similar?). Barrows and kiosks will be redesigned and relocated to be both better looking and easier to miss. Half Tix too will be moved off-centre – no small ask, since it hides a major vent-shaft from the station – and the shish kebab stall also is under threat of some less prominent location. It’s a lot for the money and there’s more on the drawing board. Martin Place is moving again, and faster would be even better.
Two illus: The scene down Martin Place and, right, the Denton Corker Marshall Masterplan – an artist’s view with the Sydney Post Office on the right.
Photograph by SAHLAN HAYES