Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
TO SEEK A MASTER PLAN
NEEDED urgently; one or two ideas. Needn’t be new, but must have quality. Any price considered. View to permanence.
Ideas are what architecture is made of. Sound building practice may be necessary, but it is not a sufficient condition. Ideas, rather than bricks and timber, are the stuff of architecture; not just what make it interesting, or good, but what make it architecture. Without ideas, building remains just that- building.
An ideas competition, you might therefore think, would by easy meat for architects; second nature, a cinch, a piece of professional cake. But not so, apparently, judging by the 73 entries in the Urban Ideas Competition for the Sydney Showgrounds site on exhibition from today in the Ford Pavilion at the Showground.
The ideas on display fall into four broad categories – some show shapeless suburbs of the Radburn type, drawn from that famous 1928 experiment in motorising the Garden City ideal, and rendering the Showgrounds indistinguishable from its surrounding suburban ectoplasm.
A few, such as that by Colin Still, partook of the 1950s Corbusian utopia, with tower blocks standing free on a green sward. There were one or two notable examples of good old-fashioned 1960s megalomania, such as Dr Sydney Baggs’s rather coyly camouflaged business park of jungle-hut super-blocks, like wrestlers clad in lace; and quite a number, based on the 1980s model of the Berlin IBA (Internationale Bauausstellung), purporting to reinstate the traditional urban typologies of street and square, central court and city block.
This last is by far the largest and most fashionable category, including, in one form or another, most of the winning and commended schemes. And heartening it is to see the street, and some sort of respectable urban density, making a comeback. Several schemes, such as that by Armitage Johannsen, even tried to engender some sort of vibrant mixture of uses, instead of the familiar death-by-zoning.
What is not apparent, though, is any sense of hard-edged, honest-to-god urbanness; there is none of that tight, fine urban grain, that cohesive clarity, that effortless change of pace that characterises masterly urban design; no evidence of any real understanding of how – and, crucially, why -cities are made.
The competition was launched by the Greiner Government in August 1989, and endorsed by the Institute of Architecture, the Planning Institute and the Housing Industry Association. Its brief was to “explore innovative urban design ideas and strategies … for the redevelopment of the existing Showground site”, on the assumption that, as now seems inevitable, the Royal Agricultural Society will pack up and move to Homebush Bay.
This, on the face of it, seems altogether reasonable. The RAS has occupied the site since 1882 and was given, by an 1893 Act of Parliament, title to the land in fee simple – conditional on its continuing use for the purpose intended, namely, the agricultural show. If at any time that use ceased, control of the land would revert to the Crown.
And that is exactly what has happened. The RAS, for whatever reason, finds itself in straitened circumstances; its buildings are decrepit, its product old-fashioned, its grounds ill-kept, its parking insufficient, and its debts enormous. Hardly surprising that a little gentle suasion from the Government- the figure of $160 million has been mentioned, with the new site thrown in -should make starting afresh seem an attractive proposition.
But it hasn’t stopped the move, and its consequences, becoming fiercely controversial – largely through the efforts of an unlikely company of players(including politician Clover Moore MP, historian Max Kelly, grazier Sinclair Hill, barrister Malcolm Turnbull, and architect Peter Webber) with the quaint but heroic-sounding title, The Common Defenders.
The debate has several tiers, each of which forms part of the Common Defenders’ argument: whether the RAS should move to Homebush; whether, if it does, the land should be sold for development; and whether, if redevelopment does occur, the Government is going about it in a sensible – or even a legal -manner. Only then is it pertinent to ask what should actually be built there.
The Common Defenders’ primary objections are their implacable rejection of sale and development of any kind, and these have underpinned their own entry, by Professor Peter Webber, into the Urban Ideas Competition; the only entry, surprisingly, to query seriously the terms of the brief, and therefore, in a category all by itself. Unlike so many, the Defenders certainly present ideas; unfortunately, however, zeal seems to have blinded them to the fact that they are arguing on both sides of the fence.
The Common Defenders believe that the Showground, in reverting to Crown title, should revert also to public open space; this is seen as being desirable both politically and environmentally. But they also believe that the RAS Easter Show and its environs form an important part of Sydney’s cultural history and should therefore be encouraged to stay on its present site.
In trying to cover all options and embrace all things ideologically sound -trees, openness, accessibility and history – the Common Defenders run into swampy ground.
If historic continuity is what counts, the Show should certainly be encouraged ot stay; but if it stays, the site cannot be either public, or parkland, since the RAS now covers the entire site and says that is too small. If we are to have public parkland, the green lung and accessibility requirements may be met but we cannot retain the historic buildings – not, at least, in conjunction with the use that made them historic. And goodness knows there is precious little architectural merit to justify their retention otherwise.
The Defenders believe that the newly promised open space study, “if it is done properly”, will prove their case, but the Government has stated categorically that “conversion of the site to parkland is not financially possible”; the RAS won’t move unless it is paid to, and the money must come from somewhere. Stalemate.
The Common Defenders deplore the Government’s proposal to rezone the site 2C – “the same as King Cross – and not just housing, either”. But, in fact, high-density, mixed-use development (not necessarily the same uses as distinguish Kings Cross), far from being ecologically unsound, is the only way of making cities which can support pedestrian and public transport as the primary modes
of mobility. The challenge for the designer, by no means insuperable, is to make such city precincts pleasant, even gracious places to inhabit.
Ideas, even architectural ideas, are not merely visual creatures; unharnessed, like wild horses, they merely live and die, but when fed by analysis and disciplined by careful understanding – then they can achieve things.
To sell the Showground off piecemeal to the highest bidder would be all too temptingly easy, but would have the worst of all possible results; its disappearance without trace into featureless suburbia can only be prevented by a clear, strong-minded and legally enshrined urban plan.
ILLUS: Tonkin Zulaikha’s entry in the Sydney Showground Urban Ideas Competition.
More text on SII