Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
How low can the beige city go?
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.
It’s not a good look, all that medium-density faux sandstone jockeying for a spot in the Sydney sunshine. But don’t worry, writes Elizabeth Farrelly, there’s a new rule against ugliness. Really
An apocryphal Sydney story has one of the early governors being met off the boat by a posse of landowners call them the Macarthur-Wentworths and informed of the fundamental house rule, namely, property wins. Two hundred years later, it is ironic that Sydney, quintessential town of the underdog Sydney, which can take as its own the barefoot, a-material values of a Cloudstreet, for instance still relaxes into the hard and shiny grip of the property obsession. Why?
At root, property ownership (like so much human endeavour) is an existential impulse, a means of reassuring the insecurely tethered soul that it exists, and matters. Property bestows the illusion of substance, as in “a fellow of substance”. Perhaps the earliest Sydneysiders, on both sides of the red coat, had greater need of such reassurance than most.
Property isn’t exactly new. Solomon’s wisdom was both matched and demonstrated by his immense wealth, measured in land, oxen, harts, roebucks, fallow deer and fatted sheep. The New Testament, though, took a more jaundiced, eye-of-a-needle view of property, which coloured much subsequent thinking. And assorted tyrannies, in any case, precluded property ownership for the masses. It wasn’t until philosopher John Locke wrote his second treatise on government in 1682 that private property was elevated to the status of a natural right.
Locke saw the right to property as an extension of the right to self-preservation, assigned through the expenditure of an individual’s labour. Thus, to breach a person’s property rights became, for Locke, equivalent to physical assault. In Locke’s view the main reason for having government at all was to safeguard the rights of private property.
This sounds like, and indeed became, a basis for devil-may-care capitalism. The founding fathers drew heavily on Locke in drafting the American Constitution, transposing his “life, liberty and property” into the catchier “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. But Locke was operating against a very different background. For him, “oppression” in the sense of infringement of property rights, or failure to protect these, was the principal test for rebellion against a monarch. Locke was defending David against Goliath, not Goliath against the public interest. This, along with the labour principle, brought him about as close to socialism as it was possible to be in the 17th century.
Not that anyone suspects the Macarthur-Wentworths of dallying in philosophy. Far from it. Governor Phillip can’t have been convinced either, leaving behind a final injunction that land within the City of Sydney should be retained by the Crown in perpetuity and not leased, much less sold, to the citizens. Fat chance. It was Governor Bligh’s attempt to enforce this ruling and end the illegal occupation of town allotments that got up the noses of the property chaps far enough to seed the rebellion that deposed him in 1808.
Planning Sydney was clearly out of the question from the start. As Paul Ashton notes in his book The Accidental City: Sydney Since 1788: “After 1792, maps and plans made of colonial Sydney simply recorded the place’s unruly growth; none directed, let alone controlled, development.” The tradition persists.
Throughout most of Sydney’s history, “planning”, as it is euphemised, has assiduously bent over for property interests. East Circular Quay, for instance, was shaped more by the notional “right” to a certain floorspace quantum than by any other single factor. Generally, the threat or reality of legal action effectively quells dissent.
Possibly this is just as well. Planning depends on human thought, one of the fastest processes in the universe and, when it comes to political consensus, one of the most agonisingly slow. So if, hypothetically, planning were to affect anything, it would always be about half a sine curve behind; neatly counter-cyclical.
Ten years ago, for instance, it seemed that cities, the humming centres themselves, were under threat of a slow and sterile death, asphyxiation by commercial monoculture. Writers and thinkers the world over proclaimed the city’s demise. Urbanists pamphleted, lobbied and wrung their hands; held workshops in earnest, smoke-free rooms. Soon, it seemed, the only species left would be the endless, relentless burb.
The answer, as touted, was inner-city residential. Only a critical mass of residents would care for the city as their own, eat out, revive retail, activate the streets and reclaim the night. This was the early ’90s: vacancy rates were high and the pulse of demand, for any kind of development, virtually undetectable. So policy-makers fell over themselves to encourage residential development in the city, proffering extra height, floorspace, density. But by the time the policies emerged, the ’90s were half over and the market had emphatically recovered.
Now, though we still cosset it like a minke whale, residential is fast becoming Sydney’s development cane toad.
Everywhere you look, from Botany to Chatswood, Chippendale to Homebush, vast new residential developments are clambering over the urbanscape. In the city centre and in Chatswood this is a tower phenomenon; in South Sydney (Green Square, Broadway and the St Margaret’s and Camperdown Children’s Hospital sites schools aren’t the only institutions being squeezed out) it’s mid-rise say seven to 15 storeys. Pyrmont is a mix. And most of the rest, tamped by Sydney’s current phobia about heights, is low two to six storeys.
The height might be reductive but the count is enormous. Where traditional Sydney residential developments have involved unit numbers between six and 30, most now are in the hundreds. Several Meriton on the AGI site, Lang Walker at Rhodes Peninsula, Rosecorp’s Breakfast Point and the mammoth Green Square count in thousands.
In the city centre, the graph keeps bending upwards. Residential numbers have quadrupled in 10 years. It can’t continue, but it does. Ninety per cent of it is rental housing, bought by investors or by parents for indulged offspring. Vacancy rates are low and, despite repeated predictions of catastrophic collapse, prices just keep rising. No-one knows why.
So who’s living there? A few trail-blazing empty-nesters but on the whole it’s youngsters. Students and youthful denizens of the IT and finance sectors chasing entertainment and lifestyle. MBA types, if you will. As the broader community ages, the city community just gets younger, and richer.
Elsewhere the demographics are quite different. At Jacksons Landing, Lend Lease’s Pyrmont Point development, the balance is inverted, with about 80 per cent owner-occupiers, most of them two-income empty-nesters moving in from the eastern suburbs, inner west and lower North Shore to enjoy the water and avoid the dreaded commuting.
Not surprisingly, the difference depends mainly on unit price. Under $400,000 generally goes to under-40s and investors; more than $500,000 is owner-occupier territory.
However you look at it, though, more and more Sydneysiders are choosing to occupy less and less space. This in itself is to be applauded, signifying as it must a slowing of the endless, land-gobbling, car-dependent, eco-crippling suburban sprawl that has dwelt at the innocent heart of the Australian dream.
Property consultant Geoff Davey sees it all as the belated fruition of the early ’90s Better Cities dream of Brian Howe to battle the bulge by infilling old industrial sites with housing. And certainly the pattern fits most of the large redevelopments are on ex-factory, hospital, post office, warehouse or dockland sites, following road/rail lines into the southern rust belt and along the Parramatta River.
All good stuff: shame about the architecture. Not all of it is bad, of course. Some is terrific: Harry Seidler’s pretty Horizon tower in Darlinghurst; the confident Moore Ruble Yudell towers and Tonkin Zulaikha’s sophisto-terraces at Jacksons Landing; Burley Katon Halliday’s gleaming white Republic in East Sydney; Philippe Robert and Tim Williams’s tropically minded Etage in Camperdown; Allen Jack + Cottier’s sprightly Moore Park Gardens, just north of Green Square.
This is architecture with confident material personality. Widely varied in style, it’s good looking, it’s made of something, it’s about something. Regrettably, this is not generally the case. Much of what is being built, even in upmarket areas such as Paddington, Surry Hills, Balmain especially Balmain is conspicuously vile. Squat stockbroker stuff stamped out gracelessly along the contours and greedily across the view; it’s the motel look, entirely free of quirk or curiosity, mindlessly cloned from copybook to landscape, its private or quasi-private streets formed and dominated by the colonial double garage.
It may not be tall but it’s broad, dense and staggeringly conformist, pancake-rendered almost without exception in one of four dead putty-pastels beige, baby poo, hooker-rouge and day-old corpse. Market watchers look on and warn grimly of the “slumsville of the future”.
Nothing so drear is likely to eventuate on the waterfront sites, of course. But the “why” question remains. Why is so much of it so bad? And what, if anything, can be done?
In the city centre especially, part of the problem was the faintheartedness of the lending institutions which, fearing the sky would fall, stopped supporting inner-city residential some time ago. This meant that only self-funding developments remained viable, which tended to favour the lower, rental/investor end of the market, more traditionally sold up-front, off the plan. (Owner-occupiers are more inclined to want to conduct the pre-purchase see-smell-feel test.)
This in turn, with the exception of one or two seriously big (what finance problem?) developers, has led to the intensive commodification of the residential scene. If you’re selling something before there’s anything to sell, it all comes down to marketing.
Now you and I might regard traditional real estate as a steamy business, but it ain’t got nothing on the current version. Never mind the product, this is all about tactics: theming and precincting; multimedia gloss and five-grand pay-as-you-enter snob lists just to be considered. Display suites in the anonymous, off-the-peg style where thin girls with good suits and bad manners inform you sniffily that they’re closed, sold out, come back in a couple of months for stage two. If you can afford it.
One of the ironies of the market god is that, even as he promotes competition, he enforces conformity. If you’re buying something with half an eye or more on its resale value, the last thing you’re going to do is take a risk with eccentricity. You and I might like the perforated kauri-gum wall/crushed abalone benchtop/cyclamen-foil bathroom. But the next person? It’s dull and it’s deeply regressive, but the market buys beige.
This is particularly heartbreaking in Sydney, whose best moments are characterised by a wild creativity and eccentric, exuberant, irrepressible surprise. Nor is globalism any help: Sydney’s sameness syndrome is weighted further still by the staid mid-American phenomenon known as the new urbanism. New as in old.
The new urbanism, invented by Luxembourg architect Leon Krier, commercialised by Americans Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and dilutely present now in every suburban planning code of the Western world, holds that the ills of modern society can be traced back to the loss of the picket fence. Working backwards, it therefore restores the fence (read chimney pot, gable roof, stoop) in full expectation of a consequent return to the ritual exchange of cups of sugar and other forms of home-style neighbourliness.
In fact it’s tribal, as much as neighbourly: an aspect reinforced by the theming idea that such development has lifted from retail and leisure centres. Theming essentially means that uniformity is the go. Thus, even when a development is complete and strata-titled to oblivion, even in a city such as Sydney to which variety rampant, dramatic, boisterous variety is the key, the new development is still recognisably a single, unified estate. Mixed use perhaps, but all the same, all the same. You live not in a street but in Green Gables, Dreaming Spires, Cromwell Castles, whatever.
OK, that’s slightly caricatured, but you get the point. Only the Americans could believe in it. But the rest of us follow along anyway, mandating small scale, mixed use, pitched-roof, perimeter-block developments of the kind that work in Berlin or Amsterdam, where there is a tradition of six-storey walk-ups, with the poor at the top. They take little account, though, of local mores, expectations or conditions much less air or views unless you allow the hideous pastels as a sop to Sydney sandstone.
Which brings us to the what’s-to-be-done question. Often too often the death pastels are mandated by local government, meaning to remedy the ugliness problem but typically making it worse. It’s what happens when thought coagulates into dogma. Rules clear, simple and consistent provide the fairest means of controlling development. But they can only sensibly apply to what’s measurable building height, sun access, window size, car parking and so on. The trouble is, people just can’t stop wanting to control the way things look.
Say you were premier, regularly cudgelled through the rear window of your home-to-office limo by the sheer ugliness of the standard modern townscape. Exceptions exist, but it’s hard to deny the general standard is pretty low. You have all that power. Architect friends buttonhole you at dinner parties. You want, perhaps desperately, to do something. Well you would, wouldn’t you?
What though? Most of the direct on-the-ground power resides with local councils. (Cretins, but we don’t say that out loud.) The State’s planning powers are vast so vast they scarcely seem to affect anything. So what’s to be done? As a politician you want it fixed, but the quality question is hard. Everyone you talk to has a different half-baked solution. You lock the experts in a room. You fund hearings and inquiries. You establish focus groups and expert panels. They confer, argue, write reports.
But the longer it goes on the more pathetic seem the outcomes all the experts can agree on is more recommendations of committees and reports. The media bite you, press you for examples which emerge in the paper looking indistinguishable from the stuff you reviled. But because aggression is demonstrably the best form of defence you tell the media that “the cavalry has come”. You have the solution, the end of ugly.
The new draft State Environmental Planning Policy No65 (SEPP 65), an extraordinary document signed by Urban Affairs and Planning Minister Andrew Refshauge but promoted by Premier Bob Carr himself, promises just that. To improve the quality of residential design in NSW, by regulating for it. No, really.
There’s a lot of verbiage but the upshot is a much-enhanced role for the expert. This is manifest both directly, by requiring buildings over three storeys to be architect-designed, and indirectly, through the constitution of an unspecified number of design review panels, comprising architects, planners and landscape architects, which councils and other consent authorities will be required to consult. Sure it sounds anti-competitive, even protectionist, but presumably they’ve thought that through. And to those who think extracting consensus from a committee of architects will be like herding cats to design a camel, there’s only one possible answer: time will tell.
In fact the SEPP, heavily supported if not written by the profession, may prove surprisingly onerous, requiring as it does that architects not only complete the design but sign off, at set stages through the job, on a “verification statement” assuring our guardian aesthetes that the building matches its design intent. Whoa what if it doesn’t? Does the developer start again? And does some kind of liability attach to this? The Institute of Architects doesn’t seem to know. Does anyone? Hello? Scary business.
Retracting with one hand the trust it proffers in the other, SEPP 65 also provides advice to those experts (or councils) who aren’t up to it, in the form of 10 principles (eight principles, two principals, in my copy but then it is a draft) of “good design”. I’ve never found agreement on a definition of architecture, let alone good architecture. Nothing daunted, however, SEPP 65 clears it up in a few short paragraphs, relying heavily on words such as appropriate and merit and optimise. There you go. Simple. End of problem.
So that’s good then. We can all go and worry about something else, like the environment. Good Design Principle 8: “Sustainability is integral to the design process.” If you were premier, though, and serious about sustainability, you wouldn’t cancel the only decent public transport proposals for decades the Parramatta-Chatswood link and the Bondi line then give the money to roads instead, would you? Especially not when the public transport would have serviced some of the highest residential densities in town. Well, would you?