Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
WHY SYDNEY FINDS IT HARD TO SHAPE UP
IN planning – which used to be known grandly as town and country planning but is now termed, simply if misleadingly, just plain planning – the sudden loss of modernist mono-certainty in the late 1960s entailed the rejection of the idea of the blueprint master plan (elitist, paternalistic, repressive) in favour of softer-bodied notions such as flexibility, cost-benefit analysis, incremental change and community participation, all gathered under the broad umbrella of planning as process.
Hindsight reveals that the true effect of this revolution, like so many others, was simply to exchange one tyranny for another – the tyranny of the fixed-view blueprint for that of social-sciences bureaucracy. But the continuing antinomy between the two approaches demonstrates the huge difficulty we late-capitalist democracies seem to have in choreographing our settlement patterns, even to our own satisfaction. Pyrmont, over the coming generation, will prove one of Sydney’s primary challenges in this regard, but two recently-published “concept plans” for the peninsula, drawn up by the promontory’s two main landholders, serve mainly to highlight the anomalies.
While the CSR plan suffers from an excess of incidental – almost, it would seem, accidental – detail, the Government proposal, published exactly a fortnight later, concentrates so hard on plan as process that the very notion of product, of plan as
noun, has altogether fallen from view.
Not that the two proposals are incompatible. Far from it. Both quite reasonably suggest pedestrian access around the harbour front, a tree-lined boulevarde role for Harris Street, the re-use of the existing rail loop corridor for a passenger link back to the city (probably Central Station) and a loose mix of residential, retail and commercial uses spread over the peninsula.
This is motherhood stuff, and it’s fine, as far as it goes. When playing to the gallery you’d be crazy not to offer them cake, to graft a metaphor. But the hard, central questions, as to what, physically, is proposed in the way of a built environment and how it might be achieved, remain in each case unanswered.
Each party requires public support and is therefore inviting comment, but in each case, although for different reasons, the offering itself is so purposefully low-fact as to be scarcely worth the bother of ingestion, let alone response.
CSR employed Lend Lease, now rumour-marked to inherit their 12-hectare north-tip holding when the old firm finally does, as it surely will, glide off into something more comfortable.
Lend Lease employed planner Bob Myer, from Devine Erby and Mazlin, architect Phillip Cox, and transport consultants Sinclair Knight. Between them they produced the standard anodyne verbals (“human scale”, “access to water”, “high level of urban design quality”) and a series of extraordinarily detailed drawings. This, of course, is what architects are trained to do. Just as a doctor in crisis gropes for the prescription pad, so the dominant architectural reflex is to hit the drawingboard, and stay there.
If this happens too soon, however, before the strategic analysis and decision-making are sufficiently advanced, there occurs the phenomenon one might call premature reification. Then the buildings, the streets, the parks, the staircases and the colonnades; everything in fact down to the lobsters on plates, must be plucked from thin air – simply in order to have something to show.
Exactly this phenomenon mars the CSR scheme, turning what is no doubt seriously intended into a patronising PR exercise at best. The thing may look like an actual physical proposal in best master-plan tradition, and, true, the lobsters and colonnades are there, clearly drawn and for a purpose – namely to seduce the public into pledging support.
But any criticism, even in the broadest terms (block size, building height, street layout) meets the immediate and unarguable defence that the drawings and model show not a proposal, exactly, but a possibility; that they indicate broad strategy, such as land use, rather than actual built form.
So, at least, argue Lend Lease’s Malcolm Latham and architect Phillip Cox. But the fact remains that while land use is scarcely hinted at, time and expense has been lavished on delineating built form, crude and coarse-grained as may be. It’s a prime example of architecture’s persistent tendency to marginalise itself. The presentation works may be seen as simply fleshing out the scheme for public consumption, but flesh without bone does have a troubling propensity to rapid and irreversible jellification.
The Government, on the other hand, stops well short of rushing in. More a sort of on-the-spot shuffle, greeting the crucial questions with no more than a determined groundward gaze. Is there a best shape – street width, building height, block size, etc – for Sydney’s urban flanks? If so, what? How exactly might the much-vaunted public-private sector partnership be framed? Will developers be expected to build – design, even – their own streets in Pyrmont?Or will there be a pre-set pattern into which they will fit? If so, again, what? As to the proposed rail link: can post-mono-lemon Sydney furnish another private developer prepared to fund public transport?
Cities are by nature pluralist; Sydney needs from Pyrmont neither a yuppie ghetto nor a second Woolloomooloo. How, in these anti-regulatory times, when public housing is being privately spec-built, can we guarantee the kind of social mix necessary to the kind of rich urban environment envisioned by the planners – and still attract Japanese corporate finance.
Just how do you frame planning legislation so as to prohibit mediocrity while allowing excellence its sparkle? And how do you make it stick, when political will seems habitually directed to development at any cost?
To these questions neither the Minister for State Development, Mr Hannaford, nor civil servants from the half-dozen government departments involved have answers. And goodness knows the solutions are far from obvious. Similar developments are happening all over the world – Barcelona’s Olympic Village, London’s Docklands, New York’s Battery Park – but while Sydney may reap the special splendours of site and climate, it is also bedevilled by local cultural conditions. Specifically, our city’s ad-hoc history means that unlike New York, or even Pasadena, we can draw on no continuing urban tradition of well-tried and well-loved building form, like Philadelphia’s brownstones, Manhattan’s perimeter blocks, Barcelona’s atrium apartments, Pasadena’s garden courts. What is a Sydney city building that isn’t equally Houston or Hong Kong? And to make matters worse, the tradition we do have is one of planning by negotiation. So that a project, for instance like World Square, may start off with an allowable floor space ratio of 10:1 like everyone else, but end up, through a series of complex deals and trade-offs with the government, with 20:1. And while such a process may, as Mr Hannaford asserts, engender an orderly development process, it makes a right mess of the end product, or any notion of vision.
These are serious obstacles to Sydney’s otherwise brilliant career – but neither is insurmountable. To the first one must answer (it’s so obvious)climate and site; to the second the answer is, quite simply, confidence. Only when politicians learn to refrain from that automatic tummy-tickle rollover when confronted by a developer, and find instead the confidence to define and regulate the kind of city we want, can a physical plan seriously be made.
London’s Docklands, used even by Mr Greiner as an obvious if heavily qualified example, has been a generally acknowledged disaster throughout the years of its deregulation.
Only now, when (American) developers have begun to employ their own consultants to write the urban design rules which alone can protect the quality of the environment and therefore their investments, is anything other than abject banality beginning to emerge.
Let it be a lesson to us then. We are no longer subject; we make our own rules. Ldt us therefore agree and impose some. The obvious and proper mechanism for this, of course, is government, but the Government, it seems, needs help. Pyrmont, identified in that tome of vagueness The Central Sydney Strategy (1988) as “the most exciting city edge redevelopment possibility in Australia” is Sydney’s chance to establish a tradition. To set up a vibrant commercial/residential mix, climatically responsive and moulded to its sire, of the kind for which there is no real precedent, here or, to my knowledge, anywhere.
Such places, though, don’t just happen; in autocracies they are imposed, in democracies they can only come through wise and careful government. A competition, such as Barcelona held in hope of its Olympics, provides ideas; but we need the mechanisms, too.
This business of minimising controversy by abstaining from all fact or commitment throughout the period of public exposure, then reclining gratefully into a warm bath of laissez-faire, simply won’t do. The planning arm of government, which now hangs limp and withered, must be encouraged to do what we pay it for, namely, to govern.
Diag: Site for the development for Pyrmont