Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
More frills on the froth zone
E M FARRELLY
THE great American theme park is to us, arguably, now as the telephone, cinema, Gameboy and Walkman were to earlier times – tut-tutted by senior generations, exorbitantly welcomed by the new. Moral or not, healthy or not, they happen, and are called progress.
Sydney is about to receive its first such inevitability – Sega World, the first of this particular type outside Japan, if you believe the blurb. Its 10,000 square metres of themed shops, restaurants and super cyber sideshows will open their doors in September and, like the casino over the bay, never close again. Young and less-young Sydneysiders will flock there by the multitude.
But was Darling Harbour’s last big chunk of export-quality waterfront the right spot for such an exercise? What sort of a public presence can such a venue conjure? Does it give the harbour, or the city, anything like as much as it takes?
Opinion on Darling Harbour has long been divided. There are those who believe that a modicum of urban reality would have been salutary. That a few actual streets, say, or workplaces even, would add guts, as well as value; helping to plug the thing into the city with something a little more substantial and sustainable than an over-stretched umbilical or two.
And then there are those for whom Darling Harbour’s very separation from reality is a large part of its fairy-floss charm. For these people, the encircling road-spaghetti that isolates Darling Harbour from its parent city is no more than a neat piece of symbolism.
To some extent, it depends on how you see cities: as loose aggregations of like-functions – the zoned-city model – or more traditionally, with a tighter variegation of uses. Sydney, characteristically, has bits of both. The George Street cinema precinct is an example of the former, a contrived zone with a single dominant use. It demonstrates to all the benefits and disbenefits that run from that – economies of scale, ease of surveillance, concentrated tackiness etc.
Darling Harbour set out from the start to be, similarly, all froth and no milkshake. Guided by its own august planning authority, it has pursued this course unblinkingly since. The new, mammoth Sega centre fixes the froth-zone finally, ineradicably in place. Fronting onto Darling Harbour’s little lake will be $70 million worth of themed retail, virtual reality experiences, 21st-century dodgems, themed retail, underwater simulators, themed restaurants, and more themed retail; as well as some earthier offerings such as snooker, wrestling (no mud?) and exhibitions by “world famous” Sega characters such as Sonic the Hedgehog.
And none of it, says the blurb, bears any “remote resemblance to video games, pinball machines, or anything Australia has seen before”. So let that provoke your imagination.
The architecture that billboards all this is quite sophisticated. The ground (retail) floor is glassy along the water, but the Harbour Street backside (facing the city) sports a massive vehicle entrance and lay-by to accommodate the 1,600-odd vehicles expected to be drawn irresistibly each day. Above, the building affects a rather wan confection of cones, domes, arches and flags, intended to signify the presence of something more interesting than your average supermarket.
But, like a supermarket, or cinema, or casino for that matter, this is a building that needs no exterior. A standard suburban black box, complete with vast apron of carparking, is its more natural habitat; an underground burrow or hole-in-a-bank would do as well.
Rear end to the city, a project like this offers at best more of the same; more Darling Harbour froth-zone retail (like the place needs more retail), more all-sugar architecture, guaranteed zero food-value, and an even more emphatic separation from its parent city.
Why, you might ask, need it be this way? What is it about this (oh, all right) glorified pinball parlour that compels it to sprawl, thus, over such a handsome piece of Government real estate? Does it really need an above-ground presence at all? Why, even when shopping centres and cinemas are beginning to make real attempts to encrust themselves, barnacle-like, with street-friendly uses, do we encourage an introverted fun fair to settle in perpetuity on some of our nicest waterfront land?
Not just land, either. Rush down now and you can still see the green crust of courts crumbling beneath the bulldozers and pile-drivers. For years, persons of all kinds and persuasions played tennis, basketball or netball here. Nobody expected the courts to be a permanent feature, of course, and even at nearly 2,000 weekly users, the numbers couldn’t compete with simulated electronic mega-futures.
But, as space-squandering gestures go, those overactive courts had a visual appeal and a fine, surreal dignity which even the most avant-garde fun fair lacks. It is, and will continue to be, a shame about the courts.
Illus: Simulated electronic mega-futures … an artist’s impression of Sega World, Sydney’s new great theme park which is to be built at Darling Harbour