Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Giving life to the Sydney of our dreams
It will take a new attitude to revive the city’s creative and vibrant heart, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Proposition (true or false): we get the cities we deserve.
The (Liberal) minister warmly prescribes a population-doubling over 50 years for Sydney to avoid a role as “global retirement village”. The Premier rejects this as a vision of enviro-purgatory (pronounced Los Angeles), defending our precious “low-density suburbs” and proffering decentralisation instead.
That city planning shows any sign, even the merest flutter, of becoming a focus for political debate should be welcomed with whole hearts and open arms. But which view is right? Which is more likely to promote Sydney as not just a financial hub but a centre of imaginative excitement? More importantly, which has the numbers?
Such growth, if it happens, won’t be through natural expansion, which is already slowing. It means huge voluntary immigration, testimony to Paul Keating’s memorable “if you’re not in Sydney, you’re camping out”. Then again, most of the cities we admire are many times denser than Sydney. And, environmental consequences aside, proximity is an essential part of creative frisson.
So could it happen Sydney’s 8 million? Should it? What would it mean? And could we stop it if we wanted to?
When I first arrived, in the early 1980s, Sydney seemed to me the most vibrant and seductive town on the planet: wayward and eccentric, exuberantly unpretentious and energetically unpredictable; teeming with curiosity, dissent, pizazz and outright, outrageous, cheek. It felt, in other words, voraciously, ferociously, imaginative.
Everywhere there seemed to be extraordinary people curating strange exhibitions, making bizarre and exotic jewellery, publishing subversive papers, directing grainy films or glorious, acerbic fringe theatre.
Everyone I met seemed effortlessly, joyously, to combine tap-dancing with medical careers, dentistry with book design, or journalism with satirical street puppetry.
The key to it all was energy, a sense of limitless creative energy, which invoked a spiritual linkage with New York.
And the city itself, from Balmain to the Cross, seemed physically to support this creative ferment. The streets hummed with energy and down every crooked laneway, behind, beside and between the glossy high-rise, lurked derelict warehouses or manufactories whose top floors made perfect living, exhibition or studio space.
So where has all this energy gone? Sure, I’ve changed. Aged, even. But the town has changed too, becoming distinctly more staid, more conformist, more conscious of class and money.
Of course, Sydney has always been this way to some extent. The classless myth was never an option for convict Sydney. And with the primitive nature of our beginnings came the idea that class and political power were things that could be bought.
Remember that wonderful story about the Sydney landowners greeting the arriving governor off the boat with instruction in who really ran the place?
More lately, though, as the market has evolved from a dominant economic force to a moral one, conformism intellectual, political, visual has become the depressing norm.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in architecture.
Cities are extraordinary constructs. Originally economic devices, they’ve become, as often noted, humanity’s most remarkable works of art.
Sustained by an astonishing level of co-operative trust (take the traffic light system alone) but impelled by the irrepressible desire for personal profit, they embody the familiar tension between individual and group.
Despite this intricacy, architects insist on believing there’s a design solution to the city problem the tacit assumption being that if you can design buildings you can design cities. Whadya mean, complicated?
But the idea of design, like the idea of a work of art, implies a level of control that sits uneasily with the idea of city. And thank God for it, perhaps. Controlled cities too easily become dull, obvious, predictable.
Moreover, if control is possible, someone some common or garden clay-footed human ends up exercising it. There’s the rub.
I used to believe that setting a few simple, clear rules would end forever the culture of secret deals that seemed to run the city the time-honoured exchange of private favours in the guise of public policy.
Think again, honey. I reckoned without Sydney’s gluey devotion to a culture of planning-by-deal. Everyone believes it’ll be OK so long as they’re the ones doing the deals. Thus is Sydney planned.
Trouble with market forces, though, is that beneath the pluralist rhetoric lies a reality of remarkable sameness: architectural, but also cultural.
For years decades now, futurologists have predicted the death of the city, victim to our acquired capacity to do everything via modem from a corner of the bedroom. Melbourne consultant Bernard Salt, for example, argues that pretty soon we’ll all be living at the beach. Now we can have our cake and surf it.
But a quick reality check shows that, in Sydney anyway, nothing could be further from the truth. As Sydney thrusts itself into the global century the graphs heights, densities, values, salaries are all going up, recession or no.
You’d think, though, that as the market grew wealthier it would become more discerning, more confident, more demanding of interest, quirkiness, variety.
Not so. Where are the shops selling only antique maps (like the one in London), or hand-made paper masks (like the one in Barcelona), or fragrant, crumbling sheep’s cheeses (like the one in Venice)?
The answer is that the skyscraper killed all that. Now there’s nothing wrong with high-rise per se. Personally, I like the canyon effect, the gloom, the mystery. Really. To me, the main downside of skyscrapers is their devastation of the undergrowth.
Just as pine plantations become those eerie, silent forests without a furred or feathered thing in sight, the skyscraper monoculture, driven by skyrocketing land values, erases all the fine, explorable, reusable underparts of a city in the quest for giant footprint. And once the megaliths come, nothing survives at ground level except banks and shops full of overpriced alligator-skin.
Height is a good density-enhancer, but may be best kept to the fringes like Pyrmont or Darling Point where the undergrowth is less sensitive. The trick is sustaining complexity.
Discontent with the modern city is widespread, as is the belief that old city buildings look terrific by comparison. Good cities, though, like people, are about not looks, but energy, and the reasons are cultural, not architectural.
It’s about waste, conspicuous waste.
When city buildings were built by and for the company they housed, they played a primary public relations role, with time, money, material and skill lavished on the visible parts at least. The marble might stop at the second flight of stairs, but the public face gleamed.
This belief in public show, even at the cost of private squalor (to invert J.K. Galbraith’s pithy critique of modernism), was partly just a question of manners, a sort of architectural “family holdback” principle. Stiff upper lip, even.
For architects, the spareness of modernism was an aesthetic and moral thing a kind of reformation of neo-classical decadence. But developers quickly saw in it the perfect excuse for building cheap, and adopted modernism with an alacrity bordering on glee.
These are structural changes. Cultural changes. They can’t be fixed by another design talkfest, or even a competition.
Complexity is essential. Just as science is having to become more poetic and ecological to accommodate the interactivity between systems, so our understanding of cities needs to expand and deepen. For urban disciplines to have an enriching, rather than deadening, effect, they must start to see cities as dynamic, interactive ecosystems, oscillating between order and chaos, between global pressures and local flavour, between equity and intensity.
This requires a combination of wisdom and interest not commonly found in politicians, and not generally rewarded by democracy.
In 1971 John Rawls’s famous “thought experiment” proposed that in politics (which for some reason he saw as related to ethics), individual decision-makers must adopt a “veil of ignorance” and act as though they had no personal interest or investment in the outcome.
That is, people need mentally to divest themselves of their identity, gender, religion, background, politics and make decisions not knowing how their own interests would be affected. Such an idea could have substantially changed the outcome, for example, at East Circular Quay, where every player had a particular agenda, whether overt or covert.
Or take traffic. Sydneysiders grumble about congestion. Always have, always will. Except during the Olympics, when a spirit of the greater good enabled on-street parking to be banned, with servicing restricted to off-peak hours. And the traffic ran like a dream.
Now, though, we’re back to standard congestion-grumbling. No politician is going to ban parking permanently, or indeed curb spec development, until there are votes in such a move. Serious votes. Numbers.
This means cultural change: deep understanding, intense involvement and a preparedness to override self-interest on the part of the voters, first. Politicians don’t lead, they follow.
We get the cities we deserve.
ILLUS: Illustration: Michael Fitzjames