Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Don’t just tinker with Taylor
This time next year Taylor Square will be clean and coherent or that’s the theory, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
It is one of the fragrant ironies of city life that quality in the public realm tends to drop as private opulence rises.
No surprise really. The priorities that nurture personal wealth are seldom based on unfettered generosity, and right-wing councils reduce rates because that’s how they stay in power. If power is quite the word.
In the loveless streets of Bellevue Hill, for instance, triple garages align F-U-fashion to uphold the Aston Martin’s right to a harbour view before that of the mere on-street biped. Servants’-entrance mentality, only worse.
And yet, one would like to argue, the values that mark civilisation are precisely those that lift our half-evolved species above the self’s limited prospect to a wider, more abstract view of shared benefit.
“Nothing” declaimed the report of Sydney’s Improvement Commission, 1909, “contributes so much to the dignity and character of a city as open spaces artistically treated. Sydney is fortunately rich in opportunities of this kind.”
Nearly 100 years on, Sydney is still opportunity-rich and achievement-poor in this particular regard.
Always loathe to promote communal over private interests, we make do with public spaces comprising, often as not, little more than road closures. Martin Place, Pitt Street Mall, even the quasi-public Australia Square.
Nowhere is our expedient and derisory attitude to public space more obvious than at the warmed-over traffic island we euphemise as Taylor Square.
At Taylor Square, a six-way crossroads comparable, at least in plan, to the Beaux Arts etoile idea (see Paris), half of the incoming roads are now closed, post-Eastern Distributor. But those remaining are still very much in charge, effecting a fragmentation that the State Government’s proposed boundary changes, splitting the space again, can only exacerbate.
Taylor Square boasts a collection of old brick-and-sandstone public buildings (1824 jail, 1834 courthouse, 1899 police station, 1912 church, 1890 hospital, 1907 public conveniences and Sydney’s first electricity sub-station, 1904) outdone in Sydney only by College and Macquarie streets.
The ridge on which it sits is an ancient Koori track, which later came to divide Sydney’s wealthy, on the fertile land north of Oxford, from the poor, swamping-it to the south.
This track, Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, is now “one of the most intact late Victorian and Edwardian streetscapes in Sydney” and favoured locus for the shop-till-you-drop set.
More than that, Taylor Square marked the conjunction of vast early land holdings (in particular the Riley and Palmer estates; both later became victims of forced fire sales) and sits atop Busby’s Bore, Sydney’s first reticulated water source.
It has witnessed just about every major procession, from Federation to Henry Lawson’s funeral, from military parades to labour marches, from public hangings to Easter parades and from carol services to Mardi Gras’ annual festival of the flesh.
Named in 1909 for Sydney’s full-on, slum-clearing, street-widening lord mayor, Sir Allen (“let them build suburbs”) Taylor, Taylor Square has been a centre of student life and club culture since the 1960s. And, since the first gay pride march of 1978, a global pink precinct to rival Haight Ashbury.
But for all its colourful history, the square itself has a nugatory presence, both physically and in our collective consciousness. Why? Because it’s a thoroughfare, a place of passage, not being. In our frantic flight (from what the convict stain?) we accord such spaces negative existence. What’s daggy? Where?
You can call it a square, but it’s still really just SLOAP archiglot for space left over after planning.
This time next year, though or somewhat later if politics get in the way all that will have changed. Taylor Square will be clean, coherent and positive. It’ll be lively, sophisticated, vibrant with global culture. The pulsing heart of pinkland down under will have come of age; what sleaze remains will be the consenting-adults sort. Or that’s the theory.
The proposal is South Sydney Council’s third go at pulling a live design through the gauntlet of public consultation.
Designed by Tract landscape consultants, it will start on site in January and be completed by the Gay Games, next spring.
The work involves repaving, decluttering (replacing the existing ramshackle street furniture with get this studded smart poles) and the installation of a major “water feature”. Oh, and deleting quite a few trees.
Perhaps the community’s sense of under-consultation is not itself enough to damn the scheme.
So what if half the creative minds in Sydney live local? After all, you can ask the entire world what they want and still get trash out the other end.
Plus council’s first two designs had already suffered death-by-consultation, and the deadline is intractable. Maybe the peevish “frankly, I’m over Taylor Square” from South Sydney’s Mayor, John Fowler, is almost reasonable, under the circumstances.
But then the question becomes, will it work? Will Taylor Square ever be a good place to be (meet/coffee/dance/rage/dissent)?
Will it be safe, in the wee, velvet hours? Will it acquire a vivid and tangible presence? Can it ever be more than a sad and windy thoroughfare?
Probably not, at least in the forseeable future.
Square is to street as lake is to river; a calm hiatus in the rush and flow. To achieve this to be serene but not austere, open but not grim a square must offer safety (the trust thing), pleasure (tactile, visual, thermal, aural), vitality (stimulus) and identity (definition).
This is no small ask, in design terms, although traditional squares make it look easy. They’re not always square, or formal or even terribly respectable. But usually the combination of just-tall-enough street-buildings, sun, foliage, wind-protection, and day-for-night popular uses is enough.
Like so much design this seems to be more difficult in modern times, especially given the need to host major public gatherings and relentless arterial traffic on a site of which half droops downhill like a misshapen Dali clock.
Even so, with three of the six roads closed, it should be possible to design a space that is less airport-anonymous than a Homebush or Darling Harbour.
How? A competition run by Peter Tonkin, for the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1987, gave us a few ideas, including a huge pink marine-form city-gate sculpture, by Colin Still, and a proposal to kink Oxford Street northwards so that the square was bisected but not trisected by traffic.
This second concept offered several advantages. It put the public space on sunny high ground; brought coherence, if not unity, to the square; and gave the Mortimer Lewis courthouse, its lawn already demorphed by the 1909 widening of Oxford Street, the address it begs for.
That was never going to happen, of course, symbolising as it did the elevation of pedestrian over vehicular concerns, and popular over legal ones. This is Sydney. A number of less extreme devices suggest themselves, though, as lost opportunities in the search for spatial presence.
One obvious move is to absorb the courthouse’s lawn into the square, giving address to the building, greenstuff to the square and purpose to this otherwise wasted space. All that’s needed is relocation of the already twice-moved “heritage” railing. Oh, and agreement from the court.
Another blindingly obvious tool in the landscaper’s kit is the tree a sophisticated biochemical device conferring visual pleasure, textural interest, eco-benefit, shade and spatial definition at a blow.
In the interests of openness, though, the Tract proposal (unlike its predecessors) removes as many trees as it plants possibly more. The grove of (admittedly dog-eared) palms on Gilligan’s Island, outside Kinsellas, will go, as will its answering trio on the Oxford-Flinders corner.
Their replacements are half a dozen plane trees further up Flinders, a group of three angophoras south of Gilligan’s and two ornamental angophora-arcs north of Oxford, near the substation.
Now angophoras are fab, on a salted headland. And ever so politically correct. But, let’s face it, they’re not exactly fecund when it comes to making shade. Or space, for that matter.
And then there’s the water thing.
Fountains, too, are positive creatures, properly designed and sited. Ideally, though, they make a space more specific, not less so. The design-catalogue-special proposed for Darlinghurst’s prodigal square could be anywhere, from suburban Toronto to downtown Birdsville.
One of those bloom-and-vanish jobs, it’s a nice idea that’s seen better days. It’s big and bland, with little local reference, unless you count the urinal-suggestion of rhythmically arcing water as a mnemonic for the unmistakable aroma of old pee that gives so many Darlo corners including those at Taylor Square their particular enduring appeal.
Gilligan’s Island is also cuffed by design orthodoxy.
Raised, kerbed and flattened, Gilligan’s will transform from its present scurvied ambiguity to a bare-grass platform unfit for any known human use, with the possible intriguing exception of extended torture-massage.
This, then, is the downside of modernism’s new vogue. Something has to be done, sure: no space in Sydney needs a good cuddle more than Taylor Square by night, as well as by day. But must Sir Allen Taylor’s century-old decentralising obsession condemn his memorial place to being quite so doggedly suburban?
TWO ILLUS: More than a warmed-over traffic island …
Taylor Square should acquire a vivid and tangible presence and not become an austere open place.
Photo: Narelle Autio;
Not another water feature!
An artist’s impression of a proposed fountain.