Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
A LIFELINE FOR OUR SINKING BUILT HERITAGE
E. M. FARRELLY
GOD,” wrote Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762, “makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil. He forces one soil to yield the products of another, one tree to bear another’s fruit. He confounds time, place, and natural conditions .. . He destroys and defaces all things; he loves all that is deformed and monstrous; he will have nothing as nature made it .. .”
You have to admit he had a point, if a madly exaggerated one. And although subsequent generations have dismissed Rousseau as a harmless nutter, his influence has slowly waxed, through successive romanticisms and revivalisms(Blake, Goethe, Coleridge, Frank Lloyd “the Welsh Wizard” Wright), until now, after 200 years, we are pinioned by a vociferous minority which would be more than pleased, in its mad scramble for the greenwagon, to give the man a job as top policymaker and speechwriter. The Federal Treasurer, for one, may seem an unlikely member of this primitivist fraternity – evincing no particular inclination to ditch the designer pinstripe for grass skirt au naturel – but it is his recent rhythmic brandishing of just such thinking that is likely to cost Sydney one of its most audacious historic buildings, the last remaining Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf.
Not that the green position is conspicuously cogent as regards the Finger Wharf, nor humanity conspicuously up to a credible imitation of divine craftsmanship, in this or any other matter. But the commitment stands; Keating, it is said, for reasons and on a mandate which remain obscure, is determined to see Woollomooloo Bay returned to its “natural” shape. And if that means excising the precinct’s sole claim to architectural distinction, so be it.
Keating, of course, is by no means alone in this crusade of destruction: the merest hint of development on so emotionally-charged a site draws pressure groups like flies to a wound. The Central Sydney Planning Committee’s meeting of May 11 last year was lobbied both by residents’ representatives and its own members against not only the Pivot Group’s hotel proposal but also the wharf it was purporting to save. And by early September the NSW Heritage Council itself saw fit, in a sudden rush of blood to the head, to recommend that the Permanent Conservation Order it had only recently reaffirmed be revoked, clearing the way for a ministerial announcement that
the Woolloomooloo foreshore would be “developed as public parkland”. Why?
The Heritage Council’s inexplicable caprice, only partly attributable to suasion from both the Premier and his Planning Minister, is now the subject of a public inquiry, expected to report about mid-year. As for the wharf itself, the case for the prosecution is threefold. Not only is the building overtly man-made and therefore aesthetically and ideologically unsound, it is also, we are told, so structurally dilapidated and so costly to repair (a sum of $30 million to $40 million is the consensus) that only a sizable concomitant onshore development, such as a hotel, could make its preservation economically rational. This secondary development, it is then argued, would further destroy the bay, remove the foreshore in some mysterious way from “public use” and quite ruin the view from the Art Gallery’s new (but not, it has to be said, over-used) sculpture terrace. The wharf loses both ways.
Unsurprisingly, such arguments betoken a certain parsimony with the truth. While actual development costs are more likely to be around the $60 million mark, repair costs are themselves much lower. Viv Fraser, the architect behind the very elegant and successful rehabilitation of Walsh Bay’s Pier 4, and veteran of several abandoned schemes to reuse the Woolloomooloo wharf, says the building is “in perfect condition above the waterline” – only its timber piling needs attention. And rather than, as is standard, having constantly to splice in new timbers piecemeal as the old ones rot, in this instance a more radical dentistry makes sense: the timbers should be replaced with about half as many concrete piles, to stabilise the sub-structure forever.
A study completed last year by the international engineering group Ove Arup and Partners put the likely cost of such stabilisation at around $12 million to $15 million. Were the State Government, having cut heritage funding, to show willingness by making that the wharf’s sale price, it would still be a good cheap site (compared with some $85 million for the leasehold on the first Government House site downtown, or compared with a modest Point Piper mansion). Small bikkies, in a city where harbour views are bought and sold by the metre, for nearly 900 metres of water frontage which cannot be encroached upon.
All this would seem to belie the presumption, made by Pivot and apparently accepted by everybody else, including the planning authorities and the hapless Heritage Council, that the wharf’s future is linked by some cosmic causal necessity to a major western-flank development. In fact, there is no very compelling reason why a low-slung hotel of the general type proposed by Philip Cox for Pivot should not be allowed to enliven what is now unlovely navy bunkerage. (The hotel is a comparatively public form of private enterprise, and certainly no hotel need privatise the foreshore, as the Campbell’s Cove Hyatt and the Cox/Pivot scheme itself amply demonstrate. Nor, with careful manipulation of building heights, planting and transparency, need views be in any way impaired. Who knows, Rousseau notwithstanding, but a building may even enhance the natural vista?)
But the figures do emphasise an essential point, namely, that the two issues are and should remain quite separate. The quid pro quo argument – hotel saves wharf – was bogus from the start. And the wharf, it seems, may be quite capable of saving itself – given the political will.
This last is crucial. It would be nice, if not altogether realistic, to think that the comparative modesty of the sums involved may move the State Government, whose baby the wharf now primarily is, to ensure the quality of both the built and the natural environment; that the Heritage Council may put its entire self-emasculating bantamweight into what it was meant for, namely, preserving our built heritage rather than knocking it down for parkland, or for politics; and that whatever architect does finally get the job of revivifying this splendid structure may be able to maximise its strengths(those great, irreplaceable timbers, the stupendous central space and spinal roadway, the proud street-front and jaunty chequered half-timbering) without asphyxiation by the building code and fire regulations.
There is no doubt that it is possible. Although “art space” has become something of a reflex fallback in the reuse of old buildings, and while there is no doubt the wharf would make a superb gallery (better event than Paris’s Gare d’Orsay or Bristol’s Floating Docks), the State art budget
is already overstretched and the wharf, four times the area of those at Walsh Bay, could swallow the Biennale whole – at best an intermittent raison d’etre – and still be hungry for more. A scheme illustrated by Viv Fraser proposes some 150 apartments, 6,000 square metres of commercial/retail space, and covered parking for 325 cars. But theatres, health clubs, light industrial or a backpackers’ hostel would work just as well. The final mix, within the bounds of environmental sanity, can safely be left to market forces.
Somehow, though, we must transcend this absurd and childish opposition between “development” and “nature”. Even original sin is partial. Humanity is no more all-evil than nature is all-benificent, and while homo sapiens may be an overstatement, the species has made a few things worth keeping – including the Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf. Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure: this inner city bay ain’t never goin’ to be natcherel again.
Illus: Scheme devised by VIV FRASER