Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
* WALSH BAY’S CURSE ARCHITECTURE
E. M. FARRELLY
COMPARISONS with East Circular Quay are fatuous. Walsh Bay is an industrial ghost town; the Quay could hardly be more limelit, both symbolically and in fact. At Walsh Bay, unlike the Quay, the problem is not how to restrict development, but how to get any. And where Walsh Bay is blessed (read cursed) with five remarkable but well-nigh unreusable finger wharves, at the Quay the neighbours are a bit special but no tears fell for the demolishees themselves – does anyone even remember?
It is eight years since I wrote on Walsh Bay. In that time nothing has changed, save for the gentle ebb and flow of the economy and the energetic gnawing of little teeth. The Walsh Bay buildings, like the rest of us, are a little wobblier and more derelict now – a little more burn-out, white-anting, tide-line rot. Development bids have risen and fallen with the tides then sunk without trace. First was CRI, which won the 1989 competition with much fanfare then came apart at the seams. Ipoh Garden inherited the project, talking bravely of canals and sun-scoops. But it couldn’t make it stack, either. Then silence.
Meantime, the Woolloomooloo finger wharf has been suffused with intermittent rushes of full-on developer enthusiasm. Followed, ditto, by years of big fat nothing. In some ways, Woolloomooloo is harder than Walsh Bay. Twice as hard, arguably, the heritage protrusion being twice as long. Balancing that, there are fewer of them: Woolloomooloo’s single monster wharf compared with Walsh Bay’s full five-fingered fist, if you count Pier One and the Sydney Theatre and Dance Companies’ Pier 4/5.
Only three finger wharves are involved in the current Walsh Bay development proposal (Piers 2/3, 6/7 and 8/9, east to west). Even so it’s brave, under the circs, to try again. Sure, there’s the downtown residential boom and the big Olympic bubble to keep things buoyant, not to mention the undeniably waterfront location location location.
But the site is not exactly unencumbered. The three magnificent timber structures which extend 200 metres out to sea and 40 metres below it, as well as the half-kilometre of shore sheds connecting them, all suffer 80-odd years of accumulated elemental neglect. A Permanent Conservation Order covers the entire menagerie, although its helpfulness in lengthening their stay on the planet is at this point debatable.
For 30 years, until the late 1970s, the Maritime Services Board proposed to napalm the lot in order to extend the very attractive container-wharf treatment already in evidence along Hickson Road west. Neville Wran’s choice of Pier 4 as home for the Sydney Theatre Company stymied the MSB plum, just as the Entertainment Centre and the Powerhouse had buried the RTA’s Western Distributor plans for a massive western distributor through Ultimo and Glebe. The current proposal, however, enjoys no such special pleading. Times are tough and developments are expected to pay their way, if anything helping to support government, rather than vice versa.
This changes everything.
Take a piece of waterfront property, government-owned and CBD-adjacent but long-time derelict, where heritage notables rot on a daily basis. The Government desires inspiriting development, considering this to be in the public interest, but makes conservation of the heritage buildings a condition of same. The buildings themselves are unsuitable for most uses, since they need serious fire- proofing (which in most cases will undermine their heritage value), cannot carry car parking or other heavy loads, and are branded (by the banks) unbankable for residential conversion. Wharf 8/9 alone needs $20 million spent on structure repair just getting above the wet side of the waterline. There are no vacant sites to compensate such expenditure, and no subsidies.
It’s the kind of thing that takes imagination, courage even. The C word. The kind of thing that makes most developers sigh and gaze studiously elsewhere. Ask yourself. How would you make it stack up? The first answer from the current developer was to demolish two of the finger wharves, rebuilding them on the same wet footprint, in order to render them bankable. This proposal caused such angst among the heritage types that government architect Chris Johnson felt impelled to break the impasse by bringing Parisian adaptive reuse guru Philippe Robert on board.
Perfectly fulfilling his role as an outside expert, Robert both reconceptualised the problem and moulded an attractive intellectual solution. His genius, for want of a quieter word, was his capacity to view heritage not through some sepia-toned filter requiring minute ritual mimicry, but as a continuing narrative with a live past and equally live future, driven and dented by human need. Without the need thing, buildings are meaningless; when needs change, buildings must change also. The trick is to sustain both.
The argument is this. Bonded wharves, in their day, were the last word in private security, with each wharf moated on three sides and locked into a four-storey brick wall on the remaining end. The wharf thus formed a T-plan designed to keep humans out and goods in. This produced some wonderful architecture, manifest both in the wharves themselves and in the cavernous, multi-bridged Hickson Road.
The scale, cultural audacity and sheer formal clarity of these structures inks them onto the “to keep” list. But precisely these qualities also render them virtually unreusable for any other purpose.
The development brief centres on converting this formdiagram of privacy into a living city precinct, inviting all comers. So that, whereas the survival thus far of the Walsh Bay wharves depended on their capacity to keep people out, henceforth it will depend on their capacity to draw people in.
The reversal requires the paradigm not only to shift but to morph a little. Robert achieved this by thinking the unthinkable: demolition. Selective, precision, judicious, but demolition all the same. In order to achieve the necessary publicness, Robert suggested – and he was working for the Government, and you, not the developer – that the last, landward few metres of each wharf should be surgically excised. This recast the placental nature of the shore-sheds into a continuous crescent, distinct from the wharves and fronted by a continuous harbourside boardwalk.
Robert proposed also that openings through the massive shore-shed wall along Hickson Road be maximised, especially at the bridge connections from Windmill and Pottinger streets. This rewrites Walsh Bay as a natural extension of Millers Point and The Rocks: a true city precinct at last.
A further exigency of wharf survival, regrettable as may be, is the generation of income. Robert proposed that one, not two, of the wharves be demolished and rebuilt on the same footprint, opening an opportunity for residential development. This is wharf 6/7, the least impressive of the three and the most seriously dilapidated. Robert also suggested that the crescent-shaped shore shed should be pared back to the magnificent brick wall that lines Hickson Road, and that the rest of its lean-to structure, including that part attached to the end of Pier 4/5 (previously excluded
from development) should be available for rebuilding as apartments and ground-floor shops.
This maintains the quantum of development at about what was initially envisaged, connects Walsh Bay to the city and keeps all but one of the wharves. The proposal has been welcomed by the Government, the heritage crowd and the developer (a Mirvac-Transfield consortium) and forms the basis of the current proposal, yet to be unveiled. Of the remaining two wharves, one is mooted for a seriously expensive boutique hotel while Pier 2/3 is expected to become a major arts/performance space. Sure, all this grows from private exploitation of public property, but when the alternative is the too-familiar demolition-by-neglect it seems a reasonable response to an intractable problem.
And sure, there have been the predictable calls for retender and for international architectural competition on the site. But the story so far has been scrutinised by the ICAC and declared germ-free, and even the Permanent Conservation Order only requires permission to be given before demolition.
As for the competition question, well, we’ve been through all that on Walsh Bay, eight years ago. It wasn’t a straight design competition, admittedly, and it wasn’t international. But fancy design solutions didn’t solve the problem then, and they won’t solve it now. To get Walsh Bay up and kicking, at last, would be a huge boost for the city. Unpalatable it may be, but there are times, and this is one of them, when the architecture really isn’t the main game.
Illus: Walsh Bay …
Can anyone make a decent fist of the five forgotten finger wharves?
Photo by SAHLAN HAYES