Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
NEW HUMANISM EXTOLS MUNDANE
THERE is no denying it. A new humanism is upon us. In a curious way, though, this post-modern humanism is quite the inverse of the original it emulates: where Renaissance humanism was founded on the magnification of humanity, this new impulse is rather to shun glory as somehow “undemocratic”, and as far as possible to reduce the grand vision to the mundane.
This is perhaps an unsurprising reaction to modernism, whose megalomania drove us to enfeeble nature and ravage towns. But what sort of queer, shrivelled humanity is it that makes us now want to shrink all evidence of our existence to our own diminutive scale? Cities, by definition, are artificial organisms, interventions in the natural order. Neither civilisations nor architecture can survive such loss of nerve.
A case in point is last week’s final Woolloomooloo Bay decision which could pave the way for the demolition of its historic finger wharf.
The decision not only disallowed the Pivot Group’s application to build a five-storey, garden-topped hotel, designed by Philip Cox around a waterfront which currently forms no part of the public domain and is, anyway, far from pastoral; it also gave serious consideration to nostalgic, Rousseau-ean notions of returning this inner city bay to its “natural state” by demolishing the valley’s single most distinguishable building, the historic finger wharf(currently covered by a Permanent Conse
On the other side of the CBD, the finger wharves at Walsh Bay, although safe from demolition, provide a less dramatic but no less important instance of the trend.
Walsh Bay is one of several pieces of prime city harbourside land currently up for grabs. The development site on that square-ended peninsula-tip between Miller’s Point and Dawes Point includes three of the five finger wharves(Piers One and Four being separately leased and run), and their hinterland back to Windmill Street and Downshire Street.
Walsh Bay, which is part of The Rocks Conservation Area and is listed by virtually every heritage body in the country, belongs – apart from Hickson Road and Towns Place, which are owned by the City Council – to the Maritime Services Board. In 1985, the MSB, regarding the bay as no longer suitable for modern cargo handling, decided to allow redevelopment. In August 1987, it invited tenders for an 85-year lease.
Tenderers were asked to submit a combined design-finance bid for the site. An early invitation list of developer-architect duos was quickly whittled to four: the question for them was, what do you do with 14 hectares of north-facing waterfront, minutes from Circular Quay but marooned on the other side of the Bradfield Highway, and described by the Department of Planning as”arguably Australia’s most historic place”?
The Millers Point-Walsh Bay area has been occupied from the early 19th century. Rocky terrain limited its earliest uses to whaling anchorage and windmilling but by the end of the century shipping wharves were well established, and behind them, residential areas.
The plague of 1900 caused considerable alarm, hastening the departure of the well-off and the resumption of most of The Rocks area into government control, from which it passed to the Sydney Harbour Trust (later the MSB). The trust built hotels, kindergartens and shops, as well as housing for its employees, transforming the area into a virtual company town.
The trust’s chief engineer was one H.D.Walsh – after whom the Bay was later named. Walsh, untouched by our post-modern timidity, spent the years between 1906 and 1922 reshaping the landscape of the place. He designed and constructed a new system of hydraulically-serviced wharves and stores(including a rat-proof sea wall) and carved from the bedrock the wide but dramatically cavernous Hickson Road, which enabled the wharves to operate as double-deckers.
The architectural and industrial legacy of all this activity is substantial- including several large brick bond stores of various ages and a significant collection of early rams, lifts, and bale-handling systems, as well as the pier-based finger wharves and the bridges which, spanning Hickson Road, connect them back to land; not to mention Hickson Road itself, splendidly defined by its cliff-like retaining wall.
The Department of Planning rightly applauds the “technical and creative excellence” that it all manifests, stressing in particular the importance of preserving the “canyon-like effect” of Hickson Road.
The dilemma is this: how to keep the best of the past without inhibiting -or prohibiting – such “creative excellence” in the future. Or do we no longer believe we can do it?
In August 1987, the four short-listed tenderers, having been announced the previous February, were officially invited to submit proposals for the redevelopment of the site. Submissions were to be in by November. After tenders had closed, however, Bob Carr, then Minister for Planning and Environment, decided retrospectively to change the rules by converting the suggested conservation guidelines into law. The tenderers had to be issued with new tender documents, reconsider their months’ work, and re-submit by March 1988.
The four were then culled to two: Ipoh Gardens – which had successfully rehabilitated the Queen Victoria Building and is now at work on World Square -in conjunction with architects Kringas and Jahn; and a consortium headed by CRI Ltd, in conjunction with three separate architectural firms – headed by Darrel Conybeare, Ken Woolley, and Romaldo Giurgola. In September 1988 both teams were asked, for no stated reason, to reconsider not their proposals, but their financial bids.
It was evident that more money was required. During the curious, inverted Dutch auction that followed, however, only one of the tenderers chose to up its bid. Ipoh Gardens saw no reason to alter, over a matter of days, what had been the result of more than a year’s work. The assessment committee remains oddly mysterious but was headed, it seems, by the Department of State Development. CRI were awarded the tender.
Only months later, in that oddly back-to-front planning procedure that has become almost habitual in Sydney, did the Department of Planning produce and publicly exhibit its Draft Regional Environmental Plan, whose putative purpose is to “identify opportunities and constraints for development .. or the need for environmental preservation … at the beginning rather than the end of the planning process”.
The project is expected to take seven years and $500 million to complete. It will be funded by a consortium which includes the Australian Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC), Wardley Australia Limited, and CRI itself.
CRI, formed only in 1981, has a limited track record of work actually built, but it does have the distinction of being headed by a man who is himself an architect. Its managing director Peter Wills says he used to be ashamed of his architectural background, because “people think that architects can’t make money”; but now he feels that his uncontestable financial success makes such selfdisparagement unnecessary.
The project, consisting mainly of gentle refurbishment, with a scattering of small, low-rise new buildings, has been divided up between the three firms. Conybeare Morrison is the master-planner responsible for overseeing strategic urban decisions on conservation, mix of use and overall scale of development, as well as the design of a new residential terrace on Pottinger Street, and the landscaping of
The rehabilitation and conversion of the old bond stores lining the south side of Hickson Road into apartments, offices, cinemas, offices and shopping, will be done by Mitchell, Giurgola and Thorp, as will the design of the two small triangular new buildings – one office, one apartment building – tucked into the cliff at either end of the site.
Ancher Mortlock and Woolley will deal with the piers and shore buildings, as well as the construction of a low-rise residential block facing the harbour on Towns Place, at the western end of the site. The scheme, which has yet to be submitted for DA approval, is still liquid, but at the moment the two western-most wharves, Piers 6/7 and 8/9, will together form a hotel, while Pier 2/3, on the eastern side of Pier Four, will be residential apartments with a private marina attached.
Here alone does the scheme fail to comply with Department of Planning suggestions that public access should be maintained, as far as possible, around the piers’ perimeter aprons, as well as the foreshore. Nobody is pretending that any of the development will provide low-cost accommodation -which makes security a primary criterion.
However, the scheme as a whole maintains a low-key, low-rise, low-profile character, which is in keeping not only with the emphasis placed by the Department of Planning (now the consent body for the site) on respect for heritage, the maintenance of a “community” feel, and public foreshore access, but also with this prevailing sad humanism which holds that “the best building is that which builds least”.
There is no doubt that the proposals are gentle: perhaps too gentle. Architecture, ideally, is a matter not just of respecting what is, but also of imagining what is not – at least not yet. Brunelleschi and Palladio had no trouble with this concept; that it even bears stating is in itself an indication of just how much confidence we have lost.
Take for example the footpathwidening and tree-planting that is intended, in the fashionable phrase, to turn Hickson Road into a “landscaped boulevarde”. Such a nervous, decorative approach to cities is by no means unusual these days, but as landscaping (let alone urban design) goes, it’s a far cry from even Walsh’s confident re-moulding.
It is worth, for the sake of comparison, looking at the other, might-have-been scheme. Kringas and Jahn may be a young and comparatively untried practice, but its scheme benefited by having two big ideas: one urban(that is, cohesive), the other architectural (that is, operational). In other ways the scheme was not dramatically different from the winner; the ideas, however, made it architecture.
They are these: the formation of a canal along the southern, inland side of Hickson Road, and the employment of the constant sea-breezes that such a site affords to produce a particularised, site-responsive, delight-conscious architecture.
Taking a cue from Egyptian architecture, Jahn equipped the hotel, houses and 100-odd apartments in the scheme with their own elegant and adjustable version of the traditional Islamic malqaf, or wind-scoop, which catches breezes and, directing them
down through three or four storeys of living space, helps to ensure a delightfully well-tempered environment.
The canal idea, dismissed by their competitors as “utterly ridiculous” and historically insensitive, was supported to the hilt by Ipoh Gardens. In fact, far from being insensitive to the qualities of Hickson Road, the proposal deliberately underscored the “canyon-effect” that gives the place what distinction it currently has and was much approved by even the usually-conservative Heritage Council for its capacity to “interfere creatively” in this “most historic place”.
Occupying half the width of Hickson Road, the canal not only helped narrow it towards some sort of intimacy but gave watery emphasis to the canyon’s depth. Further, in lending new purpose to the existing bridges and throwing other, smaller footbridges across the canal, the scheme proclaimed the separateness of the finger-wharf area which then sat, perched at the sea edge like some great moored ship, held only by those few steel shore lines flung across the chasm. The use of water – the site’s own element – to heighten its existing qualities turned what might have been merely respectable prose into poetry.
History, and our respectful maintenance of same, is crucial to our cultural well-being – all the more so where, as here, there is so little of it.
CRI, Peter Wills says, has a reputation for being “sensitive to heritage issues” – although its current King and Kent Street proposal, which jams 14 smooth-skinned commercial storeys behind an existing four-storey facade, may not altogether enhance that reputation. To smile at history while assaulting it from behind is merely to exacerbate the injury while ensuring that current architectural inventiveness is also effectively minimised.
But neither is subservience the answer. Between architectures, as between peoples, respect must be mutual and reflexive, born of tolerance, understanding and confidence. Good manners are simply not enough to give the conversation substance. Architecture is about ideas; but big ideas, in any field, are rare. To waste them borders on the unforgivable.
Illus: The defeated Kringas and Jahn “canal” project for Walsh bay … although ridiculed by competitors, big, dramatic ideas were its feature.
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