Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Details of the city
The Sydney CBD – a user’s guide
E.M. Farrelly E. M. Farrelly is the Herald’s Architecture and Urban Design Writer.
The Sydney CBD presents an attractive if ever-changing face, but E. M. FARRELLY suggests that it could do with more make-up around its finer points, the waterfront. CONGESTION, congestion, congestion. Ever since Sydney was born, architects, planners and politicians have lamented its narrow, crooked streets and the constant compression of ever more humans – on foot and on wheel – into our gorgeous but sclerotic downtown peninsula. Fact is, though, despite the complaints, that CBD numbers have been more less stable for 25 years and the city’s share of State shopping has actually dropped, dramatically, as suburban centres have spread and smartened. There are Sydneysiders who simply do not visit the city centre, except maybe once a year to wave the boats off to Hobart. Sydney, along with most Western cities, is battling the “doughnut syndrome”. For some cities, such as Manhattan, the battle against the doughnut has become an outright centre versus suburbia popularity war; others lost the battle before it started. In downtown Atlanta, the ground is considered so hazardous to middle-class life that pedestrians are piped between skyscrapers in enclosed bridges that stalk gracelessly through the CBD like some tubular monorail. The city floor is only for those who have no choice. Sydney’s street life, by comparison, is still plentiful and vibrant. The underground pedestrian network, far from depleting this vigour, enriches both choice and complexity; the congestion and the vulgarity are all part of the pleasure. In recent years, street cafes have spread like an introduced species, and although not all the residential buildings approved during the recession will be built, enough will eventuate to enhance the bio-diversity of the joint. Worth keeping an eye on in this regard are two conversions of early office buildings – the former Esso and IBM buildings (now Highgate) in Kent Street and the former IBM building opposite (now Observatory Tower) from which the bandages will be removed shortly. Residents bring shopping and nightlife; they also come equipped with expectations – daylight, for instance, and even sunlight – that readily conflict with other CBD development. This makes the western flank of the city, snaking along the harbourside and in many parts still under-developed, a natural residential precinct. Millers Point is one of Sydney’s great unsung treasures, with heart-stopping views around every unsuspecting corner, and some of the most civilised pubs in town (the Lord Nelson is especially charming, for its qualities of space and light as much as its home brew). Hopefully, the two Kent Street conversions, not far from the successful Cox-designed Observatory Hotel, may provide a healthy impetus for a serious look at residential use for some of the vast, container-bespoke (but scarcely used) concrete aprons on
Sussex Street and Hickson Road. And what an address, between the sparkling wet stuff and the breathtaking Hickson Road and Argyle Cut, a stone’s throw from both the city and The Rocks, now through its Disney phase and fast maturing into a heritage precinct of world quality. It is one of the mysteries of Sydney that, despite the street cafe’s wildfire spread through the congested streets and alleyways, and despite our extraordinary, baroque waterline, there are still only 2« places to take tea – or Ribena – by the water. You’d think every entrepreneurial neurone in town would have been directed that way since the summer of 1788, but no. There’s the fish markets, the Oyster Bar and, at a pinch, the Campbells Cove Hyatt (very much behind glass). Forget Mykonos. Half the unanointed towns up and down the NSW coast do it better than we do. To some extent this glaring dearth will be addressed by the new Bennelong Centre, at East Circular Quay, under construction. This will provide watering holes and wanderings-through on various levels, as well as a public viewing spot and a “sky lounge” near (though not overlooking, heavens no) the Opera House. The new Walsh Bay development, too, as you walk from Campbells Cove past those fabulous giant bolts that hold the Harbour Bridge in place and past Viv Fraser’s still-admirable Pier 4 conversion, should eventually generate further seaside hedonism. Don’t hold your breath, though. Walsh Bay is a huge, mixed-use development (commercial and residential, plus compulsory lyric theatre); small scale, on the whole, but an awful lot of it. And it’s fallen over before. Another waterfront long shot, it seems, is the long-standing plan for the second Elizabeth Bay, on CSR land at the tip of the Pyrmont peninsula. The original Cox/Lend Lease proposal from a few years ago is still the best to date, its strong circular bay-form putting a confident stop to the Harris Street axis. The design has been progressively diluted since then, but still no sign of construction. Whether the developers have cold feet, rampant-resident exhaustion, or are just biding their time, remains to be seen. Developers, generally, oppose the advent of massed residents in the CBD, for precisely these reasons. They are therefore pleased – and as it happens quite right – to point out that (apart from the two, unusually slender buildings in Kent Street) few city office towers lend themselves to residential conversion. The original AMP building, Sydney’s first “skyscraper”, which stands heroically at the Quay to this day (and should be on all our heritage lists), would make a jolly pied a terre, but few others would be tolerable. It’s the light thing, again. Some office buildings don’t even do too well as office buildings any more. This is when it gets really embarrassing. What future for the State Office Block, for instance, or the Amex Tower? Amex has recently been mooted for the internal greening “environmental” treatment, with major rearrangement of all its recognisable features, including the celebrated sunglasses: the SOB still awaits a good home. One reason nobody loves those old office buildings any more is that the new ones are not only twice as glam, but twice as big, in plan as well as the erect dimension, with floorplates of 2,000 sq m or more (the going size is 4,000 sq m in New York).
From the city’s point of view, the good news is that the legions of stern-faced, Versace-clad workers housed by these great corporate palaces can fertilise a much juicier crop of retail at street level. The bad news is that these fat buildings are more effective than ever in blocking both sun and view, rendering the city still more inimical to residents; and that while their shops may be at streetlevel, physically, they engage every other gilt-edged
device to maintain an elegant distance. THIS, too, is a New York trend, and it is no accident that Sydney’s two obvious examples – Chifley Plaza and Darling Park, in Sussex Street – are both US-influenced. There’s the joy of discovery, for those who dare to penetrate, but the wealth of internal shopping does little for those on the sunny side of the plate glass. What it does do, emphatically, is reinforce the old idea of the autonomous skyscraper, where you need never set foot outdoors. Sydney City Council’s new scheme for Chifley Square – rather more in line, one imagines, with its namesake – will make the square, and by extension its shops, more accessible to your standard human. All that costly planter-box clutter will be replaced by a single ground plane, a tall palm grid, a Bob Woodward water-work and a handsome little back-to-the-wall cafe, designed by Ken Maher. An oasis in a dry part of town. Macquarie Place, one of our most ancient and still most lovable squares, despite the outrageous Gateway shadow (do mirror buildings cast thinner shade?), is also due for the council’s simplicity treatment. Nothing clever, as might upset the happy-hour flocks, just a stylish tidy-up. Martin Place, too, long in need of a good hoovering, should soon start to show signs of housekeeping, although the substance of the scheme is on a longer time-frame. Hyde Park North is slated for much the same treatment as the southern half received in 1991 – you will have noticed the return of the bud lights, forming that fabulous night-time arcade – and Wynyard is to be restored to its early self, once State Rail has stopped digging holes. The redevelopment behind the old GPO, now under way, will provide another big, lively public space, this time under glass, and a welcome route through from George Street to Pitt. The post office is mooted to return to post officing – although it’d make an equally well appointed tea-at-the-Ritz space. And the colonnade, already unwrapped, will live again. Grace Bros, too, is in the early throes of redevelopment – keeping much of the existing building but raising the department store proper above several floors of specialty shopping, all beneath a huge glass dome. The down side will be the closure of the underground Eat Street, still hugely popular, which Ipoh (which owns the QVB) proposes to replace with boutiques. For all that, Sydney’s department stores remain one of its great treasures – the wondrous, boudoir interior of DJs’ parfumerie, and the window dressing! Where else would you see the Priscilla costumes displayed to the street? Eat your heart out, Madison Avenue. Remember, though, before the CBD was a CBD, when it was the city’s southern end that housed the big department stores: Foys, Fosseys, Horderns, Marcus Clarke. All that died, as the skyscrapers of the ’60s dragged the gravitational centre harbourwards, and the car demoted Central Station. But now the southern end of the city is moving again, with Chinatown’s tiger economy purring east across George Street and south into Ultimo and Broadway. The Sunday morning yum cha queue at the Silver Spring in Hay Street is tourist attraction material in itself. Across the road – and across the light-rail-to-be – the brilliantly gaudy Capitol Theatre is one year old now and thriving. Miss Saigon will run and run beneath that starry sky, the food hall is under construction (shame about the flat roof) and there’s talk of another theatre in the precinct. Not to mention Planet Hollywood a couple of blocks up. Liverpool Street, even if World Square never breathes, is set to become Sydney’s newest ethnic flavour – as the embryonic Spanish Quarter, with delis and tapas bars already well established. With all this activity, even a small section of the City’s proposed George Street footpath-widening, from the cinemas, say, down to the Capitol, would go a long way in taming the public parts of this underkept strip. Further along Broadway, the Fairfax site is up for redevelopment and the old Grace Bros buildings are being converted to apartments and shops. Pretty soon even Darling Harbour will recognise the disgrace of not allowing a walkway through from Central Station past the Entertainment Centre. And downtown congestion? We should hang on to it. Use it. Other cities should be so lucky.
Two illus: The CBD at large has much to offer …
The Argyle Cut (above left) in The Rocks stands guard in the oldest part of the city; the restored grandeur of the Queen Victoria Building (above right) is one of the jewels in the crown; Chifley Plaza (right) has made a big impression as a newcomer
on the block.