Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Less is more in tarting up Joe’s Road
Opening up the Cahill Expressway won’t be a dynamic change, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Of all the isms that rampaged through mid-20th-century design, dynamism ran deepest. From Marinetti on, the urge to express movement in form seemed to symbolise in some essential way the expansiveness and optimism of an entire era.
And yet Sydney was distinctly backward in leaping forward. While Utzon, our ultimate foreigner, was exploding the orange to produce something altogether more restless and out-there as our crack national icon, stasis still ruled the home front. The Opera House may extol our aquatic adjacency to the world, but all around it was stiff and stuffy. A wizened academic style already decades out of date was chosen for the MCA and, even as premier Joseph Cahill announced Utzon’s win in January 1957, construction was under way on his eponymous expressway. It was Joe’s Road; doggedly symmetrical, profoundly deadpan, severing city from water on a permanent basis.
And here’s the real irony. While the expressway’s location reveals the all-hail dominance of mobility in mid-century Sydney, its design avoids any hint of the dynamic, ditching the urgent aesthetic of the moment for dull municipal togs that belie its function as well as its moment in history.
Ten years ago there was talk of inflicting the ultimate dynamism on the Cahill Expressway. Dynamite dynamism, you might say. Keating backed it, but Fahey wouldn’t pay. In any case, the space left behind was vast; un-Australian, some said (though you might wonder why, in this big dusty land, we are so scale-shy in public spaces of the non-grass variety). And just about every scheme ended up re-cluttering it with enough commercial building to foot the bill, so defeating the purpose. Now it seems we’ve accepted the Cahill as a fixture, sufficiently permanent at least to warrant improvement.
The tart-up project will be completed before the election, possibly even before Christmas. At $10 million it’s not huge, but because it involves just about every local authority you can conjure the RTA, CityRail, Waterways, the Botanic Gardens and the Department of Public Works and Services, plus the various retailers and lobby groups the political count, measured in angst-per-square-millimetre, is right up there.
Nevertheless the design, like its underlying idea, is simple. It’s a virtue-of-necessity kind of deal, which takes the Cahill we’re stuck with and opens it to both views and pedestrians. A pair of glass lifts, a viewing platform, a garden link and a few dozen metres of new glass balustrade combine succinctly to plug a gap in the Loo-to-the-Rocks sea-walk while providing the sort of full-frontal viewing spots of which Sydney is so absurdly deprived.
Since the idea is about opening-up, the architecture focuses on taking away. Even additions take a less-is-more approach: modish, but also apt. The lifts, replacing the Macquarie Street stairs, sit at quay level, just off the Opera House ant-track. From there, the new clip-on walkway takes you east to the gardens where a secondary entrance is being upgraded or west to the central viewing platform, which, complete with intricate plaques, offers a boardroom view to all-comers.
From here, except for the Bradfield Highway, you could walk to Pyrmont in full view of the sea. As it is, your choice is to trickle down the Cumberland Street steps or do the bridge. Below, the station that should always have been the world’s best will finally move a little closer to that ideal, with the removal of the view-blocking balustrades and tacky track-centre billboards, plus general tidying up.
From the outside, then, there’s not a lot to see. Apart from glass lifts and balustrades, it’s left to the jaunty copper roof to flag, with a stylistic nod at Customs House, the advent of the new. Such minimalism is admirable, not least in preserving the possibility of demolition, when and if we find the willpower. Meanwhile, the symmetry and stasis of Joe’s Road remain as intact as in its deferential harbinger, John Sulman’s 1908 scheme for a neo-classical office building along that same quay frontage.
TWO ILLUS: Love in motion …
Santiago Calatrava’s award-winning Milwaukee Art Museum.
Full frontal …
twin glass lifts and a viewing platform will open the view for pedestrians.
Photo: Narelle Autio