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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 08-Jul-2003

Edition: Late

Section: Metropolitan


Page: 13

Wordcount: 1427

A honey of a church that lights the way, for a bit of respect


Elizabeth Farrelly

St John’s has a plan that will please most people, homeless included, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

Churches are generally big on light, and the Anglican parish church of St John the Evangelist in Darlinghurst is no exception. “God”, begins the service of the day, “is light, in whom there is no darkness at all.”

Only now, it seems, the church is bowing to the more painterly under-truth that while God may be light, the power of light requires an antagonism of darkness. Light needs shadow as sails need wind, to give shape, depth, meaning. Could this be why St John’s is currently hellbent, as it were, on overshadowing its own north face through the glum days of winter?

Of course you can cast it as a simple preference for dollars over photons. After all, you can’t spend photons. Either way, though, when the facts are in, it’s hard to see why the development proposed by and for St John’s has gotten so septic. Or to see, indeed, a better solution.

Seven lean years in the baking and still not risen, the proposal is now at masterplan stage, recently stamped with Heritage Council approval and pending the City’s. It will put two six-storey residential buildings on diocesan land either side of the nave itself; demolishing a charmless brick hall and a petrol station, currently car wash and painter’s studio, to the north.

The development will be a joint venture between St John’s and a private developer, Darlinghurst Apartments. Church puts in land; developer adds capital. Out the other end, the developer flogs maybe 90 strata apartments, while the church gets fully kitted-up with new offices, community facilities, performance hall and a permanent income stream.

Sounds win-win, so where’s the rub? There is in fact a new mid-winter shadow cast across a tasty spread of north-facing high-Victorian stained glass. But this is not the answer. In all the heckling and leafleting, the picketing and propaganda, there’s scarcely a whisper of shadows. So if it’s not about light, what?

Politics, in a word. Politics and human cussedness, assuming there’s a difference. The locals’ concerns relate mainly to process. They feel change-drunk, put-upon and not listened to, as residents do. They fear densification, yuppification, expedience, noise and traffic.

This, in the lead-up to council elections and a context of South-Sydney-to-City changeover, makes for a lot of precariously perched pollies eager, even desperate, to exploit such fears. But it’s still just process. Regarding the actual built product, no one’s got a bad word to say.

The St John’s masterplan team canvassed seven options, rising up to 15 storeys on one side or other, or 12 on both. In the end, though, they took the unusual step of complying with council rules in particular, an 18-metre height limit, which is a rough average for the area and the ridge height of the nave itself. Even then, the top two storeys are deferentially set back, reducing the buildings’ apparent church-side height to a mere four. So it can’t be about height.

Heritage, then? What about respect for heritage, and the sacred functions of the church itself? St John’s is, after all, a Blacket. And although not yer actual all-the-way Blacket its nave and aisles having been designed by Goold and Hilling (1856-8) before completion in a number of stages by a number of Blackets (Edmund, Cyril, Arthur) over a similar number of decades it is nevertheless revered as one of the few Blackets we have, complete and intact. Elegantly proportioned and finely detailed, it is comparable in quality to St Stephen’s Newtown and St Mark’s Darling Point. In short, it’s a honey.

But must the respect so inspired dictate a holy-dread spatial approach? As it happens, the proposal leaves all significant views of the spire intact, but there are plenty of inner-city churches more hemmed-in than this (St George’s, Castlereagh Street, or Christ Church St Laurence) with no loss of sacredness or sanctuary. Indeed their sense of refuge is if anything heightened by that magic-door passage from the cacophony of the street into occult calm.

Perhaps the public space argument, then? Churches have long had the problem, albeit self-inflicted, of being “public” for purposes of access, but private for purposes of funding. So the fearless Darlo leafleteers strenuously defend this “last open space in Darlinghurst” as though it were already parkland, calling upon the church to do the decent thing, and even upon the City to lease the sites and make them available as parkland.

What they don’t recognise, though, is that public open space is a decidedly mixed blessing in a spot like Darlo. An emphatically high-maintenance enterprise. St John’s rector, Greg Thompson, grins wryly, “People want a park, but not a park for homeless people. ‘Open space’ is so often a euphemism for ‘nice parks for nice people.”

“What does it mean,” he muses, “when someone does a shit on your doorstep? It could mean they don’t like you. Or it could just mean your doorstep is perceived as the safest place around to have a shit. The only place, maybe, where a passer-by isn’t likely to be a serious threat.” Six days a week St Johns’ heroic caretaker, Lawrie Alexander, rings the tubular bells and hand-scrubs the churchyard in deference to the parishioners’ sensual wellbeing.

This is the crux of it. St John’s isn’t like most churches because Darlinghurst isn’t like most ‘burbs. The congregation is as mixed as the neighbourhood; barristers and bums, judges and sex workers cuff to cuff at the Communion rail. Such of course is Christian theory, but practice tends more tribal. Darling Point may be minutes away in fact, but spiritually? It’s light years.

Not that St John’s is opposed to things high-brow; it has a fine heritage pipe organ and regular classical concerts. It’s just that the elevated is expected to mix with, support and learn from the more lowly. Hence the development.

Zero-sum expectations from above make funding a matter of survival at St John’s, not just for the church but for its remarkable array of services. These, from legal and housing referrals to free food, aged care, art classes and internet access, flow largely through Victoria Street’s Rough Edges caf and are designed to help even the most desperate “discover who they are and what gifts they have”.

The annual costs of all this are remarkably low: around $600,000 (including $100,000 on maintaining the fabric and $360,000 to spread over 15 staff not thickly, work it out). On the income side, offertory is around $100,000, with less maybe $60,000 in grants. Property is expected to fill the gap, but with current revenues of only $100,000 from the car wash site, St-John’s-the-enterprise has been running a significant loss.

Now you might think this a job for governments, only an after-hours answering machine isn’t always quite the thing on a dark Darlinghurst night when you’re sleeping rough. You might see the support of local businesses as a tad self-interested, keeping the bums off their own clean doorsteps. You might think it ironic having to house yuppies in order to keep schizophrenics out of jail, or homeless off the street. Or you might simply see the whole thing as an elaborate exercise in income redistribution; a lifestyle tax.

But however you see it, it’s pretty hard to deny that the development is a good deal for the community; $400,000-odd revenue to the church from street front retail; safer, cleaner community-service facilities; a heritage maintenance fund; a genuine through-site link. And nothing higher than six storeys or closer than the current neighbours.

Of course much will depend on the architecture. James Grose, of Bligh Voller Nield, who has the job, can be relied upon to produce something interesting, if not altogether conventional. Landscaping could get tricky, where every tree is just another thing to shoot up behind. But the church’s brief is to extend the sense of the sacred of unconditional welcome and diversity into the secular world. Shadow may be on the stone but, with luck, new light will illuminate the street.

Before any of that, though, the City must approve this controversial masterplan. Question is how, in all conscience, can the council do anything else?


TWO Illustration: estate of Cedric Emanuel

Revered for its elegance .



St John’s and the site to be developed.


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