Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Green is the new Zab-fab
architecture GREEN SQUARE Arts & entertainment
Design-led planning often bites the dust when the big-end-of-town boys arrive. Elizabeth Farrelly ponders whether Zetland-Alexandria- Beaconsfield will prove the exception.
Every second architect you meet these days is just popping
off to design a city for 30,000 in Szechuan-or-similar, or is still
jet-lagged from the last one.
While this enviable offshore hobby is pumped up by the effects of globalism and recession, in no special order, it hides an annelid assumption. Namely that cities – as distinct from really complex design problems such as shoes, tea trolleys and digital clocks – are bland, cross-cultural items, easily transplantable across the tyranny of distance.
Of course, worms of this nature are given to unexpected U-turns,
and a similar assumption has lately been burrowing away back in our town centre, Sydney.
Fair enough too, you might think. After all, Utzon put Sydney on the map, globally speaking, and he wasn’t exactly local.
Bet you didn’t pick Zetland-Alexandria-Beaconsfield (ZAB) as the spot, but, for Opera House 2.
If the organisers of the recent
e-comp for the design of the Green Square Town Centre (junction of Bourke, Botany and O’Riordan) have their way, however, this is only a matter of time.
The competition brief listed six shoulds and six musts. Among the musts was the requirement that buildings “must become an international symbol that is recognised around the world as
well as locally”.
Symbol of what, it didn’t say. Doesn’t matter, perhaps, so long as it’s internationally recognised. This is Gehry’s gift to architecture: building as celebrity. Form triumphant over content.
Green Square. The name alone might lead you expect some fairly serious verdure – green in chroma, green in attitude – as well as something focal, centring. Call me predictable, but a green square springs to mind; lush, eco-radical, possibly even quadrangular.
Painfully obvious this may be,
but in a neighbourhood that can best be described as deepest rustbelt, despite incipient yuppification, a touch of the luscious might prove welcome indeed.
Recognised around the world, though? What sort of gesture might that take, for a watch-this-space town centre still some way off commitment and a fair distance, it must be said, from No.1 Centre Universe?
This is more difficult. Global icons don’t just hang around the backs of trucks, in ZAB or anywhere else. Arguably, the best bet in this regard too might be to produce a truly
eco-smart town centre. Green as in really, seriously gr-r-reeen.
But that’d take vision, long-term investment, altruism. Greater-good stuff. The kind of thing we used
to look to government for, way
Not now. It’s no longer even surprising that such a development – major new urban centre, between CBD and airport, substantial government land holdings – is expected to be self-funding. What the market doesn’t like, don’t even bother thinking about.
Sure eco-talk figured in the brief, but as a should, not a must.
The competition, e-judged
by three government architects (from Sydney, Brisbane and the Netherlands) inter alia, invited
e-submissions then short-listed proposals from teams in London, Tokyo, Maastricht, Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, all with local links. Cool way to run a competition. Cheap, too.
A second stage, allowing all of seven weeks’ design time followed
by actual on-ground in-person encounters, produced five quite different approaches, with design input from a number of well-known internationalists including London’s Wil Alsop (groovy), Tokyo’s Fumihiko Maki (distinguished) and KL’s Ken Yeang (eco-publicist).
Some of the proposals chose to promote eco-issues, but an odd gradient slowly became apparent. The greener the scheme, at least in name, the more its architecture suggested an outer-space arrival lounge, like Ken Yeang’s glistening double-doughnut superbubble.
Why? The answer takes us back to the form versus content thing. Real eco-virtue is largely invisible; water systems, energy efficiency, material usage and so on. Image, on the other hand, demands the Green look, and the easiest way of achieving this is the most literal.
It’s amazing how far you can go
on the back of a large area, coloured green and labelled “eco-park”. As though re-creating a patch of pseudo-nature in Alexandria takes
us even a millimetre toward the real business of generating a sustainable urban form.
And in order to do this, on so small a site, you need to lift the buildings off the ground, bringing us right back to where modernism so miserably failed, all those decades ago.
The winning scheme, by Turner and Arets, of Sydney and Maastricht respectively, at least tries to take
eco-issues seriously. It proposes a “super-low greenhouse emission hybrid solar/gas distributed micro-co-generation” energy system, on-site sewage treatment and narrow-buildings allowing mechanically assisted natural ventilation.
There is also an on-site wetlands system, comprising three-metre-deep pools and reed beds as part of the stormwater management proposal for the site. Water is especially significant problem in this part of town. Being sited atop the old Waterloo swamp and dam, the new town centre is flat, low and flood-prone.
Just like a wee polder, perhaps.
The Turner-Arets proposal was chosen, though, not for its Dutch flavour – which is pleasantly detectable – but because it alone responded clearly to the history and nature of the place, to ZAB-ness itself. And, with some clever geometric footwork, integrates
the clashing scales and street patterns of Zetland, Alexandria
At least that’s what the judges said.
The proposal shows a number
of buildings, between five and
14 storeys high and each with a mix of residential and office space, defining a wedge-shaped internal courtyard that is further subdivided by “floating” cultural buildings – cinema, library, gym.
Very civilised, very Euro. But this is Sydney, not inner-suburban Berlin, Stockholm or Amsterdam, and despite the 70 per cent government land ownership, this development
is expected to foot it in the marketplace. Can it work?
Chris Johnson, government architect (NSW), who chaired the jury, describes the process as “design-led planning”. Meaning that the planning controls will be moulded to the buildings, rather than vice versa.
Nice idea, but where does it leave broader strategic purpose? If a town-centre design is not to be shaped by planning – demographics, movement systems, economics, larger city shape, strategies for growth – what is driving it? Looks? Image? Global symbolism? Hello?
Delicate ground this. Not least because, for the proposal to realise anything remotely resembling its current form, it’ll need armouring against not just the blowtorch of commerce, but the cold pragmatics of on-ground law.
Of course we could get lucky.
The good fairy’s wishes for Green Square Town Centre could coincide happily with developers’ heartfelt desire. The Square could grow up good, beautiful and accomplished,
But experience suggests that when push comes to walk-the-plank, none of the big-end boys is very impressed by the wispy imperatives of “design”. A more likely scenario, therefore, might run as follows.
The mixed-use idea will be the first to go, because forcing corporate types to share lifts with unwashed domesticity signals bad investment prospect. So then you need multiple lift cores and entrances which, in
a building only 16 metres wide, leaves a starkly under-performing floor plan.
Next, it’s “permission to fatten the buildings, sir, interests of efficiency!”. And suddenly natural ventilation is out the window, even as an option. End of eco-whatnot. And cars – are these aspirational types really expected to abstain? Where might they park if underground is a waterlogged eco-sponge?
Then there’s the ownership question. Remind me, how do
you strata-title a building with
10 floors of office space (long-term lease), four of residential (sold off the plan) and a turf roof? How,
for that matter, do you stop four
city-blocks of continuous 12-14 storeys giving the gestural eff-off
to the neighbours?
Oh yes, and who’s going to fund the “cultural” buildings. Who will own, manage and maintain them. The Council?
Pretty soon your designer-label town centre is all-but indistinguishable from the fibro-office-park-land of adjoining Rosebery, only much, much taller. But hang on, that’s contextual,
isn’t it? What was it we were symbolising again?
ILLUS: Green Town Square Centre: Is this where Turner and Arets meet their Waterloo?