Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Get back on the rollercoaster
It’s tasteless but we love it, and the Luna Park revamp is the ultimate nostalgia fest, says Elizabeth Farrelly.
It’s more than just love. Luna Park’s spot in our collective affections has a quality approaching sacrament. Why? We all know it’s tawdry and tasteless, in age-old fairground tradition.
But the heady mix of remembered pre-teen mating ritual (guilt-kisses under the big dipper), classic Sydney site (throwing-up distance of all the A-list icons) and old-fashioned thrill-and-spill fun has wholly out-screamed the taste issue to render even a dormant Luna Park symbolic, somehow, of innocence itself.
Paradoxically the entire bunny-hop history of the joint its closures and court cases, its false starts, restarts and controversies, even its outright catastrophes, like the ghost train fire of 1979 has only reinforced its hallowing, as if the ghosts of the innocents still hovered protectively there. And even that’s not all.
Somehow the tawd and the tack are themselves integral to the love object; integral, in the most perverse postmodern manner, to our sense of its purity and authenticity. So obvious are the glam and greasepaint, so blatant the smoke and the mirrors, that the fakery merely intensifies the realness.
This too is part nostalgia but a nostalgia more cultural than personal. Half a century on, we cannot regard Sydney’s short-trousered suburban life of the 1930s-1950s unfiltered by the plain good-humoured, she’ll-be-rightness in which hindsight has wrapped it. Early Luna Park photos radiate this grainy likeability. Since then too, as pop art made low art high, and as austerity-era revivals hit with increasing frequency (currently about one a decade), Luna Park has shed all vestiges of dagginess to emerge as unequivocally, perhaps now eternally, COOL.
Which brings us to the architecture. Architecture as a profession is deeply, perhaps pathologically, inculturated with Taste. (You know, black, white, micro-shades of grey. That sort of thing.) In the early 1970s, when theorists like Jencks and Venturi began their voluptuous rant around signs and decoration, architecture toyed briefly with the bull-and-bunting school of postmodernism. Some even summoned roughly respectable precedents of the plaster and chicken-wire variety, such as Daniel Burnham’s Great White City from the 1893 Chicago World Fair.
But while a few notable exceptions Frank Gehry , say took this liberation for real and ever, the profession as a whole rapidly relapsed into the lineal canons: taste, authenticity, function, permanence.
How, then, might today’s architect especially today’s distinguished architect deal with a situation where none of those precepts apply? Where the main contextual cue is a confection of all-hallowed kitsch?
Hassell’s Ken Maher could hardly have been a better choice. With a landscape and urban design background broadening his approach to architecture, he was blessed too with an unusual tolerance of political process, of which he would need every scrap.
Plus he’d already been involved with Luna Park through the stop-start decades of the 1980s and 1990s, and was architect to the adjacent North Sydney Pool refurb, with a parallel admix of kitsch-heritage and new.
Even Maher, though, couldn’t quite invert the sno-dome of Taste. Couldn’t bring himself to compete, kitsch for kitsch, with the full-on prima donnas of pasteboard: Coney Island, Crystal Palace and The Face immortal.
Opting instead for what may yet prove the wiser strategy, Maher applied a classic urban design approach to produce a supporting cast that is light-hearted, even joyous, but wholly un-self-aggrandising.
Occupying Crown land, Luna Park will be leased and operated by Luna Park Sydney Limited, an offshoot of Metro Edgley (currently acting as developer).
Metro’s spokesman, Peter Hearne, regards the project as relatively modest. Arguably, after the extravagant failures of the past, it is although at $72 million not perhaps so modest as all that. Not so modest you don’t need it to stack up.
Not so modest with no big dipper, and no help from government it wouldn’t concentrate your mind a little. So, while claims that the new Luna Park reduces the rides to accessories are clearly far-fetched, the money thing has clearly been a factor. As you might expect.
The Boardwalk, skirting the park’s sea frontage, will remain untouched as public open space. The main celebrity buildings Crystal Palace, Coney Island, Wild Mouse and The (Martin Sharpe) Face are all heritage listed, and will be fully restored to their 1930s glory. Right down to the Arthur Barton cartoons and the coloured incandescents. Coney Island will be, well, Coney Island; the Wild Mouse will be largely devoted to children’s parties, and the Crystal Palace will become a function/party centre for grown-ups.
The one addition is a two-storey extension along the north wall of Coney Island, housing a small function centre, next to a new rides precinct for littlies.
Within this framework, and defining the Midway for the first time as a distinct urban street, sit the three new Luna Park buildings a caf, retail outlet (car park under) and (working title) the Luna Circus. The fourth new-build, a 10-storey strata-office building designed by Scott Carver, aligns itself quietly with the Seidlers and wannabes along the back of the site. It may be largely below cliff-level, but it holds the entire project above water, dollar-wise.
Ironically the only real controversy has focused on the one building you can’t see; a six-storey underground car park. At 389 cars it’s substantially smaller than Metro Edgley wanted, but bigger than North Sydney Council was prepared to allow, despite its earlier concern to negotiate a share in the selfsame car park for (its own) North Sydney Pool. The minister eventually relieved council of responsibility in this regard, approving the DA in February 2002. But council has continued to stamp its pretty feet, describing the car park as “dreadful” and “bloody horrible”, and drafting a one-way system for Paul and Northcliffe Streets that would render the minister’s DA conditions unachievable. Nothing childish about that.
Above-ground, the car park presents as a two-level retail/merchandising centre, with service area and loading dock behind. Opposite, between the Face and the Ferris Wheel , is Hassell’s new caf, tastefully transparent on its harbour-side, striped like a liquorice allsort to the Midway.
The Luna Circus is far and away the biggest newcomer, taking the old Big Dipper spot after its post-litigation exile to Queensland. A 14-metre-high, 2,000-seater, clear-span hangar configurable as arena, banquet hall, auditorium or big top, this is the one North Sydney’s Mayor, Genia McCaffery, decries as “looking like Bankstown airport”. Maybe that’s not such a bad look although in the event, with its white, yellow and red backgammon-esque fabric skin in place, it’ll probably read more as some exotic backdrop to the fun and games. Which is precisely as intended.
Big Dipper apart, all the favourite rides will be restored the Rotor and the Dodgems, the Spider and the Tumble Bug although some, like the Ferris wheel, are already later versions of the old idea and others, like the antique “galloper” carousel
and the extravagantly tasteless century-old “Taj Mahal” pipe organ from Antwerp, are recent acquisitions in keeping with the “former glory” vision.
For Hearne, what was a job has become a consuming emotional commitment; in the tradition of generations he has been well and truly seduced by the Luna Park magic. It’s not just love, it’s also belief. Belief that this latest phoenix act will be the last word in Luna Park resurrection stories. Belief that, when it comes to visceral versus virtual, visceral will win. That the nostalgia, with the sheer adrenaline of the ferry ride, the location and the fair itself, will drag enough of us from our screens for long enough to make it work. Will the bums-on-seats prove him right?
The business plan relies on 900,000 such bums each year, of which roughly half come for the rides (gate entry being free); some 265,000 for shows (from circus to panto to SSO); and the rest for functions, from weddings to children’s birthday parties.
But leisure is an iffy business in Sydney (think Fox, think Sega World, Think Darling Harbour). And while we know developers stand to make windfall gains precisely because they take risks, you gotta hope that, this time, it goes the way of the phoenix, not the Big Dipper.
THREE ILLUS: Reinventing the wheel .
the design by Ken Maher restores the favourite rides, but adds a supporting cast of new buildings Photos: Domino Postiglione.