Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
ARCHITECTURE SPACE OUT, ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
By Elizabeth Farrelly
Is the redevelopment of Sydney’s public places making the city a better place or is it just driving out the undesirables?
Nothing, pronounced Sydney’s Royal Improvement Commission of 1909, “contributes so much to the dignity and character of a city as open spaces artistically treated. Sydney is fortunately rich in opportunities of this kind.”
Opportunity-rich, achievement-poor. So poor, in fact, we’re forced to pretend. Apart from the Opera House forecourt (more of an apron), Sydney Square (more of a canyon) and sweet pocket-sized Macquarie Place, there’s the odd street-closure (Martin Place, Pitt Street Mall) and a handful of quasi-public retail moments such as Australia Square, East Circular Quay and the QVB. That’s about it really, unless you count the Town Hall steps.
Then it’s down to the major arterial intersections, which we economically call squares: Centennial, Whitlam, Taylor, Railway. All of them jagged, noisy and mean.
It can only be a cultural thing, this spatial scrimping in a country whose sheer size was enough to redefine emptiness. Parks we confine to old swamps and rubbish tips; squares to major crossroads. At least with the parks, we tend to drain them first, bury the trash. Our squares, on the other hand, stay drowned in traffic. Almost as if we like it that way.
Recent projects at either end of Oxford Street show contrasting approaches to the problem. Historically, Taylor Square and Bondi Junction have straddled municipal boundaries and both are the focus of significant-disposable-income catchments, yet they are persistently daggy. Now, though Taylor Square is finished, perhaps literally, the Jungo is in the midst of a revival. What makes the difference?
Taylor Square was named in 1909 for Sydney’s slum-clearing lord mayor Sir Allen “comprehensive redevelopment” Taylor, himself a passionate contributor to the Improvement Commission. It’s had a few facelifts over the years; each leaving scars, without treating the square’s central pathology.
Even closing Bourke Street a few years back didn’t really lose that overwhelming traffic-junction feeling. And yet it’s a venerable spot, host over the centuries to public hangings, Henry Lawson’s funeral march and the very first Mardi Gras fleshfest. These days, the smell-mix tells the story: hot traffic, coffee, vomit, stale beer, cigarette smoke, fresh bread, more vomit, old books, fresh flowers and more stale beer.
Now that the latest, slow-born revamp is complete, how much improvement did we get for our $6.7 million? How amenable is the space? And how much, if anything, does it in fact add to the “dignity and character” of our city.
Designed by Tract Consultants for South Sydney City Council and originally meant for Mardi Gras ’02’, it was largely an exercise in decluttering – repaving, refurnishing, deforesting, blocking the jaywalker. Plus water feature.
On the ground, this translates as follows: diagonal-striped granite paving; steel-studded smart poles and bins; clusters of buttock-singeing black granite seat-daleks, also studded; one of those on-again off-again fountains which, given the volume of
bodily fluids already lying about the place, may reinforce regrettable connotations; a raised and denuded “Gilligan’s Island”, its cabbage palms sent off to Ward Park, and a smattering of thigh-high barnacle-type display cases containing historic cu
riosities – like a dozen beer glasses, a synthetic wig, a shock-pink feather boa – all related in some infinitely subtle way to Taylor Square of old. It’s what passes as a Site Interpretation Strategy, the planning department’s mandatory doff to history.
Most of it is merely silly, but the cumulative effect, and the implied philosophy, are more worrying. Not to mention the opportunity missed.
Taylor Square never was user-friendly, but it has been a home of sorts to an itinerant inner-city population of the smashed, off-their-face and out-of-it, the homeless, the indigent, the indigenous. It is an important inner-city role, but one that sits uneasily with Darlinghurst’s new des-res constituency.
Now, far from being more humane, Taylor Square’s body language is harder and more repellent than ever. There could have been softness, greenness, shade. A great space, revealing the pretty old WC and substation buildings, could have swept under Oxford Street, obviating all that overwrought iron. The Supreme Court’s front lawn, used only for car-parking, could have gotten off its high horse and become, for the first time, public, making Taylor a real square. Instead, we have a space spiked with convexities – fast cars and steel studs, mounds and buildings, barnacles and exterminatory “seating”. A space with a great “don’t even think of hangin’ out here” bubble overhead.
Decluttering is fine – and many of our public spaces need it – except when people are part of the clutter. Bondi Junction is also in tidy-up mode. But there, loitering is what it’s all about. More and more, if the council has its way.
The Bondi Junction makeover, now half-done, is not just Westfield – although that, however vast, should prove more street-friendly than your regular dead-flesh shoppingtown. And it’s not just a mall tart-up, all smart paving and designer brollies, although that was formally launched recently. The council’s uber-proposal is way more thoughtful – visionary even – than that.
Recent boundary changes put the Junction into one pair of municipal hands for the first time, ever. The effect of this unassuming line-shift has been Solomon-esque. Taking the northern half of the Junction from Woollahra, for which it was never more than an arse-end, and giving it to Waverley has allowed its adoptive owners to emphasise the Jungo’s unity by appointing a place-management team whose job is to treat the entire place as a single, fresh-air shopping centre. Obvious, yes; standard, no.
This means that Bondi Junction’s point of difference – that is, being a full-on upscale retail centre with real air and streets and a huge pedestrian flow where you can park without getting a second mortgage – can start, finally, to work to advantage: our advantage, since the really nice thing about the Jungo is it’s actually public. As in, owned by ratepayers and accessible as of right.
The mall has always been a shocker, especially in contrast with the air-con comfort of the local chain stores. So bad did it get that people would drive between one end of the Junction and the other, just to avoid the vile gum-infested despair of Oxford Street Mall. And the temptation has been to blame the vileness on the publicness.
Now, we may have to think again. Not only is the mall revivified, but the council’s next plans are to buy the truly horrible Bronka Arcade, between Oxford and Spring streets, and redevelop it as a public square, opening off the mall. Public, let me repeat, square. Purpose designed, in Sydney.
Initial drawings by Jahn Associates show a four- or five-storey building with retail, art-cinema and boutique hotel accommodation (parking under), a refronted Eastgate and a glazed atrium crossing Spring Street between the two. A new Rowe Street connection into the bus-rail interchange would rehash the embarrassingly bad pedestrian ramp from the mall into Meriton’s interchange building. Not before time.
Of course, the comparison is a little unfair. The people being shooed from Taylor Square are not the set being welcomed into Bondi Junction. Not exactly. While Bondi Junction is fighting to lure the latte-lot, South Sydney Council would likely argue that it’s precisely this crowd the derros scare away. Everyone wants the ones with the jingling pockets; the rest of us may as well find some manger to lie in.
ILLUS: Taylor Square: No loitering.
Move along, please.
Nothing to see here.
Photos: Jennifer Soo