Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Half a new jewel in Sydney’s crown
Instead of the city’s first genuinely mixed-use waterside precinct, Walsh Bay will have two visually separate parts, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Fearless pursuit of the big idea is not really Sydney’s thing. We’re more of a higgledy-piggledy goat-tracky, expedient, she’ll-be-right sort of place. Which is why Walsh Bay is so special. More than almost anywhere else in Sydney, Walsh Bay is built idea. The idea with its great carved-from-rock roadways, its double-stacked loading-roading system and its shameless in-yer-face piers penetrating the grand lumen of the bay the idea being Sydney as new-century seaport.
How very Sydney it seems, though, that our post-industrial renovation of this place, a century on, should take another big idea free and half do it, conveying the gist but not the guts of what might have been.
For once, it is neither the developers’ fault nor the architects’. In any case, this time next year, Walsh Bay will be looking fab: we’ll all be wondering, Frascati in hand, what the fuss was about. But it won’t be quite what it should have been. And that’s down to politics.
This is, after all, its third time. Throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s, successive government attempts to get Walsh Bay flying tripped over probity issues, global recession, heritage stoushing and white ants not necessarily in that order. Then in 1996, just when it had all started to look way too hard for a single developer, along came Jose de la Vega, fresh from the Woolloomooloo experience, hand-in-hand with Transfield and a winning bid.
As far as politics went, though, that was just the start. When Mirvac joined the team as residential specialist, closer scrutiny of underwater structures revealed worse-than-expected dilapidation. Changing position, the developer adopted a peremptory demolish-or-walk stance on two of the five finger wharves. A classic Sydney heritage stand-off arose.
While the other tenderers heckled about mobile goalposts, the heritage lobby ululated that permanent conservation orders are meant to achieve just that. The National Trust became uncharacteristically clamorous and ICAC was set to look into the tender process, neatly double-hatting Barry OKeefe as both ICAC commissioner and National Trust president. All of which brought the Walsh Bay project, once again, to a furious, shuddering halt.
But it was serendipitous, in a way, since without the stand-off French architect Philippe Robert would never have been summoned and Walsh Bay would have proceeded, or receded, without his big, irresistible, so-obvious idea.
The next chapter you could see as a battle between French rationalism and Anglo-Saxon pissingaboutism. Or as external view clears path through fevered local logjam. You could simply put it down to Robert’s vast experience, clarity of mind and unswerving unity of purpose in the face of Sydney’s froth and politico-trouble. You could even argue that the French can afford to be relaxed about heritage, having so much of it to chuck around. All very well for them, sniff.
Beyond question, though, are Robert’s credentials as a world expert in adaptive reuse of old buildings and the appeal of his idea itself.
Essentially it was this: think of the four finger wharves (excluding Pier One) as exemplars of approach. Make wharf 2/3 preservation and wharf 8/9 adaptive reuse; leave 4/5 as is and rebuild 6/7 anew, but on the same footprint. Keep the grand Hickson Road wall of the shore sheds, but reconfigure their waterside lean-tos for new life. Sever each finger wharf from its shore shed to clear a great crescent-shaped promenade around the sweep of the bay.
At a blow, this reduced the demolition to one (longer, incomplete) finger wharf instead of two, while rendering the whole scheme architecturally vigorous, financially viable, intellectually coherent and spatially unforgettable. Everyone almost everyone loved it. Equipped now with Heritage Council blessing, the project proceeded on this basis.
But it was never going to be quite so simple. Sue Holliday, who as director-general of Planning NSW occupies a statutory spot on the Heritage Council, nevertheless baulked at the last fence, declining under her consent authority cap to approve severance of wharves 2/3 and 4/5 from their shore sheds.
A small gesture, with dramatic effect. Dramatically anti-dramatic. Instead of a grand sweep of wealthy houses comparable in scale and grandeur to Nash’s beautiful Park Crescent in London, we have half a sweep. Instead of Sydney’s first genuinely mixed-use waterside precinct, with houses, theatres, shops, offices, boats and cafes happily intermingling, Walsh Bay will have two visually separate parts: a peopled half, including offices, boats and houses; then, through a bend and a dogleg, an earnest culturo-heritage rump.
The futility of this, even in its own terms, is amply demonstrated by Wharf 8/9, the baby of the family, which has since been elegantly adapted by Bates Smart, occupied by Murdoch Magazines and decorated in this year’s architecture awards. It’s had the nether-end chop, but so fine is the excision, so handsome the renovation and so rewarding the public access that its heritage value is, if anything, enhanced.
For the rest, although the architecture (by Peddle Thorp and Henry Pollack Associates) is still under wraps, signs are good for a new jewel in Sydney’s crown. Wharf 6/7, the total rebuild (a world first) is overtly modern yet minutely camouflaged in both form and detail, its automated aluminium louvres perfectly mimicking the colour and scale of the old weatherboards. Only the ranks of personal marinas give it away.
All up, the $650 million development comprises 350 dwellings (including 140 on Pier 6/7 and 17 smart new terrace houses, each with their own lifts and flued barbecue); half a dozen smallish office buildings (some old, some new); a hotel (the Sebel on
Pier One); a range of non-specific government-funded culturalia in wharf 2/3; a discreet smattering of retail and a theatre.
The theatre across the road and down a bit from Sydney Theatre Company’s Pier 4 will open late next year. An 850-seater, it will plug a gap in Sydney’s venue landscape, NIDA’s Parade being the only other theatre (except the uncharismatic Seymour Centre) between the Opera House Drama Theatre’s 540 seats and the Theatre Royal’s 1100.
Yet unnamed, the new Walsh Bay theatre will be operated by the STC. As Sydney’s not-before-time equivalent to the Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide Playhouses it will enable them to kiss the Opera House’s Playhouse originally designed as a talk space, sans wing space, backstage or flytower a cheery au revoir.
The STC has been a little beacon of light and hope down there among the darkened wharves.
Now, as the rich indulge their preference for shoulder-rubbing with salted authenticity, that is set to change. With its grand arched opening and breakout balcony to Hickson Road, the new theatre will establish also a public face for the STC, a live street front and a visible cultural presence in the bay. Thus city demographics change.
So be it, perhaps. Appealing to well-heeled empty-nesters with fat pockets and euro-cars is the price of urban renewal. It’s just a shame, having accepted this, that the spatial configuration was not more wholehearted. Creating a discontinuous bayside promenade is like leaving a dogleg in the Champs Elysee; half unity is no unity at all. Old Solomon knew that.
TWO ILLUS: Politics got in the way of a grand plan …
Photos: Andrew Meares and George Fetting