Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Coast is unclear
ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN
The wrangling over a Bondi landmark reflects the challenges facing those in charge of the beachfront’s future, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
‘A monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend,” was what he said. The speaker, if you remember, was our very own Prince of Wales. The object of Charles’s derision was not the spit bubble that has recently appeared at one end of Bondi Pavilion’s familiar toothy grin, but the proposed extension to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. The year was 1984, which may or may not explain HRH’s reckless candour. Even now, though, a distinct tinge of Orwell gathers in the thickened air along the Bondi beachfront.
Bondi represents Sydney as Uluru represents Australia, and the pavilion stands in much the same relation to Bondi itself: venerable, beloved, iconic. Up close, though, both beach and pavilion come over a mite more shop-soiled than their iconic status suggests. The pav, stretched like Dupain’s Sunbaker along one of the world’s most famous beachfronts, has nevertheless planted the kiss of death on business after struggling business, mysteriously sucking any whiff of beachside brio into its black, implacable interior. The beach itself, meanwhile, is overexposed and windswept much of the time, inexpensively draped by a redbrick urban stole that is daggy, over-built and, frankly, vulgar.
Which is why we love it so. Bondi is like nowhere else – and it’s the culture, even more than the beach, that does it. That late-night mix of fresh crabs and frangipani and bookshops and barefoot fire-eaters and shoved-in walk-ups and scruffy, quasi-intellectual coffee houses makes Bondi one of Sydney’s most vivid and particular enchantments.
Now, although not for the first time, the fight is on. No one wants their neighbourhood to change. No one ever wants neighbourhoods to change. But change has come and will continue as Sydney’s million-dollar babes exercise their absolute right to waterfront. Most councils are keen to gentrify. Waverley Council worries, now, about over-gentrification. The question is, what, if anything, can it do?
This is the sub-theme of Waverley’s strategic planning process, which, after months of public consultation, should be exhibited in draft by year’s end. The issues are generic, only heightened by the density and intensity that is Bondi. Mainly, people love the place; love its diversity especially, and don’t want it shelved too high for the young, the old, the creative and the bohemian who have traditionally nested there.
Then there are the usual tensions between active and passive recreation, between residents and tourists, between traffic and pedestrians. Everyone loves Bondi and wants to share it, especially if they can make a quid that way, but the tourist-backpacker population is noisy, transient, truculent and can’t seem to work the rubbish-collection system. Along the beachfront, some want space to picnic and walk the dog, while others want to play football (or, say, beach volleyball). Everyone wants more parking – surprise me – but no one wants more traffic.
The consultation threw up some positives, too. As the Mayor, Peter Moscatt, says: “It’s nice to hear the kids, who don’t come to meetings, say ‘Thanks for the skateboard park.’ I’m more used to getting hammered in my office by people who move into the area with five cars and can’t understand why they can’t park in front of their house.”
It’s hard to see what a council might do – short of subsidising housing – to sustain a level of diversity that market forces seem determined to diminish. At which point in the story, the Bondi Pavilion extension stands as a microcosmic parable.
It started in 2002, with the council advertising a number of retail concessions in the pav. After a bit of hoo-ha, including the ousting of Guido’s Gelato Cafe after 20 years and the collapse of the successful bidder Truffles, who should be left holding the golden baby of the northern-end restaurant lease but Pavilion Beach Group Pty Ltd, aka the developer Leon Fink and ad exec Michael Magnus.
The idea was to smarten up the tacky old marquee that protected Danny’s restaurant from Bondi’s chilly easterlies without impinging on beachfront activity, especially the City-to-Surf run, with its route along the pavilion’s eastern front. Fink and Magnus, quite properly, lodged a development application.
There were issues, of course: architecture, heritage, open space and fears, from council’s heritage planner, that the proposal “will represent a building rather than an awning when fully closed”. The zoning, Open Space 6(a), required Waverley Council to consider the need for any development (uh, define “need”), minimise its impact, ensure its “secondary and complementary” relationship to the open space and prevent the “alienation of open space”.
Now you and I might think that a thick-legged steel structure with a precast concrete podium and permanent fixed glazing alienates open space in a way that a lightweight fabric marquee-cum-umbrella-collection does not. But the council found otherwise; that the proposal, being of the same area as the old arrangement (what’s the area of an umbrella?), did not “reduce open space” and would in fact enhance that space’s dominant use, namely recreation. Just the kind of thinking that lets you put major buildings – volleyball stadiums, say – mid-beach.
Objectors believed that the spit-bubble extension was ugly and inappropriate and that its raised platform would impede the City to Surf. Council staff, however, argued manfully that the northern-tip extension, being fully glazed and flat-roofed, would be virtually invisible: “A subtle addition … with minimal impact on [either] heritage significance … [or] architectural symmetry.” On the City-to-Surf question, it was said that, with the windows open, the entire 60,000 entrants could run right on through.
The council swallowed it. Whole. In December 2002, it approved the application on condition that the entire extension be demountable for the City to Surf and other public events. Within weeks a further application was lodged, specifically to delete that condition. This second application, being deemed too trivial to advertise and supported by a statement from the council’s own architects, Tanner and Associates, “that the proposed structure is less obtrusive than the existing tent structure and does not interfere with … events”, was approved, virtually unopposed, in mid-March 2003. Then the haggling began over who would fund the substantial pre-fit-out renovations. Needless to say, the council lost.
And now, finally, we have a result. At Nick’s Bondi Beach Pavilion, as at Nick’s Darling Harbour and Nick’s King Street Wharf, you can sit on concrete behind faceted glass (a few windows are able to be opened but hardly the thoroughfare for 60,000) and enjoy the starched linen, the view and, for only $120 plus wine, a seafood platter for two.
On the outside, though, it’s like a skerrick of Surfers Paradise flotsam washed up, stuck and glued at random to the pav’s Italianate arcade.
Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to intervene in grand classical compositions, even ersatz ones such as the pav. But if a restaurant really could not thrive within the existing, forbidding structure, a better model might be to update the classic 18th-century orangerie, a fine-stitched lingerie in glass and delicate steel. With a fine hand and a patient mind, even the most unlikely building can eventually find its proper use – as Customs House, for one, now shows.
More broadly, though, the worry is this: if the council is this desperate to insert a gold tooth in the Bondi Pavilion’s smile, how exactly does that bode for the rest of the neighbourhood, strategic plan or no strategic plan?
PHOTO: MARCO DEL GRANDE