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cockatoo island

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 24-Sep-2005

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum

Subsection: Books

Page: 27

Wordcount: 1199

Ready to take flight



The recent makeover of the long-toxic Cockatoo Island should be just the beginning of its transformation, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.

Call me perverse, but it’s the irony that appeals. While the State (Labor) Government tizzies up our working harbour for sale to the highest bidder, the federal Libs spend real money to reinstate what working harbour they can on heritage-friendly, short-term leases.

Back in 1989, both boots were on other feet, with the Federal (Hawke) Government doing its best to flog Cockatoo Island – it even had the sales brochures printed – while the Greiner State Government sustained the working port. I know there’s an explanation here somewhere, if I could just put my hands on it.

Behind the irony, though, are the sites themselves. The seven harbour plots that the federal Libs, through the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, propose for largely public use include the former School of Artillery at North Head, Middle Head, Snapper Island, Woolwich Dock, Macquarie Lightstation and Cockatoo Island. The last looks like being first to fly, with nearly 60 buildings and miscellaneous wharf and hardstand areas open to expressions of interest on leases of up to 25 years.

Cockatoo, stripped to near-death and reshaped beyond recognition, is not only our biggest harbour island but also our most synthetic. This is what makes it interesting. It’s a curious thing about Sydney that the things we make by accident or necessity – such as finger wharves, quarry faces or road cuttings – tend to far greater drama and beauty than those we construct with conscious aesthetic intent, such as Darling Harbour and King Street Wharf.

To some extent, this is the case everywhere, but it does seem especially true here – signifying nothing more, probably, than our cultural immaturity. Like suburban ladies at tea, we allow the urge for beauty to drive us to crass pretentiousness; only the strictly expedient and pragmatic frees us sufficiently from self-consciousness to make a thing authentic and beautiful.

So it is with Cockatoo. Uninhabited before European settlement, the island lay largely undisturbed until 1839, when the Sydney Gazette wrote: “It is without water and said to abound with snakes.” Its half-dozen lives since then – penal colony, reformatory, jail, dry dock, naval base and submarine factory – have developed this natural harshness so that now, even on a sleepy summer’s day, the ghosts of trauma are palpable.

It’s a wacky looking thing. Quarried on all sides, the island now comprises a central sandstone knoll, tunnelled through at various points, hollowed to create about 20 six-metre-tall, bottle-shaped grain silos (capacity estimated at 100,000 bushels collectively), carved to create two vast graving docks – one 200 metres long – that all but meet in the middle, and reclaimed to 11/2 times the island’s natural size.

Scattered across this remarkable hand-adzed topography is an equally remarkable architectural collection: all types, sizes and ages of building, from sandstone convict barrack to spreading colonial residence, from rare, century-old power stations to drawing offices, water towers and slatted timber drying stores.

Then there are the stories – horror stories, in their way – of a closed island culture (think Pitcairn and Norfolk). Of convicts, slotted morgue-style into the stone dorms, begging for night air at tiny window holes. Of reformatory girls in 1871 blaspheming and baring themselves so dreadfully that a ship of orphan boys had to be anchored elsewhere to protect their innocence. Of conditions that were extraordinarily harsh, even by 19th-century standards, to which the snared children were subjected. Of the “poor creature” who, in 1900, completed her 400th sentence on the island. Of the USS New Orleans, which, having lost 50 metres of her bow to a Japanese torpedo near Guadalcanal in November 1942, steamed backwards all the way to Cockatoo Island for repairs. Of the bullying workplace culture that developed during the island’s century as a Commonwealth and semi-private dockyard.

Resulting from (and perhaps exacerbating) this feudal story, the island was steadily contaminated in just about every possible way with just about every possible toxin: heavy metals and metalloids, aromatic and petroleum hydrocarbons, organotins, cyanides, solvents, PCBs and asbestos – and that’s just in the soil. There were heavy metals in the sewers; copper, zinc, mercury, hydrocarbons and organotin in the groundwater; copper, lead, mercury and tributyl tin in the near-shore sediments; and asbestos throughout the building stock. It’s no surprise the culture went a little peculiar.

The hugely successful Cockatoo Island Festival in March helped to dispel some of these ghosts and drive the clean-up. With 38 tonnes of asbestos, 23 tonnes of lead paint and 20,000 litres of contaminated water replaced by two hectares of new turf and a kilometre of safety fencing – along with the establishment of a noise-complaints hotline; Cockatoo is only minutes from Balmain – about 18,000 people arrived by ferry to hear bands ranging from reggae to rock, from cabaret to karaoke, 17 hours a day, for three days. They camped on the northern apron, wandered barefoot and generally grooved around the island as if it were some latter-day Woodstock.

The real test is yet to come. Sixty heritage buildings and untold industrial archaeology need appropriate, heritage-tolerant use. So, while 10 years ago the talk was of flashy casinos and visionary suburbs (no, really), expectations now are very different. The harbour trust envisages a mix of commercial, creative and maritime uses, concentrating maritime around the two large southern-apron docks, cultural around the northern and eastern aprons, and tourism, design and performance-type uses on the knoll. Residential development is specifically prohibited, except the odd bed-and-breakfast or camping ground.

That’s the expectation, but the expressions-of-interest process is really a quest for ideas, its sense of possibility only broadened by the festival’s success. Transport, of course, will be fundamental; although vehicles will exist on the island, with no bridges they’ll have to come by boat, and commuters, apart from the water-taxi elite, will be moved by ferry. And, while Sydney Ferries is strongly supportive, there’s an issue of critical mass in making the thing stack as a public transport proposition.

Geoff Bailey, the harbour trust’s executive director, recalls Blackwattle Studios in Glebe, where more than 250 artists, creatives, nerds, architects, builders and boat people occupied 110 tin-shed studios until its demolition in 1999. It was a comparable mix and deserves resurrection. At the same time, he pleads, “don’t wish all of Sydney’s starving artists on me”.

He’s right, for the health of the future Cockatoo Island community, as well as its commercial viability. “I hate to say it,” Bailey says, “but there’s a slightly Venetian opportunity here. That sense of moving around water and enjoying its edges is something Sydney hasn’t done very well and we’ve got an opportunity here to exploit some of that. And that means giving people as many reasons to come here as possible. It’s a critical mass thing. Density is key.”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s just so weird to hear the Howard Government saying it.


TWO PHOTOS: Diverse history … Cockatoo Island, a former penal colony, naval base and more; and (below) the hugely successful music festival on the island in March. PHOTO BELOW: DOMINO POSTIGLIONE


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