Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: This Life
Sydney’s Pied Piper of planning
George Clarke Urbanist
Most people leave death instructions to solicitors and executors. Not George Clarke, architect-planner extraordinaire. Last month, exactly 73 years after his birth at Coogee and only days from death, Clarke summoned Lord Mayor Clover Moore to his bedside, sat her on the doona and issued his final instructions; how to plan the City of Sydney. For Moore, who spoke at Clarke’s funeral, it was “an honour”. For Clarke, it was simply normal behaviour.
George Clarke was a pioneer. As luck would have it, urban planning in mid-century Sydney was just the kind of trackless frontier he needed. Elegant, charming, erudite, ardent and hugely articulate, Clarke was between 1969 and 1978 (his own estimate) an influential person in Australian planning. Very influential, in fact. With offices in every state capital and consultancies in Iran, Mauritius and Papua New Guinea, Clarke was in serious demand.
He received the Sidney Luker Memorial Medal (Australian planning’s highest accolade) in 1972, presided over the NSW Planning Institute (then the Royal Australian Planning Institute, 1972-74), prepared the City of Adelaide plan 1974, played a pivotal role in the “San Sebastian” case against the Askin government for the negligent destruction of Woolloomooloo (1976) and – far and away his crowning achievement – directed the remarkable 1971 City of Sydney Strategic Plan.
Described by his colleague Jim Colman as having a “towering ego, intense passion, boundless energy, prodigious curiosity and … a ferocious intellect”, Clarke habitually talked of the strategic plan as Sydney’s third. First, he would say, came the Macquarie/Greenway plan of 1815; then the Sulman/Royal Commission plan of 1909; and finally, in 1971, “my strategic plan”.
It was hardly a solo effort, of course, having employed and nurtured most of Sydney’s now-reigning urban design and planning talent in youthful form. That much of the input was voluntary simply indicates the huge pent-up energy for change in Sydney at the time, and the widespread belief in Clarke as leader to that end. Colman’s first job, he says, on returning to Sydney in 1966 and taking a job with Clarke’s Urban Systems Corporation, was to brandish a pro-Utzon placard up and down Macquarie Street.
“We dissembled,” Clarke told historian Paul Ashton in 1992, “but in our hearts we were utopian crusaders out to change the urbanising world.” Change being the operative word. They were going to boulevard William Street, close Martin Place, encourage public transport, create a city-wide pedestrian network and revive the city’s residential core. Sounds familiar, now. Back in 1971, it was revolution.
To see just what a tectonic shift such proposals implied, consider the context. That year saw the gazettal of not one but two plans for the City of Sydney. The first, from the City Engineer’s division, which was charged with planning the city under the first planning act of 1945, had been 25 years in the making. The second was Clarke’s, prepared with the energetic support of Andrew Briger and Leo Port’s new-broom Civic Reform aldermanic team and drawing on the freshest British and American ideas.
It was a diametric clash of world views; last-gasp of the old guard versus first flourish of the new. The engineers wore cardigans and wrote in upper case along rulers; the planners wore leather jackets, shoulder-length hair and hand-sketched their ideas in 6B. The two plans – known as the “statutory plan” and the “strategic plan” respectively – could hardly have represented this clash more starkly.
The engineers’ plan showed Sydney criss-crossed with vast red-and-white-striped motorway reserves, with great swathes of Glebe, Ultimo, Chippendale, Surry Hills and Paddington marked for demolition. Clarke’s strategic plan, on the other hand, introduced at a blow virtually all the human-scale, mixed-use, heritage-conserved urban village ideas that even now form the bulk of the urbanist’s fodder.
As the architect Andrew Andersons, a voluntary photographer for Clarke’s plan, remembers: “Planning at the time was ludicrously feeble, with no underlying philosophy or ideas. George Clarke, with other influential people who had studied overseas, like Barry Young, changed all that. It [the plan] came at a time when Sydney’s young professionals were desperate, and it totally changed people’s attitudes.”
The Danish professor Jan Gehl is still talking the same stuff but, says Andersons, “George was better than that. He was smart, rascally, subversive and lively, with a nice sense of detachment and cynicism that let him see through the politics of planning.”
Clarke had studied architecture at the University of Sydney. Deciding by his second year, however, that he wanted to be an urbanist not an architect, he spent most of the rest of the course cruising with “Andersonian philosophy students, the Freethought Society and … creative people like Harry Hooton, Lillian Roxon, Margaret Elliott (later Fink), Bob Klippel, Jim McGuire and John Olsen”. Graduating in 1953, he took a regional planner’s job with Rod Fraser at Cumberland County Council and studied under Denis Winston, Australia’s first planning professor.
In 1956, with an Italian government scholarship to study urbanistica, Clarke left Australia, experiencing his first television, pizza and espresso in Naples. Until then, he recalled, he had seen only one multi-storey building under construction, in downtown Elizabeth Street. By 1960, when he returned to Australia with planning qualifications from University College London (where he worked for the then leading-edge London County Council) and MIT in the US, skyscrapers were legal and Sydney was rushing headlong, if a little late, into the modern era.
Hardly surprising, then, that Clarke became something of a Pied Piper for the profession’s young, or that those “nine years of influence” followed. With the architect Don Gazzard, Clarke set up Clarke Gazzard – Urban Systems, supported the Briger/Port mayoral team, and got the city-plan job. Martin Place was pedestrianised, incentive zoning introduced and the Queen Victoria Building saved from demolition. Trees were planted, heritage listed (for the first time) and the city rethought as something more than just a business district.
More surprising, probably, is the suddenness with which it all changed. In 1979, with characteristic aplomb and more than a touch, perhaps, of characteristic self-destructiveness, Clarke turned on his heels and left. In his own words, “the Clarke Gazzard urban planning phenomenon was a meteoric adventure in launching cultural change in Australia, which rose to a zenith between 1960 and 1971 and then burnt up in the atmosphere of the real world”.
Living for several years in Bali, Clarke worked in Indonesia, Japan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Brunei, to name a few. For some months he was planning adviser to Tuvalu, a collection of nine coral atolls in Oceania whose main industries are listed in Lonely Planet as “textiles, soap, philately, phone sex and copra” in that order.
The years did nothing to dim Clarke’s ardour. Easing his way back into Sydney through the mid-1980s, he fell wildly in love with planner Krystyna Luczak and, according to his own telling, courted her extravagantly. They married in 1987; Krystyna survives him, as does his first wife Eva and their three children Andrew, Rebecca and Stephen.
Professionally, Clarke’s engagement in Sydney was from this time mainly at neighbourhood level – especially in his beloved Paddington, which he saw as the quintessential urban village – but the passion and commitment remained. And while the strategic plan will always be Clarke’s magnum opus, it seems fitting for so ardent and untamed an intellect to have the last word:
“I am George Clarke … in April 1954 … I became a registered architect in the state of NSW and saw clearly that any profession which would register me as a fully fledged professional at the age of 22 was not worthy of serious attention, let alone respect. Nothing seems to have improved for architecture in Australia over the 45 years since.”
That is so George.
TWO PHOTOS: Intense passion … George Clarke, above, blazed a trail for new planning ideas in the 1970s. His most important contribution was the City of Sydney strategic plan, launched in 1971, right (Clarke is on the right).