Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
A whole new meaning to the word icon
Openness and honesty are rare concepts in the debate over public space, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Call me naive, but I still hang out for the occasional public truth. But while the rhetoric is all public interest, reality suggests quite another priority-set.
From attorneys-general legislating for defamation beyond the grave to the catastrophe of self-certification (more later), to klutzy government sales of Crown Reserve, you gotta wonder. Is meaning what one says ever done, except by accident, in the life politic? I’m not talking official secrets. Just extracting the basic “public” information, let alone preserving public space, becomes an exercise in advanced dental surgery. Worse, this surprises no one. It’s almost like, uh, whad’you expect? Openness? Access? Honesty?
Around Sydney Harbour, the public-private issue is making waves at Cremorne Point, Darling Harbour East and Bennelong Point.
At Cremorne Point it’s the tram shed. This Government must have it in for tram sheds. Not content with flogging Tempe’s Bus and Truck Museum, it has also sold the sweet little fibro-weatherboard job at Cremorne Point. Cremorne is a long way from Tempe, and this shed, hanging off the seawall like an outsize harbour mussel, was blessed to occupy Crown Reserve. Until now.
Now it’s just one more bit of freehold speculator dirt with full frontals of city and eye-cons.
The story so far: in December 1998, the Government’s blather about continuous foreshore access was peaking and SEPP 56, the plan to co-ordinate management of (our) harbour lands, had been recently gazetted. Nothing daunted, the State Transit Authority sold the pocket handkerchief for $1.1 million.
North Sydney Council strongly opposed the sale. Even the Auditor-General’s report described it as “curious”. Despite so blatant a goof, the Government steadfastly declined to re-purchase. The developer applied to install a restaurant, council refused on parking grounds, and the property was on-sold at a loss. The new owner now has council permission (which would have been forthcoming anyway from the courts) for conversion into – yup, you guessed it – a dwelling.
Nice pad, perhaps, with buses at the back door, ferries at the front and Crown Reserve either side. But that’s the point. Cremorne Reserve has been one of the few Sydney spots to make top-drawer views available to everyone and her dog. Its continuity is now broken. Sure you can walk around the picket fence-to-be, but should you have to? Plus there’s this: two-room cottage today, who knows what tomorrow?
What ought to happen to the tram shed? Mayor Genia McCaffery reckons a little local newsagent/cafe is the way to go, and she’s probably right; government-owned, privately leased. Of course it’d require a climb-down-and-buy-backflip from the Government, but they do seem skilled in that regard.
Higher up the complexity scale is the Government’s proposal for 22 hectares of reclaimed port land at Darling Harbour East. Rumours are that one PJK, who always wanted to demolish Woolloomooloo’s finger wharf and restore the bay to its swamp origins, has been lobbying city heavies to reinstate the original shoreline. Unlikely, you might think, for any government to erase an asset rather than sell it. But how much of an asset is it?
No one is saying whether they’re proposing a freehold sale of the ex-Patrick port or leasehold, but we do recall, don’t we, the difficulty of getting Walsh Bay up. Three major efforts over 10 years, intercut by two spectacular collapses – mainly because the commitment was huge, and much of it on piles. Piles make investors go to water, so to speak. Darling Harbour East is bigger and pilier than Walsh Bay ever was.
With the Government promising to include 25,000 office spaces in the redevelopment just when there’s no market for it, you can only wish ’em luck. A park sounds nice, although 16 football fields may prove an embarrassment of picnics. A city is a city after all, in virtue of what it builds, not what it grows; without Manhattan, Central Park would be grass.
More comic still is the “iconic building” proposal for Darling Harbour East’s northern tip. Most design competitions need a detailed brief to produce anything like a buildable outcome. More detailed, anyway, than “giz an icon”. Even with a proper brief, the Opera House still did that 1000 per cent blow-out thing. Then again, these days you can probably just Google Frank “dial-an-icon” Gehry’s office in Santa Monica, order a Bilbao and hope delivery time isn’t prohibitive.
Meanwhile, Icon II’s nostril-job proceeds apace. For anyone not astride the Opera House makeover project, there are four main items: the Utzon Room (ex-Chamber Music Room), now fully refurbished; the Western Colonnade, piles complete, construction to begin momentarily; the Forecourt, which involves under-pavement servicing and never again (they promise) as dramatic a fencing-off as last summer’s; and the Opera Theatre.
Of these, only two really signify: the colonnade, which is small but decidedly visible; and the Opera Theatre, which is invisible externally, but decidedly vast in scope, implications and, ahem, cost. Both, however Utzon-blessed, undermine the Opera House’s central idea. What idea? Utzon’s charmed notion of housing performances above ground in those light billowing sails, supported by a stolid, “Mayan” service, stacked base. The Western Colonnade arose from the last-minute inclusion of a drama theatre in the podium way back, and a more recent urge to link the internal foyers – to each other, and the water. But this – here’s the rub – requires openings. Several large ones in the podium wall.
However, the Opera House conservation management plan, written by heritage guru Dr James Semple Kerr in 1993, prohibits such openings, protects “the solid side wall effect of the podium” and brands “developments which affect the original exterior form or quality of the building … unacceptable”.
By contrast, Kerr’s revised, 2003 edition of the document prohibits only “proposals that obscure the original exterior form” (what would that take – a skyscraper? an ocean liner on top?) and specifically permits “new Broadwalk level openings” that do not “diminish the effect” of solidity. Was Kerr pressured? He laughs: “All clients pressure you.” But he has criticised the Opera House Trust before for compromising the Opera House to commerce, and is no longer in its employ. Either way, it’s a shift from black and white to grey, and makes changing the Opera House now a matter of judgement, not fact. Whose judgement? Why, the Government’s.
The colonnade itself, designed to disguise the new openings, is squattish and open-ended, quite broad enough to accommodate smokers and concessions but not, I fear, tall enough for a sense of dignity. Cross my fingers’n’hope to be wrong.
Which brings us to the Opera Theatre. Even in 1962 an opera theatre with vestigial wings and no fly tower was unworkable. We knew that, and loved it anyway. Now, though, the proposed orchestra-pit extension has ballooned into a mammoth operation involving lowering the entire theatre into the podium, and tunnelling the service access lower still. Leaving the shell nice and, well, empty actually.
Luckily, perhaps, the design is unfinished and, at several hundred million dollars, unfunded. So far, then, so safe. Why not make the new dial-a-Gehry at Darling Harbour East an opera theatre? That gets us a workable theatre, half the price – a second competition, renaming the building formerly known as the Sydney Opera House – and a whole new meaning to the word eye-con.
PHOTO: Making waves … the sale of the Cremorne Point tram shed is a microcosm of what’s happening with former public land on the harbour.Photo: Robert Pearce