Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The jungle book
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
The elephants are on their way, but there is not much else to celebrate amid Sydney’s planning tangle this year, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
To write a year-in-review story is to pursue patterns that almost certainly do not exist, giving spurious unity to a more or less random sequence of events. Still, seek, they say, and ye shall find.
The big wide world, in the year of Our Lord 2005, looked like proving US scientist Edward O. Wilson’s sad thesis that “perhaps a law of evolution is that intelligence usually extinguishes itself”. In Sydney, though, things were more indulgent, if not necessarily less intelligent.
For most of the year we had a grand new elephant house at the zoo, complete with thatched roofs and water features, but no elephants. At the same time, there were all the tricks and trumpetings of a new Sydney metropolitan plan, all the brawls and backflips, but no document. Then, suddenly, in the 12th month, we had both elephants and plan. Or did we? The elephants have been approved but have not arrived, while the plan has been announced but not (at time of writing) printed. Note to self: do not hold breath.
The Sydney metropolitan plan, titled City of Cities, promises “fast, safe, reliable train services and a network of strategic bus corridors” across Sydney. But the on-the-ground reality is of cancelled rail links, failed transit ways and ever-vanishing bus services while railway stations and airports morph into either office parks (as in Canberra) or glorified cathedrals of shopping.
Sydney Airport, for instance, announced its intention to develop as a major new retail hub, exploiting Commonwealth exemptions from planning law designed for the days when governments and public interest were presumed to coincide. This made the NSW Government mad, since it wanted its own shopping hub at the forever-imminent Green Square, which, now that its rail link is in receivership and its proposed commercial development at death’s door, looks like just another dormitory suburb.
What the State Government doesn’t realise, however, is that the feds are just trying to get the critical mass together – say $3 billion or $4 billion worth – to do something, anything, about the airport’s coffee situation.
Meanwhile, Sydney acquired a new Planning Act (June), a new Planning Minister (Frank Sartor, August) and a new Planning Department, re-fragmenting Craig Knowles’s saurian Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources (DIPNR), back to plain old Planning. This made it just like the planning department before last, or maybe the one before that, only without most of the staff, who performed a mysterious mass-migration ritual following the ministerial reshuffle.
The new act eviscerated, in passing, a dozen or so of the existing environmental protection statutes including the Fisheries Management Act, the National Parks and Wildlife Act, the Water Management Act and the Heritage Act. The amendments removed vast swathes of protection over things such as threatened species and heritage buildings and increased ministerial discretion to historic (or perhaps, prehistoric) levels.
At the same time, the minister brought us a new State Environmental Planning Policy, otherwise known as SEPP (Major Projects). It makes him – the Planning Minister – judge and jury for not just for the usual mining and infrastructure projects, but also virtually everything relating to tourism, recreation, sporting venues, marinas, film and television studios, hospitals, medical research, education, manufacturing, distribution and storage and anything in the so-called coastal zone, as defined on maps that the director-general will make available for inspection at the department’s Bridge Street offices during office hours. (Does the D-G close for tea? – Ed.)
Add to that his planning responsibility for Walsh Bay, Chatswood Interchange, Newcastle-Honeysuckle, Port Botany, Penrith Lakes, Rhodes Peninsula, Kurnell, Fox Studios, the Rocks, East Darling Harbour, Darling Harbour, Pyrmont Point, the Fish Markets, the casino, Luna Park, the Caltex site, the Opera House, the Rozelle and White Bay dock sites, Taronga Zoo, the Australian Museum, Redfern, Waterloo, Sydney Olympic Park and housing in Ku-ring-gai. And anything else the minister may determine from time to time as being worth his notice.
This covers pretty much everything serious in the entire metropolitan area. What it means, from the minister’s point of view, is you don’t actually need a plan, since all significant decisions can be taken ad hoc with no comeback. What it means for Sydney is, well, more of the same. Much, much more.
Feathers were ruffled when the same hubris spilled over into the international design competition for the Patrick and P&O wharves at East Darling Harbour. The competition was launched amid Government promises to retain the working harbour, but briefed to bury its principal port facilities under yet more residential development, as now seen lining the Parramatta River. The upset among architects, though, was caused by a decision not to exhibit something like half of the entries, generating a number of salons des disgruntlees to air the wasted work.
In response, the jury for stage two of the competition (scheduled for release early next year) has been expanded to include the well-known Leningrad-ophile Paul Keating. That’ll sort ’em out.
Eager would-be recipients of Sydney’s exiled port activity included Botany, Newcastle and Port Kembla. Of these, Kembla and Botany got the goods, while Newcastle was snubbed by the Government, which then – to make the message perfectly clear – decided to remove rail access from its city centre.
While the Government prepared its own planning carte blanche in this way, it tightened the screws on everyone else by introducing the otherwise admirable BASIX regime. BASIX is designed to reduce the energy use of new houses by 25 per cent and water by 40 per cent. This, of course, does nothing to reduce visual pollution or sprawl, nor indeed the necessity to drive twixt McMansion and corner shop, thereby cementing Australia’s place as the world’s most accomplished per-capita greenhouse gasser. But it is a step. A faltering one, perhaps, but our own.
Architecturally, things were fairly quiet, with World Architecture Day passing entirely unnoticed on the October public holiday. Still, handsome new buildings appeared by Lord (Norman) Foster at 126 Phillip Street; Richard Johnson (the drastically collagened Hilton on George Street); Richard Francis-Jones (the Mint on Macquarie Street); and Bob Nation at the interminably awaited World Square. Sydney’s second Foster also emerged from the ground (Lumiere towers on George Street) and, adjacent, a new Seidler, the 58-storey Meriton Tower at 720 George Street. No prizes for guessing who owns it.
The Mitchell Library started to take architecture more seriously, launching in June the Neville Quarry Architectural Collection (named for one of Sydney’s most energetic and lovable architectural academics, who died in 2004); in October, the Seidler Collection (including the internment diaries and many original sketches); and, in December, a collection called the Arrival of Modernism, featuring Sydney Ancher, Arthur Baldwinson and about 3000 Hugh Buhrich drawings.
Meanwhile, Harry Seidler himself, one of our greatest and most interesting moderns, was overtaken at the drawing board by a sudden, massive stroke. Such is Seidler’s famous bullishness, he hangs on even now, determined as ever.
On the awards front, Peter Stutchbury and Phoebe Pape took out the national award for their handsome house Springwater at Seaforth, ahead of Neil Durbach and Camilla Bloch’s less mainstream but, to my mind, more interesting and more habitable Holman House at Dover Heights. The then premier Bob Carr gave the Premier’s Award to Lend Lease’s made-over Erina Fair shopping centre at The Entrance. Inside, there’s some nice timber detailing and even a little fresh air. Otherwise, it’s the same old exterior-less, drive-to box floating in expanses of car parking. Yes, yes – that’s fine architecture.
Woolsheds became a popular fashion motif in 2005. Stutchbury and Pape collected no fewer than four awards – two state, two national – for their Deepwater Woolshed on the Murrumbidgee near Wagga Wagga, while Richard Johnson likened his winning design for the new National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to a woolshed. Not that it looks anything like one. Maybe it’s just that a woolshed is the closest we’ve got to a home-grown Campbell’s soup can.
Parramatta Council, undaunted by the success of Westfield Bondi Junction in generating mass extinctions at Oxford Street and Double Bay, announced its $1.4 billion intention to pursue the mammoth Civic Place redevelopment with preferred developer Grocon. Meanwhile, Multiplex gave new meaning to the idea of a private members’ bill by not only expanding its commercial building approvals on Luna Park’s Crown land but getting special legislation enacted to remove the locals’ common-law right to complain.
That’s intelligence for you. Perhaps, as Edward Wilson muses, “it was a misfortune for the living world … that a carnivorous primate and not some more benign form of animal made the breakthrough”.
THREE PHOTOS: Where’d they go? … Taronga Zoo has a new enclosure (above) for elephants, but the animals are yet to be seen. There’s also no sign of a document detailing the Sydney metropolitan plan. 1Forgotten entries … the international design contest for wharves at East Darling Harbour (above) raised hackles; and (right) the long-awaited World Tower. PHOTOS: ADAM HOLLINGWORTH, GRANT TURNER