Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The Culture Urban design
European plazas, energy efficient homes: Elizabeth Farrelly imagines an ideal city
Now Christmas is well and truly over, like A. A. Milne’s King John, I feel compelled to confess what I was really hoping for in last year’s architectural stocking. My missive to Santa went like this.
For Christmas, please, oh, please, let someone in Sydney design:
1 A beach shack capable of inhabiting utopia, en masse, without trashing it.
2 A city house that celebrates water – falling, running, draining, gurgling, flushing water – in the way we currently celebrate a view.
3 An autonomous house – truly autonomous in terms of water, energy, sewage – that doesn’t feel like a hair shirt.
4 A sunny and cafe-fringed town hall square that is protected from wind, noise and traffic, somewhere in between the QVB and Hyde Park.
5 A public space at Circular Quay strong enough to withstand the buskers, derros and international tourism, making it only a matter of time before something serious is done about the expressway.
6 Medium-density housing sexy enough to establish itself as a desirable lifestyle choice.
7 A shopping centre that doesn’t destroy the street and make you feel like a zombie on entry.
8 A public transport system that is clean, safe, efficient, dignifying and generally a pleasure to use.
9 A simple urban-development rule capable of complex outcomes, such as the rule that resulted in the Georgian terrace house rising from the ashes of London’s great fire of 1666 .
10 A government that understands how simple rules can have interesting and complex outcomes.
11 A plan for Sydney that can be adhered to long enough to change a few things.
12 A benign planning dictator with the cultivation levels of Louis XIV.
P.S. I won’t be holding my breath.
It was a lot to ask for, I know. Indulgent, even, and the last line could have seemed slightly flippant, from a North Pole point of view. Which is why I was braced to feign nonchalance if, as expected, the stocking turned up limp and empty yet again.
In my own defence, most of the items I would have happily shared had Santa seen fit to sleigh them in. So, deep down, I’m still a little bewildered, perhaps a little hurt, that he couldn’t get any of them together for the 25th. Can it be so hard? Does Santa need better help?
Looking back, I see that I intuitively ordered my desires from small to large, from easy to hard and, though this may seem contrary, from last to first, since wish 12 is clearly a precursor to many of the other items.
So, let’s start at 12. Why a dictator? You need only look around at any modern city, or that part of any old one post-dating World War I, to see that democracy and urbanism do not mix. It’s equally clear that not just any dictator will do. You need a dictator with a proper education and a jolly nice line in wigs. Then maybe things can start to happen.
Wish 11: a plan. Admittedly, a good plan would be preferable, yes. But, in Sydney, any plan would make a welcome change, especially one of the implementable sort.
Wish 10: government. This is dealt with, really, under 12, since it’s hard enough to find one person with the altruism, imagination and drive needed for city-making.
Wish 9: rules. Rules should be as simple and few as possible, while still accommodating complex outcomes. The 1667 London Rebuilding Act that produced the Georgian style was a model of simplicity, requiring party walls, banning timber structure or decoration, limiting window size – and (lo!) London as we know it. This kind of legislation requires both imagination and intelligence.
Wish 8: public transport. This is easy to design, hard to implement, mainly because of democracy.
Wish 7: shopping centre that doesn’t blood-suck all surrounding retail or turn shoppers into hip-pocket somnambulists.
Wish 6: intelligent urban housing – easy enough to design, but, again, see wish 12 for implementation.
Wishes 5 and 4: strong public spaces. Once again, see 12, since such spaces depend entirely on astute political determination.
In fact, wishes 1 to 3 – house types – are probably the only items that could occur in the absence of 12 – which, even then, would be a big help on the realisation front.
So, maybe next Christmas I’ll just send wish 12 on its own and wait for my big red India rubber ball to bounce in the window. Then when the new tsar gets up I’ll send items one to 11. Meantime, should anyone want me (uh, Santa? You there, Santa?) I’ll be at the shack. Don’t knock.