Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
For a living harbour, you can’t beat a grubby port
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architectural issues for the Herald.
EVERYONE looked pretty depressed at the East Darling Harbour competition announcement the other day. The Premier, the minister, even the normally unsinkable Chris Johnson; the entire official party looked grey. It wasn’t just the suits. And it wasn’t just having to sidle in through Stumpy, the Opera House’s new smoking den, now filled with tables and chairs like some public-service canteen.
So glum, indeed, was Frank Sartor that his press secretary, from behind the TV cameras, had to keep pushing her mouth up with her fingers to tell him to smile. So glum was Morris Iemma that he nearly forgot to announce the big news; a winning design, sure, but more importantly, a competition for a “more appropriate” name for East Darling Harbour (EDH being too close to some low-rent designer drug to name some high-rent designer precinct).
Now, depressed premiers are two-a-penny. But pollies in the plural? What, did they forget their medication? The buzz, unsurprisingly, put the mass droop down to premature election-loss. But it could be a simple case of too much fudge.
Take Bob Carr’s promise, in launching the EDH competition last year, that the site’s northern tip would be kept for future “iconic development”. This justified flogging the rest for commerce. Now it seems the tip was never going to be more than turf-on-concrete – which (more fudge) will “talk to” Sydney’s famous green headlands.
Still, who needs an icon anyway, when the precinct itself is set to be “one of Sydney’s great iconic precincts”? You gotta hand it to Iemma, he dug deep for the superlative.
The proposal, said Iemma, would also retain the “working harbour model of Sydney, [only] removing the wharves”. Minor technicalities, wharves. Ignoring a titter, Iemma fudged bravely on. Sydney Harbour had been “a living working harbour” since Aboriginal times and this would continue – not at EDH, admittedly. Rather, “the working harbour will be in Glebe Island and Port Kembla”, that well-known reach of Sydney Harbour.
Then there’s the fudge on public transport. Will there be any? Well, no actually. “This is an urban renewal project,” explained the Premier, “there are no plans for that.” Town Hall and Central may be full-to-bursting and the streets nose-to-tail with buses, but why provide public transport just for 10,000 new workers?
So many questions, so much fudge; this alone can lead a chap to gloom. My reading, though, is different again – and, in a way, kinder. It’s this: the pollies were depressed because they knew they’d screwed up and they felt bad for letting us down.
Sydney has long been ill-served by government, but throughout the EDH saga – from its loose, meandering brief to its bureaucrat-swollen jury and determination to make the entire thing “cost neutral” while never lifting a finger to save this great working port – government abnegation has been more obvious than usual.
And that’s before we get to the design. The winning proposal, by urban designers Hill Thalis, architect Paul Berkemeier and landscape architect Jane Irwin, is thoughtful, sensitive and correct. The runner-up, by Lord Richard Rogers (UK), Martha Schwartz (US), Ed Lippmann (Sydney) and Lend Lease, is ebullient, stylish and messy; drawn, as it were, in greasepaint. The first errs on the side of neatness, the second on the side of cartoonish exuberance. So, which is the preferable fault on this site, here, and now?
The judges were divided. But there are two things to be said for the full-on, greasepaint approach. One is, the next-stage bureaucratic sieve through which the scheme must pass can be counted on to water down and tidy up. What it cannot do, can never do, is energise.
The second relates to the here and now, the site and the moment. Sydney, under the Lib-Lab development coalition, has become dull and conformist, a smelly, congested Third-World kind of city.
And just as we’re hanging out for a leader with some moral muscle, we’ve begun to crave some wildness, some flair, in our architecture. What we don’t need is more King Street Wharf rolled out along EDH.
The trouble is, even aesthetically, it’s hard to beat the working harbour – the real, grungy working harbour, rather than the cafes-and-cottage-industries sort. Making this point, even as the grey men gathered at the Opera House the other day, a great steaming orange beast of ocean-carved sculpture – none other than the Tampa herself – was unloading at the Patrick’s wharf.
We’ve already destroyed, or gentrified beyond recognition, most of our industrial heritage. And sure, ports are grubby, messy, noisy. But at least they’re real, alive and necessary. If we can’t do better than grass and offices for EDH, we should sustain tradition, unleash our flair, create the smartest, most eco-exciting port in the world.
Forget wrecking Botany Bay; the seagrass, the fish stocks, the aquifer. Forget sending ships to Port Kembla then trucking 80 per cent of freight back up to Sydney. Tunnel instead under Sussex Street to EDH, or under Darling Harbour to Lilyfield. Bring containers in by ship; take them out by rail. Save the air. Save the bay. Save the aesthetics.
And make my entry in the EDH name game not Iemma’s Regret or Sartor’s Mistake, or even Developer’s Dream or Sydney’s Cenotaph, but simply this: Port Jackson.
PHOTO: Photo: Paul Miller