Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Opportunity knocks, links one crisis with another
Elizabeth Farrelly Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning, architecture and aesthetics for the Herald.
IT MAY have been a “scattergun” of a speech, but his Local Government Association address on Monday was also vintage Paul Keating, fermented on the drive up, drafted longhand (that distinctive flowing script) in a hotel room the evening before and sprayed across familiar Keating territory: the shoddiness of NSW planning, the shadiness of its politicians, the rapaciousness of its developers, the shabbiness of its architecture and, underpinning it all, the mediocrity of modernism. Keating’s analysis may be patchy, but the sentiment, and the fury, are spot on.
Keating’s question is essentially the same as Alain de Botton’s, namely: why is the modern world so ugly? Mostly, we’re resigned to it. But Keating rages on: why is modernism so inept when it comes to making streets, buildings, precincts and cities in which people feel good? Can it be so hard?
They’re questions that the architectural profession seems determined to ignore. But it does so at its peril.
The answers, of course, are complex. At root, they’re about how an essentially humanistic and socialistic movement like modernism was talent-spotted by capitalism and captured as a means of getting the cheap and nasty through the front door.
Keating blames “the age of urban consolidation”, ignoring the fact the cities he admires, such as Paris, Vienna and St Petersburg, are much denser than even the densest part of Sydney. He also rightly blames developer contributions to political parties and common council planning practices such as giving developers “free” floorspace (not counted in the total building area) for apartment balconies.
This last, says Keating, has produced the “egg-crate” look he so despises. He argues that to reverse the practice would produce more buildings like Lumiere, Norman Foster’s latest, nearing completion on the old Regent site on George Street. Keating served as “design excellence” juror for Lumiere, and was, he says, instrumental in bending the egg-crate rule to make the building “glassier, more like an office building, and a much better building as a consequence”.
But is it better? The odd thing about Lumiere, now that it’s visible, is precisely that non-residential look. Makes you wonder whether it’s true about Foster being half-reptile. Deleting the balconies has removed our ability to read human life and scale into the building, which may be its only redeeming feature.
So it’s ironic that this, modernism’s use of scale, was one of Keating’s main beefs. “For the first time,” he said, “under modernism, grandeur in scale supported the making of money, rather than the spending of money.” And so it was. A primary difference between Keating’s beloved old-world cities, and our new, soulless ones “like Tokyo”, is our lost willingness to spend unnecessary time and money making buildings beautiful. Time and money appear in buildings as extra space, real materials, craftsmanship, detail and decoration. What modernism calls waste, tradition knew as comfort and delight.
There’s a contemporary architectural truism that says a building can be on time, on budget, or on quality; that you can have any two of these, but never all three. In fact, in these days of developers as clients and project managers, as all-powerful box tickers, you’re lucky to get one of the three. These days, the only player whose reputation stands or falls with the quality of the building (as opposed to the boxes ticked) is the architect, and she’s not calling the shots.
Keating, like the rest of us, may regret the days when the “great financial institutions … built monumental buildings to adorn cities and communities and to proclaim their own strength, [whereas] now a bank is a hole in the wall, and those great stone edifices that played the city game so well are home to McDonald’s outlets”.
But a primary cause of this shift is, as Keating also noted, that modern developers are usually public companies with ready access, in this age of financial deregulation, to “a wall of money”. Uh, but remind me here, who deregulated the financial markets?
Still, old cities are lovely – when they are lovely – because they grew slowly, organically, over time, and because they were governed and built by cultivated autocracies.
For them, a building wasn’t just a shed from which to do business or a sham to flog to an unsuspecting buyer, but a public face, a portrait on permanent public display. Portraits matter.
These days, even banks lease space in cheap, speculative office buildings, lavishing money on interior furnishings but ignoring the public face. Public? Where? The shopping mall is the paradigm, and for the shopping mall the public realm is no more than a perpetual source of cashed-up bipeds.
This stuff is systemic. It can’t be fixed by holding design competitions or making “design excellence” rules. Even if we could define beauty, even if we could agree on it, which we can’t, such rules still couldn’t be applied by council planners – Keating’s “only sentry at the gate” – like some sort of Renaissance code.
In the end it’s cultural, a test of cultural confidence. If we follow our insecurities and try to copy cities such as Rome or Paris we’ll end up, at best, with trashy pastiche. Our only chance of building real gumption into our city is to start responding at a poetic (as in gut) level to the intricacies of this strange place, Sydney. This gives climate crisis a (thin) silver lining. Perhaps here, at last, is the impetus we need to get off our butts and start making this town sing.
PHOTO: Bending the rules … the Lumiere on George Street in Sydney. Photo: Peter Morris