Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: News Review
How could Sydney get it so wrong?
WE COULD HAVE HAD THIS …BUT WE GOT THIS BUT WE GOT THIS
We can boast about our harbour and beaches, but Melbourne leaves Sydney high and dry when it comes to building a beautiful city. Elizabeth Farrelly reckons we have been too reckless in our planning.
WHY is Sydney ugly? Not that it is ugly, of course, being tirelessly bailed out by the energy and grandeur of God’s canvas: by its sparkling light, exuberant botany, seductive topography, glorious harbour and incomparable climate; by its grand old figs with ink-blot shadows, its gnarled angophoras on honey-coloured stone, its rumpled, asphalt dune-burbs and its freshly salted air.
But enough of the superlatives.
Humanity’s contribution to this extraordinary artwork has had some fine moments, to be sure. But after the Opera House, they look increasingly few and meagre on so grand a canvas. Why is this? And why does it matter? We may cringe every time a former prime minister has a spray about aesthetics, every time Melbourne beats us in the architecture awards, every time a Sydney-Melbourne comparison tells us we’re crass and superficial. But is it true? Do we really care? And if so, what can be done about it?
Sydney, as the cliche goes, is a collection of villages. Paddington, Auburn, Cabramatta, Turramurra, Parramatta, Dee Why, Sans Souci; each with its own melange of flavours and colours. Most cities fit the model, more or less. But Sydney’s agglomerative nature is emphasised by a perennial failure; not a failure to plan, but to make plans stick.
One such failure, as Oscar Wilde might have said, could be regarded as a misfortune. But to trash your own city plans repeatedly over more than six decades looks a lot like carelessness. Looks, in fact, like culture. Expecting Sydney to take planning seriously is like expecting Henry Lawson to take a steady job. Improbable at best; at worst, downright destructive.
But is Sydney’s waywardness on the planning front a failing, or a virtue? A director-general of state planning once took an idealistic city councillor to the window of her 10th-storey office, gestured over the the CBD and said: “There. It’s never been planned, and isn’t it marvellous?”
In some ways, it is. Most of us wouldn’t live anywhere else, except maybe Manhattan.
In truth, though, Sydney, has let us down in recent years. Or have we let Sydney down? Maybe we’ve let ourselves down. As the air gets grubbier, the traffic more snarled and the developments progressively tackier, more uniform and more domineering; as both downtown and its great spreading suburban mat become still more achingly dull, we are forced to ask ourselves: has Sydney lost its edge?
Comparisons are odious, but that’s why they’re fun. And the ancient Sydney-Melbourne rivalry is one in which Sydney increasingly comes off worse. In the 19th century, Melbourne was richer, smarter, bigger than Sydney, and quicker off the rank in the tall buildings race. Then, through most of the 20th century, Sydney took the lead. Sydney remains bigger but Melbourne makes the running, not just in comedy and fashion but also in terms of urban design and architecture and, more importantly, in that indefinable chutzpah that makes cities hum.
Beauty’s not quite the right word. Some cities are beautiful: St Petersburg, Dubrovnik, Barcelona. But even there beauty is not a strictly visual quality. In cities, as in people, beauty is as much about content as form, and derives largely from the interaction between the two, from the way people and cultures interact with their city fabric and, through it, with nature.
In Siena in Italy or Valletta in Malta, beauty is not just in the towns themselves, the physical artefacts, though these are undeniably lovely. It’s in the way people shop, celebrate and siesta; the way they open the shutters at dawn and close them at midday; the way they gather at dusk in the town square or promenade along the main street or chase bulls around the square; the way the stones of the city, in emerging from the ground, seem to bring people under the wing of Mother Earth herself.
In Manhattan, on the other hand, the seduction arises from contradictions. The contradiction between the old-Europe feel and the rigid Enlightenment grid; between the soaring skyscrapers and the tiny friable temples of the financial district; between all that naked, eight-lane aggression and the irresistible street humour of the ‘hood.
In Sydney, our failure is less in making things pretty or neat, as planners like it, than in cultivating a place that responds intricately and texturally either to us, as humans, or to our ancient island home.
Cities are tools. Like that first bone in the hand of the ape, they are an – perhaps the – essential tool in shaping our engagement with nature. As modifications of the Earth’s crust, they are designed not just around individuals but around the extraordinary social and material complexities of the hive. Cities must modify and use place in order to accommodate and modify people.
Good cities are therefore richly textured, intensely energised and minutely explorable. Designed to engage our imaginations as well as our feet and wallets, they offer secrets and surprises, dungeons and attics, mystery and risk. Cities give shelter to eccentricities of all kinds, cloaking difference in the protection of anonymity; they offer the magic of unimagined worlds and the adventure of discovery.
Sydney had some of this, once. There are remnants: the secret back streets of Surry Hills, for instance, the balance of order and chaos that is Paddington, the dank gorgeousness of the Argyle Cut and the whole-earth nuttiness of Glebe Point Road. There are things you’d cry for, were Sydney obliterated by a weapon of mass destruction.
But after 50 years with a shiny, voguish self-image, 50 years of consciously erasing every dark corner and re-entrant laneway, every nook and bohemian cranny, every dimple and smile line, Sydney has Botoxed away much of its own character.
For 20 years or so, mid-century, it was even council policy. Developers were required to do their bit towards obliterating laneways, often being forced to acquire them in order to give Sydney the perfect, wrinkle-free visage. Harry Seidler’s Australia Square was an early example, erasing a dozen or more laneways.
And his MLC Centre became one of the most ironic in rinsing away that gem-encrusted strip of avant-garde milliners, Jewish bohemia and smoke-filled coffee-houses that was Rowe Street in the first half of the 20th century.
We look at those times and laugh, in derision or despair. But it’s still happening. Compare the streets of Kings Cross now with 20 or even 10 years ago: gentrified beyond recognition, cleansed and paved and lit and supervised until only the Coke sign reminds us that Sydney ever had a red light district worth the name.
As to why this has happened, nine hypotheses spring to mind.
First is the convict stain. In the first 10 years of the colony, our forebears almost starved to death, so determined were they not to eat fish like the blacks, nor to plant in spring as the seasons taught, but to do it in April, just like home. Again, we think we’ve changed. But recent news clips of white bureaucrats trying to teach Central Australian Aboriginal stockmen to farm cattle on cracked, red earth (rather than understanding, for instance, how to farm the soft-footed kangaroo) suggest we have understood surprisingly little in two centuries of habitation. Are we still, perhaps, atavistically unable to learn the lessons of place, preferring to take our models from the glossy magazines that are the design-equivalent of Playboy?
Second is the place itself, especially the climate. Culture, arguably, is our best defence against nature; so the most vibrant and interesting cultures often arise in the least comfortable natural environments. Interesting indoor activity is a survival issue in drizzly Melbourne, whereas in sunny Sydney another prawn on the barbie will usually suffice. Thus, Paris is more civilised than Marseilles and Copenhagen than, say, Honiara. There are holes in this theory – the civilisations of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome among them. But it has its adherents.
The third hypothesis is that Melbourne was planned, at least to the extent of having a central riverside grid, while Sydney, a classic goat-track town, was not. Governor Arthur Phillip may have talked boulevards but no one took him seriously, as Sydney’s crazed, Dickensian alley system attests. In fact, though, this should work the other way. Modern planning approached cities as a four-year-old approaches dinner: separating all colours and textures, refusing the richness of mingling. Sydney’s narrow street web should make it more picturesque (as, for example, in London or New York), not less.
Fourth is a more recent explanation. Sydney resisted the skyscraper for so long – until 1957 – and succumbed, when it did, with such enthusiasm, that modernism’s violence had exaggerated effect. No one thought twice about obliterating heritage buildings for skyscrapers, or ancient suburbs for road reserves. Laneways were considered a liability, not an asset, and the only scale that interested anyone was big or bigger. Melbourne, by contrast, protected its laneways and arcades throughout the high-modern period with height limits. This simple device, in capping property values, also capped the pressure to demolish and acted as de facto heritage legislation. This could help explain Sydney’s persistent devotion to those cool-to-austere modernist styles while the rest of the world has moved along, and so explain some of the creeping conformity of design visible, well, everywhere.
Fifth is an update on theory three; namely, that what Sydney needs is a proper metropolitan government and a proper citywide plan, and then things could get sorted. Buildings would start to be beautiful, streets would flow and buses would run on time. In fact, the evidence is thin. Planners are always beholden to politicians and politicians notoriously grease the biggest, squeakiest wheels.
Sixth, conversely, is that Sydney is over-governed. That being home to the State Government, as well as the city council, is a recipe for constant war and means nothing happens, properly at least. The 1990s proposal to demolish the Cahill Expressway is a case in point, where squabbling between the tiers meant nothing happened. Melbourne, though, offers a counter-example to this hypothesis, being every bit as governed as Sydney.
Seventh is that Sydney has too much money for taste or cultivation. This is partly plausible, although wealthy cities such as Chicago offer strong counter-examples.
Hypothesis Eight, conversely, is that there is too little money – too little devoted, anyway, to the public realm. Melbourne has much more, much better, public art than we have, and a much stronger sense of the value of public space. (Bear in mind though that the arcades we love so much are largely private; no different in principle from the loathsome shopping mall, but so different in feel.)
And ninth is that Sydney – perhaps for all these reasons – is simply too crass, too hedonistic, too selfish and too actively anti-cultural ever to accumulate a decent layer of cultural humus.
In fact, the truth is probably an amalgam: that our reluctance to be here in the first place, and our understandable resentment of authority, led to a refusal of planning in any form; a failure to conceptualise any kind of public realm, physical or otherwise; and an excessive emphasis on private wealth and property, still the defining dinner party subject of our time. This, in turn, exaggerated our susceptibility to modernism, especially when we finally recognised its appeal as being more hip-pocket than aesthetic, and helps explain our perpetual peasant-headed crassness. It also led to Sydney’s extraordinary conservatism with regard to all things cultural.
And this, is our worst sin. Not that we make things ugly, but that we barely venture out of our shells of conformist self-concern to make things that are unusual or place-specific at all. And this is the biggest difference between Melbourne and Sydney. Not the grid, not heritage, not laneways, not climate, but Sydney’s sheer cultural timidity – from fashion to cafes and from public art to architecture – compared with Melbourne’s cultural courage.
It’s not a lot of courage; just enough to resist, a little, the overwhelming pressure of the big city-shaping forces (the development lobby, the roads lobby, the liquor lobby and political correctness) in order to let smaller, wilder, more interesting things happen. If beauty is as much spiritual as visual, this is the source of Melbourne’s beauty, its sense of intelligent, historically aware, adventure.
Melbourne has a tradition of daring to care about culture. Care as in pay. In the 1970s, an alliance between the city architect David Yencken and the planning minister Evan Walker not only engendered the crucial height limit over the central grid, but established cultural values as real; real enough to hold their own, in legislation if need be, against market forces. This began an urban design tradition that Melbourne has sustained, including Rob Adams’s 20-year tenure as principal urban design strategist with bite, as well as bark.
Nothing like it has ever happened in Sydney. Even as we lament our ordinariness, our elected representatives are busy distorting every statute enacted to protect heritage, wilderness, endangered species, the public realm or the public voice. Nothing is sacred; everything is for sale. We’re richer than ever and yet, in the name of economy, we sacrifice our most intimate, hard-won values without a second thought.
It’s not that Melbourne architects, or their works, are better than ours. Melbourne architecture has high points, like Nonda Katsalidis’s Ian Potter Gallery and his 1999 Republic apartments. Or like the great, winged Melbourne Museum by Denton Corker Marshall, and the same firm’s Melbourne Gateway, the towering red sticks that give such a sense of adventure and arrival on the road from Tullamarine.
Some Melbourne architecture is more bold than brilliant, like Peter Corrigan’s RMIT Building 8 on Swanston Street and Ashton Raggatt MacDougall’s nearby Storey Hall.
Some is downright disappointing, like the underbaked and overdressed Federation Square and much of Melbourne Docklands. But they had a go. You have to give them that.
No, what’s really disturbing about most recent Sydney development is not its ugliness but its extraordinary, heavy-handed, unnecessary dullness.
A trip to the new land releases on Sydney’s western frontiers offers a depressing example. From the tight and leafy inner suburbs, mostly 19th-century speculative developments, you move through Sydney’s growth rings, the houses getting bigger and the lots barer until vast expanses of concrete tiles, eave-to-shrunken-eave over the fences show you’ve hit the frontier. Pockets of tall, straight gums, as dry and unadorned as the diggers they recall, stand as mementos. But in the pitiless, shadeless new suburbs nothing green rises above ground height.
Ugly? Sure. But it’s an inner ugliness that is most disturbing; a defiant finger that our new suburbs shove up at the environment. As if, nothing learnt, we’re still trying to plant in April, daring nature to take us out.
First, every shade-giving or soil-holding tree is removed, the topsoil scraped off and sold. Next come the heat-absorbing hectares of concrete or clay tiles, held up on hot bricks and aluminium-framed windows that sit unshaded in sun-baked walls, like lidless eyes staked in the desert. The windows cannot be opened because the neighbours’ domestic disputes are so in-your-face, and the house is so hot that the air-conditioning runs day and night. Each house is surrounded by water-needy grass whose only purpose, since children never stray so far from the computer, is to separate houses, ensuring public transport can never be viable.
If you had to design a living pattern to screw the environment in the fastest, most tasteless way possible, this would be it.
Then there’s the thriving, hustling metropolis, where every opportunity to show intelligence or courage or (God forbid) altruism is mowed under the determined asphalt of commercial tackiness. Take the huge Carlton & United Breweries site on Broadway. Take Homebush and Rhodes Peninsula, spewing dioxins into the upper atmosphere in order to roll out more third-rate housing. Take Botany Bay, or Cooks Cove, or Green Square, or the vast tackiness spreading up and down the poor old Parramatta River. Take East Darling Harbour, our chance for a real flagship of eco-design, right at our ceremonial front door, now set to become more bottom-line junk, like King Street Wharf, only more, bigger, glassier. Most of them were, or are, Government land; all offered the opportunity for real social and cultural play. What do we get? More of the same.
This is a waste and a belittlement. A waste of our energies, as a city, and a belittlement of our intelligence and enterprise. To a large extent it is driven by the narrowness of our politicians, who talk tough but timidly follow the do-nothing-stay-in-power model of government perfected by Bob Carr and John Howard and become more philistine by the moment.
Blaming pollies is too easy. They’re elected, and we elect them. If we wanted to make city-shaping issues into electoral ones, we could. We only have to be sceptical when they talk about conflict between the environment and job creation, and wonder how many jobs we’ll have when the air turns to soup and the water laps at our doorstep. We only have to put our votes where our mouths are. We only have to find courage, take the risk, want to – enough.
NINE PHOTOS: LANEWAYS, Dining in Melbourne’s hidden gems, above, and among Sydney’s concrete. Photos: Rodger Cummings, Steve BaccoDOCKLANDSWinning ways … the Webb Bridge in Melbourne’s redeveloped docks area. Photo: Simon O’Dwyer RHODES Future shock … the emerging suburb on the Parramatta River. Photo: Steven Siewert. BOULEVARDS Rush-hour views … the leafy expanse of Melbourne’s St Kilda Road is always going to be preferable to the ugliness of Parramatta Road. Photos: Wayne Taylor, Ben Rushton SUBURBIA Uniform and domineering … the great spreading mat becomes achingly dull. Photo: Jon Reid