Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Designers’ Great Task is to green our cities
I’ve been asking my shrink why I’m so wary of writing again about Barangaroo. He blames the splatter-pattern vitriol that results. As if.
No, my real problem, I’ve decided, is with a name so ugly I can barely bring myself to let it on the page. BarangaROO. Bottom-heavy and air-headed, like a hollow-point bullet, it blows such a hole in a sentence there’s nothing but soft tissue and verb endings from here to breakfast.
So I’m digging deep, because there are bigger things at stake than mere aesthetics. The future of the species, for one.
There’s an aesthetic aspect to Barangaroo (see what I mean, there goes the sentence), although with each passing day this seems less of an issue.
Indeed, if you graphed the scheme’s blood-oxygen levels over time, they’d show a steady descent, with the occasional stockmarket freefall, all the way from that first, joyous little package that, with Martha Schwartz and the rest, first kicked its way into life back in 2007. And now the forces of dullness gather to saw off its last bit of feist, the hotel.
Reviled as a “hotel in the harbour” it was really just a decorative re-shaping of the already synthetic shoreline, a rococo sandbag against the flooding boredom. But that was its big sin. Shamelessly aggressive – individualist, thrusting, erectile – it was, OMG, male.
Steadily, just as naughty-boyness is being tut-tutted out of our primary schools, that original lively scheme has been herded, squashed, cheap-ened, detextured and deflavoured by committees, politicians, developers, protesters and tut-tutters of every stripe. Each cut has made it worse. Dull, duller, dullest.
Not that I care. Do what you like with your rotten city. It’s the world I care about. And that’s just it, really. The desperate, global need for a light on the urban hill.
Humans have been building cities for 10,000 years, give or take. And evolutionists tell us that for the last few millennia, at least, we’ve been getting smarter. But if that’s true, why are our cities getting worse?
And why are they getting worse – uglier, clumsier, cruder – just when our survival depends on their improvement?
How is city form a survival issue? It’s like this. Since an increasing majority of us now live in cities, and cities (as opposed, for example, to sprawl) are far and away the most energy, land, material and water-efficient living systems so far invented, and democracy makes this a matter of choice, cities need to be attractive. They need to be objects of desire.
This is what I call green seduction, which should be, henceforth, The Great Task of architects, urbanists and designers the world over. The professions should devote themselves to using every potion, spell and enchantment at their disposal to seduce us into living more gently on the planet.
So, indeed, should the Greens. Maybe when they grow out of just being against things and start looking for something to be for, they’ll understand that the emerald city, far from being the enemy, is the biggest gift they could give humanity.
Of which Barangaroo – damn, that word again – should be an exemplar. It’s one of the biggest and most gloriously sited urban schemes in the world at the moment. Are we seriously going to let it devolve into a clump of lowest-common-denominator office towers with a faux-natural front yard?
For some reason we think it’s just fine that governments behave exactly like cretinous developers, only with the enormous fat stores of all that lovely crown land to rampage through at will.
Of course governments value only the dollar. Of course they should cram as much as possible onto the site, as cheaply as possible, in order to squeeze as many dollars out the top as possible. Of course design flair is out of the question. Of course mediocrity is the core Australian value. We like things really, really, really boring. Obviously.
Ask Simon Mordant, the chairman of the 2013 Venice Biennale pavilion committee who insists that “we’re not looking to build something architecturally outstanding”.
What beats outstanding? Why, “something that works for the artist”, of course. Some mortgage-paying, time-keeping, law-abiding roof-and-four-walls on which to hang pictures. Some nice tilt-up shed perhaps.
As though a building couldn’t be both brilliant and workable. As though that weren’t actually the definition of architecture. As though this weren’t the first new Giardini pavilion this century, with all eyes on it. As though every second Biennale weren’t an architectural one. As though we just didn’t give a damn.
What is it about Australia that we put these people in charge? Why do we refuse the school-bully but accept the bullying of the rich? Buying art doesn’t mean you know anything about it. Most rich people are rich only because they do not waste time on any non-money stuff like scholarship, altruism or creativity; because they let no other values cloud the dollar-signs in their eyes.
Or do we actually want to come across as provincial-on-steroids? Is that it?
Ironic, really, since Australia, almost more than any other country, owes its reputation to architecture. Not for quantity, it has to be said. But for that one building. People think Australia, they think Opera House. That’s it.
We think the fifties were bad, and Askin was rotten, but if forces of dullness now controlling both Barangaroo and Venice had been running the show then, we wouldn’t even have the Opera House.
Either Bennelong Point would sport a huddle of ancient tram-sheds, in prescription heritage colours and crammed with government-funded artists’ studios churning out dull political correctness for the corporate market. Or we’d have built one of those local also-rans, something solid and square and functional, a good meat pie of an opera house. None of this fancy shell nonsense.
It might even have brilliant acoustics and a genuine, working fly-tower. But no-one would be blogging snaps of themselves in front of the four’n’twenty.
Good architecture isn’t easy, or there’d be more of it. But it does matter, now more than ever. The B-word proves it (and I’m donning that splatter-jacket … now).
Drawing: By Edd Aragon