Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Without further Barangaroo ado, here’s the chance not to stuff it up
‘You must have more splinters in your bum than anyone in journalism,” wrote Paul Keating last week after my plague-on-both-your-houses column. So I must be doing something right. Critiquing both sides might put me in the sin bin, but it doesn’t put me on the fence.
But perhaps Keating has a point. Perhaps, now that the warring parties are locked in a room, it’s time to rethink what should happen on Barangaroo, instead of just what shouldn’t.
Everyone knows what they don’t want. Keating doesn’t want rich people’s apartments. Clover doesn’t want bulky buildings. The Greens don’t want soil toxins, or anything else anthropogenic, anthropomorphic or anthropocentric. Some rich locals don’t want their sun impeded, others their view. And Australians for Sustainable Development – whose logo reads “not this at Barangaroo” – don’t want anything at all, really.
Maybe a couple of low-profile, solar-powered, communally owned cardboard boxes set in a great grassy paddock with their own light rail system? Something a bit like Canberra?
The list of Australia’s surprisingly feeble attempts to make the architectural map goes: Canberra, the Opera House, Parliament House, Barangaroo, and the stories are alarmingly similar. All were international competitions. All yielded an international architect: Griffin, Utzon, Giurgola, Rogers. All were adroitly shepherded from soaring promise to bungled mess by political and bureaucratic timidity. And all, inevitably, produced flawed results.
Yet one, against all odds, became a masterpiece. The Opera House is still the only Australian building that people cross oceans to see. What is the crucial difference?
Simply, the jury. Good juries seek the best design, and there is surprising consensus, among designers, as to what this is. But most juries here, dominated by politicians and bureaucrats, wouldn’t know best if it bit them. They’re looking for safest.
The 1911 Canberra competition was judged by one man, the minister for home affairs, King O’Malley, advised by a board of unnamed bureaucrats. Buffoon O’Malley was so sure of his own brilliance that he proceeded to cut and paste Griffin’s scheme, even after it had won. And still the city pays.
The 1979 Canberra Parliament House competition had a six-man jury; three government types (including Gareth Evans) and three professionals. But since one of these was an engineer, inserted to avoid repeating the Opera House’s buildability issues, he erred to the risk-averse, making the real balance 4:2.
And the 2005-06 Barangaroo jury was a big jury of small people. It carefully drowned its lone international architect beneath six departmental comfortables, two developers and an AO. Stage two inserted the hyper-passionate PJK into this mix, but did not improve the outcome.
In stage one, assiduously avoiding judgment, they picked one of everything – a small, hand-knitted village (Thallis Berkemeier), a bold spray of towers (Lend Lease), a bit of crazy figuralism (Thom Mayne), a modernist wedge (PTW) and a wild array of delight (Rogers).
In stage two, they premiated Thallis’s team, sacked them, shoved some of their ideas into Rogers’s mouth and married him, gagged and spitting, to Lend Lease’s towers. Ugly. Stupid, too, since what they should have copied, rather than O’Malley’s century-old mistakes, was our only successful competition, the Opera House.
The Opera House comp was blessed with a small jury of big names. And this is what enabled Saarinen to, as the anecdote goes, spot the wild imagination in the waste basket and convince his colleagues that this untame object was genius.
Of course, genius is more difficult to spread across an entire city precinct. But that should make us more determined, not less. What should happen now if, improbably, Barry O’Farrell is serious about undoing the errors?
First, they must re-heal the site, so it no longer divides between nature and culture but can benefit from the play of each against the other, as good cities do. Then they must abandon the idea of a single architect-developer designing the lot. This is death to cities.
They must rethink the development authority, since the inherent conflict between its developer and consent roles makes it prefer economic over civic values. Rather, the authority should be given a Crown land management role, while the council (or its government-controlled central Sydney planning committee) should be reinstated as consent authority.
Next, the government must establish the precinct’s civic framework; the streets and squares, coves and canals, bridges and gardens that will give it shape. I believe there should be a big park, defined by beautiful buildings and linked to the water but not on it – Central Park meets St Mark’s Square.
Only then, with the framework in place, should tenders be called for development – a block, a street, a park at a time, and leaving form relatively uncontrolled, since form is not the point. This would allow incremental growth, like a coral reef, in which the spaces shape the buildings, and the buildings in turn furnish the spaces.
This (admittedly improbable) scenario would give a world first – a contemporary, green city precinct with all the charm and urbanity of the old that people would trek here to see. It’s also our last chance to create the intensely energised and minutely explorable place, full of surprise, drama and mystery, that we deserve at Barangaroo. (Damn how I hate that name. Here, at least, Keating and I are as one.)