Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
What would Macquarie have done to make Barangaroo great?
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Should we be flattered? The Keneally administration will spend $61 million this year to spin our good opinion of them and we’re, what, meant to be thrilled that they care? They spent as much last year, but still we see them as having the collective integrity of the slime that grows in your s-bend.
Admittedly, 60 mill is a small part of the three surplus billions predicted over the next four years, but that makes worse, not better, the willful traduction of Barangaroo.
Do the math. Add the $35 million that helped wreck Homebush with dumb, filthy, financially disastrous supercars; the $271 million wasted on the dud CBD Metro (not counting compensation) and the endless rash of government-subsidised parties and festivals designed to show Melbourne we’re just as cultured as they are – including the special coloured lights on Macquarie Street that must surely be tongue-in-cheek. Cumulatively there’s more than enough to do Barangaroo properly. Several times over, if you wanted to. But that’s one big if.
What would “properly” mean? Well, since we’re on Macquarie – and no, I don’t mean the bank – we could do worse than take a leaf from his portfolio.
Macquarie was the first governor, perhaps even the first person, to treat Sydney as anything more than a sorry necessity. His belief in the place produced a range of libertarian social policies but also, more definitively, buildings. Some 265 public works are ascribed to Macquarie, including the Hyde Park Barracks, the Rum Hospital (now, aptly, Parliament), Parramatta’s Female Factory and the very lovely St Matthews at Windsor. And much as we might think of buildings as “just hardware” there are moments, like Macquarie’s, when their power as physical symbols matters hugely.
Barangaroo is another such moment. The biggest urban development in Australia for a generation, it is undermined by the same governmental miserliness that saw Macquarie sacked almost two centuries ago.
What should have happened at Barangaroo is this. First, the competition should have gone to the most vibrant design, instead of a dentist’s-waiting-room compromise.
Then, based on the winning idea and assisted by the world’s best landscape minds – today’s Olmsteads, if you will – the government should have invested $100 million or so establishing the armature of streets, lanes, canals, bridges, waterways and gardens of this future city precinct. It should have sited and commissioned the squares and institutions that would be its nuclei. Then, and only then, should it have parcelled up the remaining land for development.
Doing things in order, thus, lets you attract excellence and shape it to fit. But more than that, it lets you prioritise public over private space.
This is a figure-ground thing, like Rubin’s vase. Developers see buildings. Of course, that’s what they do. They may talk about authentic streets, public space and urban design, but for them the buildings – the dollars – are the positive. Public space cannot be other than background.
Lend Lease’s new scheme, to be lodged as a revised Concept Plan next month, does a number of good things. It establishes a consistent Paris-height street wall along the Hickson Road boulevard; it reduces four office towers to three, and separates them to allow city “view corridors” between; it transitions the heights down towards the water; it engages more closely with the water and brings more of it into the site (for example in the new weir); and it reduces new overshadowing of private dwellings to near-zero. But there are things it cannot do.
It cannot, for instance, undo the government’s mundane suburban subdivision of this astonishing city site into buildings at the back and green stuff at the front. This was no design decision but a tawdry tactic (remember the Cross City Tunnel?) to keep the whole thing cost-neutral by pre-sucking money from the development to fund the park.
The new scheme cannot remedy the absence of a program for the cultural buildings – the so-called “open house” and the waterside cultural space at the base of the hotel. Lend Lease will pay for these facilities, but to design them with no clear use in mind is a recipe for disaster. (What we should have here, of course, is not some trumped-up library, gallery or auditorium that no one wants but an opera house, one that works, built with the $700 million earmarked for Bennelong Point.)
And it cannot reprioritise the building-space relationship – cannot flip the figure-ground to make the public spaces primary and the buildings their background shapers.
Everyone wants Barangaroo to be truly memorable and vivid. The authority does. The developer does. The architect does. The public does. We don’t even have markedly different ideas of what this means. Broadly speaking, the models are agreed.
Only the government demurs. So it is sad and ironic that this is something only government can do. Indeed, I can think of no better reason to have government. Yet, as Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin notes of Sydney after the Rum Rebellion that became Macquarie’s defining moment, “the officers seemed to me … a parcel of beggars on horseback, with all the froward arrogance and vanity the term implies”.
“Alas,” replies Raffles, “there has been no improvement since.”