Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Now for the hard part: public spaces of quality not quantity
IF ARCHITECTURE were like Olympic snowboarding, and each trick rated on its degree of difficulty, what Lend Lease and Richard Rogers are attempting at Barangaroo would approach a perfect 10.
Making a new high-rise office park isn’t hard. Erecting towers, aligning levels, ensuring the water and sewage don’t run into the telecoms – that’s like falling off a log. Even the architecture, getting the skyscrapers to sing, is by comparison a breeze.
What is being attempted here – if we accept the rhetoric – is the from-scratch creation of a genuine, pulsing city precinct that knits seamlessly to the existing and convinces us all by its sheer weight and presence that, in the words of Lend Lease’s David Hutton, it’s where “real buildings hit real streets”. This is hard. So hard, in fact, that to my knowledge it’s never been done.
The attempts fall into two camps. There are those that (like Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, Barcelona’s Barceloneta or London’s Barbican) try to recreate the warmth and solidity of an old city in an entirely contemporary language. And there are those that (like London’s Paternoster Square) react to the failure of such schemes by aping the forms of history. All of them start with high hopes and, so far, all of them fail.
Sydney’s most spectacular failure is Darling Harbour, which cold-shoulders the city with dead-face buildings, encircling motorways and severed street connections. But even there, at the time, its big, driving rhetoric was populism.
Why so hard? Why does contemporary urbanism find it impossible to recapture what seemed so easy not just for traditional villages but also 19th and early 20th century cities? Midtown Manhattan wasn’t built for civic pride. It was built by commerce, for commerce; public input, zip. So, why?
The answer, simply, is economic rationalism. The user-pays era, far from undoing modernism’s disdain for all things public, reinforced it (while pretending otherwise). Darling Harbour was killed by the dead hand of Laurie Brereton and the NSW Right. So it is especially notable that Baranagaroo is being so intensively driven by our arch econo-rat, Brereton’s old mate Paul Keating, cloaked these days in naturism and historicism. And ironic, since this is public land, that we the public – users-to-be who have already paid, and handsomely – must fight again to be included in the process and respected by the product.
All players here talk of making it work for the public; not least because a commercial precinct without humans is a commercial fail. They cite London’s Canary Wharf as such a failure. But when pressed they answer with quantity of public space, not quality. So, will they do what it takes? More importantly, can they?
What it takes is a mindset inversion: real generosity towards the public realm and the unfeigned perception of public space as primary, served and embellished by the buildings that shape it (rather than vice versa).
This is inimical to a world run by bean-counters, box-tickers and bottom-line shareholders. And made harder by the fact that, while the rhetoric is in place, the track record is not.
Rogers has produced many masterplans (mostly unbuilt) but his global fame rests on buildings. Pompidou in Paris, Renault in Swindon and in London, Lloyds, the Millennium Dome and Heathrow Terminal Five. Remarkable buildings all but united in their disdain for public space. Barangaroo Delivery Authority head John Tabart comes from the Federal Airports Corporation and Melbourne Docklands – of which, ditto. Richard Johnson, now running Barangaroo north, gave us the space outside Westpac, and Canberra’s portrait gallery.
So it’s down to Paul, who presents himself as if he, landed like some kind of winged victory, were “the public” personified. The process, Keating insists, is public because he is involved. And when he describes Rogers’ red hotel as a “Colossus of Rhodes” you can’t help feeling it’s himself he sees, glorious astride the harbour.
Yet Barangaroo herself, supine beneath this daisychain of pocket-pissers, still reads as the modernist dream; a series of buildings plonked in space, rather than a series of fabulous spaces defined by their buildings. Until they can reverse this mindset, I’ll remain sceptical as to whether these old guys can change their spots, even if they want to.
THREE PHOTOS:Going where many cities before have failed … artists’ impressions of how some of the public spaces – the canal, Hickson Road (top right) and the hotel-on-a-pier – in the winning Barangaroo scheme might look.