Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
It might rhyme with kangaroo but this mishmash just won’t do
It was May 23, 1912. With the eyes of the world upon him – including those of international star architects Eliel Saarinen and Alfred Agache, who drew second and third, respectively – King O’Malley, the minister for home affairs, stood to announce Walter Burley Griffin’s win in the competition to design Canberra. “It is a wonderful design,” said O’Malley, who had appointed himself final adjudicator, “and shall make the federal city the finest in the world.”
Wonderful or not, O’Malley proudly continued, he felt no obligation to realise Griffin’s scheme but would “use all three designs if necessary … A park might be taken from one, a boulevard from another, and a public square from another”. Within weeks O’Malley, a US-born former real-estate salesman, whose “monstrously overgrown persona” was described as a mix of circus spruiker and hell-and-tarnation revivalist, had appointed a besuited departmental board to cut-and-paste Canberra into what Sir John Sulman called “a hotchpotch conglomerate”. And that is how the camel was born. Just so.
Now it is happening again. Bizarrely, the 2005 East Darling Harbour competition attracted 137 entries, precisely the same number as in the Canberra competition almost a century earlier. And there’s more. Just as the Canberra jury was dominated by departmental and institutional heads selected more for their political status and affiliations than any special design expertise, so it was with East Darling Harbour. It’s a classic politician’s trick: the board designed to achieve buy-in rather than excellence.
The Canberra plan cannibalised not only also-rans but anything it could grab. In similar spirit the East Darling Harbour scheme, approved by the minister, Frank Sartor, in February and soft-shoed by jury-member Paul Keating at the Powerhouse Museum last week, promises a porridge of hotchpotch, mishmash and willy-nilly.
East Darling Harbour, said Keating, unable or unwilling to grapple with Barangaroo, presents the “kind of opportunity Joe Cahill had at Circular Quay”. Other than climate change, it’s the biggest thing likely to happen in Sydney this century.
But what, exactly, is it? The winning architects, Hill Thalis, Paul Berkemeier and Jane Irwin, have had their lips sewn together by secrecy contracts, but their involvement is clearly tenuous in the extreme. The minister’s February approval, word-rich but drawing-poor, is dense with money talk ($1.5 billion, although the minister’s press release had it at $2.5 billion), development parameters and legalistic definitions. But no plans, no sections, no mention of architects. Indeed, the Thalis team’s only appearance, in any current document, is in the past tense. This cannot be a good sign.
So who moves into the talent spot? Why, that KGB of local bureaucracies, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, pronounced Shiffa (emphasis on the sshhhh). Keating, the other night, dutifully intercut his longstanding “let’s abandon Canberra for Sydney” fantasy with outright political apologia for East Darling Harbour and the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority in particular. Cajoling a mildly sceptical audience to “get behind” the Government on Rhymes-with-Kangaroo, he pointed out that “the process is now being managed by SHFA and the Department of Planning, so there’s a good chance something will come of it”.
There’s the rub. Something will come, but what? The foreshore authority, formed from a rude marriage of the old, ossified Darling Harbour and Sydney Cove authorities, is developer and consent authority both. As arrogant and mediocre as any faceless bunch enjoying power without accountability, the authority is a consent authority (for example, on the 670-vessel dry boat-storagefacility proposed for Rozelle) that permits no public access to meetings, minutes or decisions and a developer that delivered the deathly wastes of Darling Harbour and the tackiness of The Rocks, where tiny heritage buildings are subsidised by a bevy of towers.
Much the same “vision” has been rolled out on Rhymes-with-Roo. Last year, after the competition, the Thalis team was asked to prepare a concept plan for the authority. This, so heavily amended that the architects’ names had to be erased, was then approved, with another three pages of written (not drawn) amendments, many of them ideas from other schemes. What, if anything, can it mean?
Keating, known to have been a dissenting voice on the competition jury, did show drawings. They reinstated Millers Point “headland” as grass over car park, scooped out a bay behind, ran “low-rise” (10-storey) residential along Hickson Road and 50-storey towers at the back, all flanked by a great flying wedge of waterside grass on concrete. It didn’t look a lot like Thalis’s scheme. Then again, why would it, being the work of another architect entirely, competition runner-up, Andrew Andersons?
The also-ran that Keating should have flicked up, the one he barracked for at the time, was Lord Richard Rogers’s scheme; vivid, richly flavoured, explorable and, alone among the entries, possessing sufficient greasepaint intensity to survive the long bureaucratic haul. But governments hate excellence. Guys like Rogers – talented, articulate and globally admired – frighten the shiny suits off them. The more bully-minded the government, the more philistine the on-ground result. Look at Canberra. Even at the bastardised Opera House. And if we hadn’t embarrassed ourselves enough already on the international design-comp front, this’d do it: coming soon to East Darling Harbour, less your committee-designed camel than your blow-up, bike-riding Karangarangaroo.