Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: News Review
Bring on drama and boldness
As a partner to Bennelong and the Opera House, Barangaroo should be brilliant, but it’s way too polite, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
One night in August, as Clover Moore was given a standing ovation by several hundred cyclists outside the Town Hall, she was all but booed off the stage by a similar number of Barangaroo protesters inside. Why? For choosing to be “in the tent” on a development over which she has no formal control, compromising herself in hope of improving the outcome.
Now, after relentless criticism from the Greens, the National Trust, and council colleagues, the lord mayor has resigned from the Barangaroo Delivery Authority, citing persistent breaches of the transparency and consultation principles that have shaped her political career. Was she right? Is the process that bad? Or is her string being jerked, as the Premier says, by internal council politics? Should she have stuck with a flawed process to improve the end product?
Depending on where you sit, Barangaroo is either “gross overdevelopment” or the most exciting project this century, capable of making Sydney the financial hub of the southern hemisphere. Either way, as perhaps the biggest single development on the planet just now, we need to get it right. So it is good that we debate, passionately – but bad that it didn’t happen five years back, when it could actually have made a difference. It’s worth remembering two crucial facts. One, that cities are made, not found; they are fundamentally culture, not nature. Two, that city-building is one area where the end must justify the means. Process does not equal product. Paris is the obvious example; tyrannical process, beautiful product. Equally the process may be flawless but the product a committee-designed camel.
It’s the product that matters, since that’s what persists, so a “whatever it takes” approach may be justified – if and only if the product is good. On Barangaroo the product should be better than good. As a partner to Bennelong, and his Opera House, Barangaroo should be brilliant. Are we up to it?
The closest recent analogy is East Circular Quay, aka the Toaster. There, a nightmarish process bequeathed a product that has become (at colonnade level) one of Sydney’s most beloved hedonic zones.
Many of the same individuals are involved in Barangaroo, but the roles are new. Paul Keating was prime minister then, Napoleonic ruler now. Andrew Andersons, in both cases, is the developer’s architect (now with Richard Rogers on top). Greg Deas was the city’s main bureaucrat (a role now played by architect Graham Jahn), and is a Lend Lease principal on the case. John McInerney was city planner and is now, as councillor, lead protester.
I, as councillor and the city’s representative on the East Circular Quay control group, was then in Clover’s shoes – striving for influence without power (and pilloried on the front page of this very paper for my pains). Then, as now, there was much talk of ideal scenarios. How lovely to have a magnificent garden, or an artists’ colony. But these were fantasies, blind to existing consents that, as a fallback significantly worse than the proposal, gave the developer a strong hand indeed.
There are differences: East Circular Quay was private land (fronted by public road, giving the city leverage as owner) whereas Barangaroo is government-owned. Jurisdictionally, while East Circular Quay came under the relatively weak Central Sydney Planning Committee, Barangaroo has its own development control authority. Both these things should bode well for Barangaroo, giving the government as much control as it could wish, but so far there is little sign that it is acting in our interest.
At East Circular Quay, as at Barangaroo, there was voluble public protest but so over-emotional and under-informed that it could never have been effective, even had it not emerged so late that decisions were irrevocably made and precedents irrevocably set.
On Barangaroo, the two main protest groups are Friends of Barangaroo (FOB) and Barangaroo Action Group (BAG). FOB, being politician-led (by Clover’s colleagues Marcelle Hoff and John McInerney), makes most of the noise and is at least genuinely interested in planning Sydney. BAG, being mainly disaffected residents, seems largely self-interested but has most of the money.
Over time the FOB-BAG rallies are losing steam, but it is still worth examining their points. Many of these (transparency, developer competition, council control) relate to process. The rest, about half, are about product – excessive density, “design excellence”, city integration, compliance with the 2030 vision, retention of “maritime links” and continuous foreshore promenade – but so loosely framed that even the protagonists cannot say how they would define success.
Accusations fly thick and fast. FOB leader McInerney insists that Paul Keating is in Lend Lease’s pay; that he pressured the original design jury towards the Richard Rogers Lend Lease scheme then “spent the next three years subverting the Thalis scheme”. Keating denies it (“I’m in this for the L-O-V-E of it.”) But there’s actually no reason why, as juror, he shouldn’t champion his preferred scheme and I was surprised he didn’t push harder at the time. It is said that Lend Lease has been “silencing” Sydney’s design professions. “This is how they work,” say some, by getting the professions’ key people on their payroll. But most of the “key people” involved (like architect Keith Cottier and landscape architect Oi Choong) are advising the Barangaroo Delivery Authority, not Lend Lease, and although the head of the authority, John Tabart, is ex-Lend Lease, there is no evidence he favours them unduly.
There is a lingering sense that Hill Thalis, the competition winners, were badly treated (true), that Keating has no right to run the show (true) and that there is something sleazy about the “tram-flap” proposal to take fill from the southern (Lend Lease site) to build up Point Keating in the north – even to the point of suggesting this is where Keating’s headland proposal came from (false).
There are fears that Lend Lease will immediately convert the waterside hotel to residential (in fact, they’ve signed an agreement prohibiting this) and threats from FOB and BAG to litigate on the basis of soil contamination. (The toxins are real, but Lend Lease is already contracted to clean the entire site permanently). But that’s all process stuff, of strictly interim significance. And yet there’s one aspect of process that, although it will deeply scar the product, is largely ignored by the protesters.
It was a string of decisions. First, choosing the “development control authority” model that had already wrecked docklands from London to Melbourne and was widely discredited for its gung-ho approach and shameless conflict of interest. At Darling Harbour, this model had produced a precinct-wide dissociative personality disorder. At The Rocks, it flanked our loveliest historic district with a bunch of third-rate towers. Bad enough. But at Barangaroo the problem is amplified by continuing government determination that the entire development should be “cost-neutral”.
Add this demand to an authority already conflicted (as owner and planner, both, with negligible transparency obligations) and it’s real vampire-in-charge-of-the-blood-bank stuff. Next came the decision to abandon the original mixed-use idea and instead bifurcate the site, demanding that the south-end towers (Lend Lease) fund the north-end park (Keating). The bigger Point Keating, the higher the towers. One residents’ solution is to get rid of Point Keating and so shrink the towers. But this seems unduly timid. We should surely strive for brilliance north and south, in nature and culture. But the separation of the two makes it that much harder to achieve. On the headland, Keating has employed the US landscape guru, Peter Walker, to produce a scheme surprisingly similar to Romaldo Giurgola’s Canberra Parliament House.
Like Giurgola’s Parliament, Walker’s headland is a grass-covered faux-natural mound that hides an underground car park and a building (in this case, a 20,000 square metre indigenous museum) that seems afraid to show its face. Worse – much worse – it destroys one of the site’s loveliest features, the heroic sandstone scarp. An indigenous museum is way overdue, but why hide it? We should demand a work so bold, stylish and subtle in its nature-culture play that we cannot not show it off; a building like Rodrigo Cervino Lopez’s Galeria Adriana Varejao in Brazil, Emilio Ambasz’s Asian Crossroads hall in Fukuoka, or Luis Barragan’s Los Clubes in Mexico City.
As to the southern site, yes, the proposed towers are taller than they were, but even under the new proposal, Lend Lease’s tallest tower, 209 metres above sea level, is only two-thirds the height of, say, New York’s 1939 Chrysler Building, now so little and sweet in context, and only a quarter of the world’s tallest, the 818-metre Burj Dubai. So we’re not talking tall buildings. Even Sydney already has a half-dozen higher. The much maligned water-footed hotel is a mere 170 metres.
But, you say, this is different. It’s harbour. The city grumbles at the breach of the low-rise policy that produced the seriously tacky King Street Wharf but elsewhere, as at Goldfields House, Circular Quay, it advocates doubling the existing height limit to 200 metres. Where’s the consistency in that?
And there’s this. Barangaroo is the downtown of a supposedly global city. It’s not Surry Hills, or Watsons Bay or Glebe. If there’s any proper place in Sydney for towers, for large floorplate financial district development, this is surely it. As to harbour sacredness, remember that this particular water’s edge is 100 per cent man-made so rearranging it – bringing water into the site – could hardly matter less.
Most objectors want to scrap the lot and start again, but the compensation payable makes this unrealistic. More plausible would be to reduce the number of Lend Lease towers – but possibly increase their height – while reintegrating the northern two-thirds of the site as a genuine “pocket-park” precinct where buildings and spaces shape each other. Perhaps the entire development should have its feet in the water, and all travel by gondola. Perhaps the footpaths themselves should be tidal, the buildings traversable, and the old MSB tower a great landmark work, painted in traditional lighthouse stripes and topped with a sculptural tide-indicator. Certainly the sandstone cliff should remain, pocked with wine bars like birds’ nests and gloriously accessible.
When Walsh Bay struck an intellectual log-jam French architect Philippe Robert was summoned to provide, retrospectively, the lovely shoreline sweep that became its saving spatial idea. That may not be the key here, but one thing’s for sure. Already Barangaroo is way too polite. What’s needed is not less boldness but more. Drama. Courage. Audacity. Bring it on.
A chequered history
2003 to 2004
Preliminary investigations into the development of the site begin.
Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects, Paul Berkemeier Architects and Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture win first place in the design competition.
Concept plan based loosely on winning design submitted.
Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority lodged a modification, increasing the floorspace by 120,000 sq m.
A third modification of the concept plan.
Lend Lease named preferred tenderer.
Kristina Keneally announces she will assume control.
THREE PHOTOS: Give us breath-taking audacity … an artist’s impression of Barangaroo, the exciting Asian Crossroads hall in Fukuoka, left, and Los Clubes in Mexico City. Main picture: Lend Lease