Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Keating: the new bandmaster leading our mini Manhattan
It’s Keating’s show all right. Top to toe, Barangaroo is now wholly Keating’s baby. If any doubts lingered as to his paternity, Tuesday evening’s packed performance removed them, Keating carrying on like a character in his own musical. (Can over-watching yourself on stage do that to a person?).
The profession is rightly gobsmacked. How does a celebrity figure with neither training nor track record in the field, neither election or appointment, get to swagger in through the swing door and kidnap the city’s most significant urban project in 100 years? More than anything it shows what a small town Sydney still is, under the covers.
But in architecture there is a crucial distinction to be drawn between process and product. Unlike law, where process is product, or medicine, where a bad process will lead almost inevitably to a bad outcome, architecture can have the shoddiest of processes and still produce brilliance.
Conversely, you can have every box ticked, every rule obeyed, every committee minuted and still produce unutterable crud. Architecture is a by-hook-and-by-crook kind of game, where the end must justify the means. Or not.
And although the process can get right up your nose – the way they say, for instance, “we’ve made our decision so now we’re embarking on the public process” and call that transparency – in the end, none of that is really the point.
Yes, the process so far is ludicrous but, fair or unfair, it will vanish. After a few weeks or months, even the hurt feelings will be forgotten. But Barangaroo the place? That we’ll be stuck with for aeons. So in the end what matters is: is it any good?
Well, is it? The answer is yes, it has some good moments, and no (as they used to put on my school report), Could Try Harder.
I don’t have a problem with the height. It’s a city, for god’s sake, and what we’re trying to make here is a strong and vibrant downtown precinct, not a nursery school. The model is not the Cotswolds, or even Paris, but Midtown Manhattan. (We’ll come back to this).
I also don’t have a problem with building over the water. It is, after all, already a synthetic shoreline. The entire site is either reclaimed or, like the headland, flattened long ago. And since three times as much existing “land” will revert to water as vice versa, it’s less building on the water than reworking its boundary.
In this, Keating’s notorious and impassioned vilification of “the straight line” is correct. A baroque shoreline beats a modernist one any day. Moreover boldness is also to be applauded in this lily-livered age.
(Curiously, though, this foot-in-the-water move embodies precisely the same audacious spirit Keating constantly repudiates as “the sicko notion of industrial determinism” – to wit, the lovely Palisades cliff he wants to concrete over, the Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf he’d still demolish, the industrial heritage of Goat Island. This points to a diametric opposition in outlook between Keating the historicist and Richard Rogers the hardline modernist. Should make for interesting watching.)
The proposal has other virtues. Its zero-carbon status – though we’ll no doubt argue over its definition – will be a first. Being water-positive has to be a good thing, as is waste neutral. The putative 96 per cent reliance on foot, cycle and public transport is also excellent, as long as it translates into fact. And light rail, if it eventuates, will improve this further still.
But there are failures, too, as best illustrated by comparison with Lend Lease’s own chosen urban model, Midtown Manhattan.
It’s a good model because it combines unequivocal urban-ness with a relentless, irresistible joy. Just walking along 42nd St makes me laugh. Will that happen here? Barangaroo may lack the linguistic chutzpah of Midtown, but will one, in visiting, feel the sheer euphoria of the place bubble up through the soles of one’s feet?
Consider. Midtown has Times Square, the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, the Broadway theatres, Grand Central Station, the New York Public Library, the Rockefeller Centre, the Trump Tower, the Museum of Modern Art, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Seagram Building, Random House, the Waldorf Astoria, the Sony Building, The New York Times, a dozen hospitals and schools and hundreds of art galleries. Not to mention Central Park. That’s just to start.
And OK, Barangaroo is a mere fiftieth the size. But even so, we’re entitled to expect theatres, plural; libraries, schools, publishing houses, parks, hospitals, train stations, strong, no nonsense streets and, in among it all, a strewing of world-shattering architecture.
You might, for example, expect Barangaroo’s “landmark” building to be a grand public building rather than just another high-rent hotel. You might expect the involvement of exciting young Sydney architects such as Choi Ropiha, who (as it happens) recently won a prestigious American Institute of Architects Honour Award for their gorgeous TKTS booth in Times Square and its transformational effect on the Midtown precinct.
Instead, what do we get? We get, from the same gang of grey-haired white men, one scarcely defined “cultural building,” aka Richard Francis-Jones’s “Open House”, and one “library or mediatheque” slung (invisibly, so one must take its existence on trust) under the belly of the red, wet-foot hotel. You want culture, that’s your lot.
There are few real streets and as for the architecture, although Keating promises it’ll be “nothing like Singapore, Tupperware city” his assurance alone reminds you that, right now, you’d hardly know the difference.
The two driving egos here – the two driving passions – are Keating and Rogers. That they occupy opposing design camps may signify less than whether they can recapture the larrikin spirit of Rogers’s initial runner-up scheme. Keating championed it then, only not hard enough. Will he come good this time? History will be the judge.