Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Another bastard for the colonies
BARANGAROO DEBATE- WHERE THE PRIVATE AND PUBLIC INTERESTS MEET — OR CLASH
History will cast them as foes, but in fact the two designs make exactly the same mistake.
Philip Thalis’s competition-winning design, expunged from the official website as if it never existed, split the huge Barangaroo site lengthwise, giving the public a flat-as-a-pancake park along the water and putting private (built) uses inland.
Lend Lease’s politician-winning scheme goes the other way, dividing the site across, planting the southern (larger) half with a forest of towers while the northern-or-lesser half becomes a back-to-nature front lawn.
Three of Lend Lease’s towers exceed the (already expanded) height limit. Controversy is therefore expected, height being so measurable, so easy to fight over. But really, once you’re past 40, height is not the issue.
Indeed, and this was Thalis’s other error, if he’d gone 50 storeys instead of six or 10 he’d probably still be in place. Several downtown towers – including Renzo Piano’s Aurora Place and Norman Foster’s 126 Phillip Street – would be improved by another few storeys.
The real issue is deeper, less fixable, and common to both. It’s the folly of dividing public, open space from private built space – as though Sydney’s grandest project ever were just another suburban lot – when we all know that successful city precincts mix it up, using buildings to define spaces and spaces to enrich buildings.
The former prime minister Paul Keating likes to apply the Central Park simile. But Central Park’s defining trait is the way it does precisely this, shaping buildings into a sheer escarpment that creates the world’s most memorable outdoor room.
Another useful template is St Mark’s Square in Venice, where a relatively narrow public waterfront strip opens with sudden drama on to a bustling, all-but-hidden urban space. Or Valletta, where the central square is strongly internal but each end of each whitewashed street is filled with that sparkling, azure sea.
Barangaroo, in separating public grass from private commercial, does the opposite, condemning the parkland to be as godless and windswept – as undefined and hard-to-love – as Pyrmont Point Park, while the commercial precinct becomes a nine-to-five corporate dead zone.
This is a double tragedy because it is not Lend Lease’s choice but a wanton government decision, months back, to bifurcate the site for dollars, and cement the split with separate control authorities. This means that while the Lend Lease-Richard Rogers scheme was always the best, even in the 2005-06 competition it didn’t win, the city precinct that will result from their appointment can never regain anything like that original pizazz.
On the other hand, what Lend Lease has chosen – the architecture – looks pretty damn ordinary. Pretty cheap, actually, like King Street Wharf stretched tall. I’d guess it’s as close to Lord Rogers as 126 Phillip Street was to Foster. Strictly bastard children to the colonies, thanks. And as for the supposedly “natural” headland? Expect no baroque lusciousness of sandstone and angophora. Expect flat concrete, dead-look grass and a few half-hearted trees. Expect cheap.
Keating’s role here is pivotal. He helped judge the competition and now chairs both the Public Domain body controlling the front half (which is unfunded and therefore revenue-dependent on the back) and the Design Excellence Review Panel that advises on the back half. Like, what conflict of interest? Where?
This could spell disaster. Reintegration is virtually impossible and John Tabart, who redeveloped Brisbane Airport and ruined Melbourne’s Docklands, is leading the charge. The heart sinks. But there is at least one overseeing eye: Keating’s.