Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Subsection: Arts & Entertainment
DESIGN – Architecture
There’s plenty of good, bad and ugly in Sydney and Melbourne, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
The Sydney-Melbourne culture war has always been a rather see-saw affair. Sydney was born first, yes, but only by a whisker, enough to intensify the rivalry but not ensure dominance. Melbourne grew rich first, Sydney megalopolised first (but so fast it put crassness in culture’s place). Melbourne, perhaps in consequence, was first to cultivate itself, husbanding its future byre-invoking its past.
For decades now, Melbourne has been ascendant. Adopting the pluralist, historicist values of the post-modern age, Melbourne has, since the 1980s, enjoyed a string of firsts. It was first to appreciate its heritage (in time to preserve the tracery of lanes, arcades and trams that Sydney so energetically trashed); first to embrace urban design; first to return residents to the city centre; first to loosen its liquor laws; first to promote small bars, cabarets, live music and poetry; first to encourage street culture, pedestrianism and small-footprint development; first to implement six-star sustainability; first to own the “design city” brand; first to understand itself as a living organism whose core economic task is to entice and enchant the citizenry.
Sydneysiders have envied this. But now, it seems, the see may be sawing again. Just as Sydney comes belatedly to copy Melbourne’s habits of urban enchantment, Melbourne starts to emulate Sydney; intent, it seems, on repeating some of its worst mistakes.
How weird is that?
Of course, crossover is not new. Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness made Sydney the “unconstituted capital of Australian popular culture … [where] the Australian ugliness is bigger and better” than anywhere else. Boyd’s primary target was “featurism”, a kind of built euphemism, the “fear of reality” that later came to be called “kitsch” (Kundera’s “denial of shit”) and later still became beloved as googie or gonzo or mid-century modern architecture.
Boyd was the design equivalent of that other high-born Melburnian, Barry Humphries, both critiquing the post-war prettification that blanketed the world under a tea-with-the-vicar test of acceptability. Featurism was the denial of ordinariness, of truth. Its shining exemplar, Boyd argued, with its “fake”, non-structural stone towers, was the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
But Boyd’s influence, for all that, is limited. Now, 50 years on, it could perhaps be said that Sydney is pursuing Boyd’s idea of disciplined undecoration. Melbourne has made a global reputation by flouting it.
Where Sydney’s architecture peaks here and there at a certain classic simplicity (such as DCM’s Governor Phillip Tower or FJMT’s Surry Hills library), but mostly settles for cheap and nasty or plain cheap, Melbourne’s has for 30 years delighted in precisely that wanton decorativeness – that joyous, feckless ugliness – that Boyd deplored.
Edmond+Corrigan started it with its striped, flowered, spotted and checked buildings but the tradition has become an identifiable Melbourne look of coloured shapes, stuck-on bits and bold mega-graphics of random derivation.
This wild affect may seem to sit uneasily with the collegiality that urbanism implies but the tension between the two is probably the key to its success. Consider the way McBride Charles Ryan’s Monaco House seems to erupt out of its starched and narrow lane just metres from the Melbourne Club, bubbling convexly above street level and concavely at it, punching a crumpled cave of conviviality into the street wall. Neither would work half so well without the other: the strictures of the grid and the architecture’s spot-effervescence are mutually invigorating.
But designing – and design in – new city precincts is a different deal. Again, Sydney was first in, with the expedited and expedient disaster that is Darling Harbour. There the primitive icon-in-a-sea-of-paving model (aka “the dog turd model”) of city planning that was anachronistic even in the 1980s, sprang from the same modernist dogma to which Sydney design clung.
At the time Melbourne seemed significantly wiser, casting a net of carefully designed height limits across its city centre to preserve the fine grain, the laneways, the pedestrian scale. Even in its first post-industrial mega-development, Southbank, a decade later, a certain wisdom was discernible.
There, rather than establish a mono-use “leisure precinct” (that old modernist zoning habit that is the planning equivalent of featurism) as Sydney had at Darling Harbour, Melbourne encouraged an admixture of real uses – work, for instance, and living – fed by a network of real streets. There was the trashy casino but at least its architecture attempted some sort of public space-making and although the precinct didn’t quite engage with the Yarra, it did at least recognise the river’s existence for the first time in Melbourne history.
But then things started to twist around. In the ’90s, Sydney extended Darling Harbour to Cockle Bay’s more of the same and King Street Wharf, which tried for something a bit different. Although insulting its fabulous harbourside site with a dump-lot of cheap office-parkitecture, King Street Wharf got two things right: it established a working street grid so that the precinct wasn’t oxygen-starved from birth, Darling Harbour-style; and it had a go, with its restaurants and boardwalks, at harbourside feel. Perhaps Sydney was learning.
Melbourne, not to be outdone, embarked on its very own vast, inner-city rustbelt rehash at Docklands. What a fascinating tale of compounding errors. First, the development authority: from London’s Docklands to Darling Harbour and Redfern they are a recipe for disaster, with the extra irony that their econo-rat approach, in prioritising commerce over enchantment (and being incapable of the latter), destroys even the long-term economic life of its progeny.
Melbourne Docklands seemed hell-bent on copying Darling Harbour: the disdain of roads, vast and joyless expanse of paving, massive water setbacks, the tacky, outsized buildings, the obliteration of anything old or real, seemed designed to preclude the kind of charisma that might pull people past the mental hurdle of getting there.
At Docklands, Melbourne architects gaily applied the same overtly meretricious aesthetic that did them so proud in the brown city. Only here, set into this dowdy, dopey dog-turd plan, it has all the charm of Vegas in daylight, sans people. Even in a midweek lunch bustle you can hear the saloon door creaking. Melbourne is unpicking its 1980s small-bar legislation as Sydney is copying it. Why? Because, inter alia, those much-vaunted city residents morph into dangerous nimbys the moment they arrive and politicians are, after all, politicians.
Now, with the ill-named Barangaroo, the ball is back in Sydney’s court. The Roo is the biggest single development this country has seen. At last, we should expect the cumulative wisdom of decades; a built coral reef where people can fish or phish, canoe or canoodle, sell dope or derivatives, make millions, love, hay or false promises, underwrite, undersell or undermine. A city.
We should expect a place where bars and cafes and queer little shops hang off the seawall like oysters, where every building and street engages intensively with the water or avoids it, where the natural drama of the place is taken up by cultural drama and amplified, and use grows upon use until the place is encrusted with life. Could Sydney build this, Melbourne must eat its cultural hat.
But despite the right noises – places for people, active streets, engaging the water, mixed use – the entrails look bad. Exhibit one: the development authority, run by the man who presided over Melbourne’s Docklands and whose first move has been to impose a 50-metre set-back from water’s edge designed to prohibit romance or drama, which alone will be enough to kill the development stone motherless dead.
Repeat after me: I am in the slow-learner’s club.
THREE PHOTOS: Punchy .. Monaco House, Melbourne, a crumpled cave of conviviality. Classic simplicity … (above from left) Governor Phillip Tower; Surry Hills library. Photo: John Collings Photo: Andrew Chung