Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
What’s it to be: a flair mile or plunder down under?
For me, and possibly for you, the price of a coffee makes a useful cost-comparison between here and Paris, here and Helsinki, here and Wodonga high street. For Bankstown boy Paul Keating, the working benchmark is the price of a Zegna suit, because “that’s something I know”.
Just how many Zegna suits decorate Wodonga high street is unrecorded, even by Wiki. But it was from the safety of such a suit that Keating recently announced his takeover of the site formerly known as East Darling Harbour.
It wasn’t exactly a bloodless coup, since the occasion also marked Keating’s first known utterance of the word Barangaroo, causing blood to trickle down his chin, narrowly missing the suit. Then there were the tears of blood wept by property types as they gazed from the 10th-floor across this vast vacant waterfront, this positive invitation of a site, while the former PM vowed to lose large chunks of it, turning asphalt into ocean.
And there were the architects Thalis, Berkmeier and Irwin, who had “unanimously” won the 2005-06 international competition and thought they had the job but who say their client, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, hasn’t spoken to them for two years. Keating was a dissenting voice on the jury that picked them and now says their scheme “should never have got up but did because all the friendlies were on the committee”.
It’s been a while. Back in 2005 I wrote: “Rumours are that one PJK … has been lobbying city heavies to remove the reclamation at East Darling Harbour and reinstate the original shoreline. Unlikely, you might think, for any government to erase an asset rather than selling it.”
Unlikely, in fact, to improbable, with the usual godless alliance of bureaucracy and profiteering already stacked, Sydney-style, against memorable achievement on this site. But Keating, having cajoled, persuaded and finessed his way from spectator to minority juror to chairman of both the Public Domain and Design Review committees, is at least, at last, positioned to do it.
Make no mistake. This is huge. To have someone of Keating’s energy, flair and commitment in a position of urban design power is without precedent in Sydney. And although he has probably less than three years to get it sewn up, before the state election, it’s a never-never chance for Sydney to do something flabbergasting. What should it be?
Most discussion so far has focused on timing and money, what Keating calls “the angle not the weight”. But, in the end, neither of these will matter – any more than we care, now, about the cost overruns or late deliveries on the Opera House. All that matters now is the design cock-ups, and what they’ll cost to fix.
So, to the weight. Keating’s vision centres on a restored, pre-1788 green headland; a pair, as it were, for Mrs Macquaries Chair and partaker of his “natural constellation” of restored islands and headlands. Behind this green tip, which Bob Carr in 2005 “reserved for iconic future development”, Keating imagines something as lovely as Hickson Road’s Hungry Mile arcade, whose demolition he witnessed as a boy, and as lively as the Richard Rogers-Lend Lease scheme, with its canals, islands, jetties and pools, that he (and indeed I) favoured from the start.
All strength to his elbow. He’s going to need it, and it may already be too late. Why? Because, the model’s all wrong. Because, behind the headland, the site is already tacitly bisected by the foreshore authority’s characteristically dumb concept plan. The authority is chaired by property man Mike Collins, whose CV claims “key roles” in Sydney’s worst urban renewals – Darling Harbour and Olympic Park – and whose concept plan, not to be outdone, cites two of the world’s worst – Potzdamer Platz in Berlin and London’s Southbank – as models for Barangaroo.
To this end, the authority’s Frank Sartor-approved concept plan instates a kind of altruism cut-off line; public domain up front, where one design team will beaver away to ensure a good view for the dozen or so free-range skyscrapers to be crammed in under a separate design regime, out back. It’s neat. It’s convenient. But it amounts to that modern city scourge, use-zoning. And, if implemented, it’ll likely kill Barangaroo stone motherless dead.
Good cities, cities that surprise, inveigle and enchant, mix it up. Good cities use private buildings to define and decorate public space. Think Venice’s Piazza San Marco, Barcelona’s Placa Reial, Paris’s Place des Vosges, Rome’s Piazza Navona or New York’s Central Park; all defined by buildings just as Sydney Harbour is defined by those very headlands Keating yearns to restore.
Keating asks: “Should this site simply be plunder for the real estate industry?”
He knows the answer. Barangaroo should show Australia and the world what most of us have pretty near stopped believing; that “vibrant new city precinct” is no way a contradiction in terms.