Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Bad dreams of a front lawn for a 50-storey office park
Yesterday’s Barangaroo announcement was not in fact, as The Daily Telegraph gushed in its “exclusive”, a “final approval for one of the world’s unique city parklands.” Indeed, it was barely an announcement at all. Barring a few media releases, nothing has been approved on the site since Frank Sartor ticked the concept plan almost exactly two years ago.
What happened yesterday was amendments to this plan – developed last year by Paul Keating, flattened in November by Kristina Keneally’s new Barangaroo Delivery Authority bombshell, frantically resuscitated by Keating over Christmas and readopted in January by the new authority – were finally put on exhibition for a one-month statutory period. Like Sharon Stone’s knickers, the proposal contains nothing we haven’t already seen. But the formal, public process has commenced.
What does it signify? Politics, for a start. And probably politics for a finish. The Clayton’s announcement yesterday gave Keating an always welcome chance to strut his stuff and Keneally an opportunity to look like she’s helping the economy. Get a few cranes going and all that. As the Tele obligingly noted, the development is “expected to generate 58,000 new jobs by 2031”. In fact, that is not the case.
Even if Keating’s concept is approved, which could happen – or not – any time after March, there’s no money to build it. Keneally used the very same breath with which she created the new authority last year to suck the parkland’s $175 million from the mini-budget, citing Sydney’s “health and transport” needs. You will have noticed how dramatically these portfolios have improved in the interim.
As for the 58,000 jobs, they’re not construction, kick-start-the-economy jobs. They’re high-end, white-collar office jobs of the kind fast disappearing up their own water cooler. Such jobs are not created by buildings, it works the other way round – the jobs come first, then the offices.
And there’s the rub. Most of the big developers in town – Lend Lease, Multiplex, Mirvac, Leightons and Macquarie Property – are shortlisted for the $25-billion office-tower development on the southern half of the Barangaroo site. Most, indeed, are hanging out for it, there being nothing else on the books. But there’s no sign it’ll happen any time soon.
The GFC has attacked from both ends – drying up global development funding even as it decimates office demand. Keneally’s failure to sweeten the development by delivering the parkland ahead of time, thus creating jobs as well as amenities, is just the final nail.
Keating is not your typical pollie. “I’m not in the consensus business,” he fumed in December. “F–k consensus. I’m in the conflict business.” But if yesterday’s announcement represents any kind of Keating victory, it’s a pyrrhic one – since, as Keating also notes, “Rees is now sitting where Davis Hughes sat.”
The parallel is obvious. We’ve had our big international competition on this site. We had our world-class entries. And although the best scheme didn’t win – there being no Eero Saarinen to pluck Richard Rogers’s proposal from the bin – that could still happen.
Keating, chief juror, favoured Rogers’s scheme. He favours it still. But, while he’s no typical politician, he took a politician’s path. Refusing to issue a dissenting report he chose instead to beaver away in the backrooms and fluoro corridors of the NSW Right. And the result? Well, it’s a political result.
It’s a form of hubris, probably. Just as, in 1912, King O’Malley cut-and-pasted his favourite competition entries to make the Canberra Plan, Keating began patchworking Barangaroo. A bit of Rogers here, a bit of Lloyd Rees there, a thick slice of Toaster architect Andrew Andersons and a decent whack of nostalgia.
Nostalgia for what? Not really for nature, much as that’s the rhetoric here. (Remember, this is Paul “if you’re not in Sydney, you’re camping out” Keating). The nostalgia is rather for his favourite period as a collector of fine French antiques, which happens to be the decade – the last of the 18th century – when Jefferson had just left Paris, when the French were revolting and when Millers Point was first, as it were, ours.
And if we’re to have a Barangaroo-fuehrer, which we probably need, Keating’s flair, imagination and sheer bloodymindedness are to be preferred. But it’s as though, instead of falling for Utzon’s Opera House, the jurors allowed timidity to persuade them into Molnar’s flat-roofer instead, then shoved a party hat on top, simulating sails. The Keating headland, should it be built, will have understatement and reversibility, although emulating nature is a tricky game, one that nature usually does best.
But this is a site for brilliance, not understatement. Just as Napoleon needed his Haussmann, O’Malley his Griffin and Cahill his Utzon, Keating will find he needs his Lord Rogers. I could be wrong. Keating could yet prove to be our Jefferson; Barangaroo our Monticello. But another possibility also looms; Barangaroo as the suburban dreaming writ large, its great unusable front lawn surveilled by a 50-storey depression-built office park, undone (as design always is) by politesse.