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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 23-Apr-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 897


Colonising guerillas could help feed the city


‘I’m never going to see again but I’m getting good at being blind,” says Sean Canavan, with a rueful wee smile to camera as he snips dead heads from the flocks of petunias and geraniums he has planted up and down his street in London’s Kentish Town.

Canavan is a guerilla gardener – a real one, not some half-witted media type doing dumb self-promotion gags for dumber commercial telly. And although his plantings are strictly decorative, they point to a growing global movement and some openings in Sydney.

His congregants feared the great Jean Nouvel might also have been struck suddenly blind when he described the tower at the University of Technology, Sydney, or Building 1 (yes, that is its proper name) as “very beautiful”. But no. Nouvel, Pritzker laureate and architect-designate for the huge Frasers brewery site redevelopment opposite UTS, was just being French. Un provocateur, you might say. Tres intellectuel, tres chic.

Certainly, Nouvel has reason to adore UTS. Without that tower – which I, too, admire as a fine essay in mid-century brutalism and one of Michael Dysart’s more glorious moments – Nouvel’s own building, Building 2 (no, really), would never have been blessed with its 35-storey height limit. Planners get these silly ideas – in this case, that the old sense of civic arrival offered by, say, Hadrian’s Arch, is replicable by a couple of private skyscrapers flanking the seven-lane road like the two plaster bulldogs flanking your granny’s front door. Planners get these ideas and architects, unabashed, exploit them. But that’s another story.

The chief executive of Frasers is the charming Stanley Quek, a medical doctor, former schoolboy bridge champion, alumnus of Trinity College, Dublin, and Ireland’s former honorary consul-general to Singapore. Last week, however, he was muddying the waters around Frasers Broadway.

No sooner had Quek announced that “new developments will be in a moribund state for some time,” than Frasers issued a media brief designed for precisely the opposite effect, insisting that “works continue on site as originally scheduled”. On site may be, but off site, in the drawing offices of Atelier Nouvel, Foster Associates, Johnson Pilton Walker, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer and Tzannes Associates, things Broadway have definitely slowed – as in no discernible movement of the forward kind.

Similarly conflicted is the Frasers claim that “33 heritage buildings are to be retained and restored” when a quick on-ground squiz will confirm that the buildings left on this vast, empty site – even counting (as they do) the administration building as two, the gate and heritage drain as a “building” apiece, and the Sunrise building as no fewer than six – cannot inflate the numbers much past a dozen. And demolition continues.

Yet none of this might be significant were the development actually to happen. Sure, there are some terrific old industrial leftovers down the gurgler, lots of gritty, square-jawed drama reduced to dust and tears. That’s always a wrench. But they’d have been hard to re-use with any real respect and, while the locals grumble, as locals do, this is absolutely the site for both height and density – not because of the UTS precedent but because it’s three minutes’ walk from the biggest public transport hub on the continent.

Further, if Nouvel’s silvery, vegetable-hung imagery is to be believed, the building’s 1500-odd residents will inhabit a cool, semi-ethereal greenstar world of breathtaking horticultural cantilevers, lush vertical murs vegetals (Patrick Blanc, Paris’s green-haired darling of the vertical-garden salon, will have his work cut out) and permanent, glancing sunlight, courtesy in part of the giant heliostat, 25 storeys up, redirecting moonlight and sunlight back onto the internal lawn.

Frasers insists all is on song. I hope it is so. But right now, instead? Mice. According to my vet, the newly razed brewery site explains inner-Sydney’s mouse plague. Whether vets have special insight into mouse-plague etiology I’m not sure but my cats concur, contentedly decorating the bedroom with limp little corpses each evening before heading once more into the breach.

Speaking of mice, what has got into UTS? Take the most eye-catching tower in town, add $150 million for a new engineering/IT building on Broadway, and you have a chance of something so astonishing UTS would win the inter-uni culture war hands down.

But what do it do? Ignore international design vitality. Forget flair. Stack the jury with bureaucrats. Promise to encourage “emerging talent in particular” but instead devise a dull, pot-bound competition that shortlists six usual suspects, reveals nothing and retains all copyright, thus stifling debate. Isn’t that so institution of higher learning?

The shortlist comprises Bates Smart, BVN, Cox, DCM, FJMT and Lacoste Stephenson but carefully excludes anything strange or provocative, such as SuperColossal’s fearless transformer-bot, grappling boldly with both UTS 1 and Frasers 2, and Crawford Architects’ layered exuberance. There’s a lot of talent out there, even here.

Sad, then, that of the two, Frasers is still the more likely to bite GFC dust. Sadder still in view of the interim uses springing up. Already there are artists’ studios and a probable home for the farmers co-op that sustains half of Chippendale. But in truth, under the colonising attentions of some serious guerilla gardeners, blind or otherwise, Frasers, UTS and Barangaroo could feed the entire city.


ADDENDUM: The name of the firm is Lacoste + Stevenson NOT Lacoste+Stephenson. Correction suggested by Justine Oh 05-05-2009. Input: Angie Gemmill


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