The results of the “short, sharp” review into Sydney’s Barangaroo development project have been released in the form of an 87 page report in which the word “outcome” appears 88 times. Though all sides have declared some version of victory in its wake, it is hard to see the report as anything other than a final rubber stamp for the developer Lend Lease. Whatever its misgivings, the report requires no modifications to the current plans. Any critique is blunted by a salad of weasel words and praise for the “world class people working on Barangaroo.” Whether or not anyone has the power to undo this mess, it’s clear no one has the guts.
The people of New South Wales have been anticipating the upcoming state election almost since the last election four years ago, never a good situation. As regular readers of our dispatches from Sydney know, the soon to be defeated Labor Government has for the past sixteen years, with its inimitably bland, shiny-suited glee, trashed poor old Sydney. A place which with the slightest effort could be the most beautiful city in the world has instead deteriorated into a kind of Los Angeles without a Raymond Chandler, a Melbourne without intricacy, a Singapore without ambition.
One of the most urgent tasks facing the next state government will be the reform of NSW’s broken planning system, a system I saw in action (if that is the right word) during the disillusioning two years I spent in a cubicle at the NSW Department of Planning.
In this town called Sydney there is this crazy idea that wrecking a beautiful city in the name of economic growth somehow makes the city big time, that slippery oxymoron, a ‘global’ city. Instead of building places which promote beauty, sustainability and public participation we get the kind of ‘built profit’ which is too witless to even be kitsch. It’s the Australian Ugliness on steroids, everywhere, as charmless and unimaginative as it is profitable. Even the greediest New York developer would never expect to build a forty five storey hotel in the East River, let alone the Hudson, and yet exactly such a monstrosity has been approved for construction in Sydney Harbour, at Barangaroo, the ne plus ultra of Sydney urban planning disasters. Now a group of over fifty eminent Sydney architects, planners and academics has produced an alternative design for the site.
For a long time I was afraid of spiders. My arachnophobia was only cured by moving to a Sydney, a place where some spiders can actually kill you. With the potential of an evil looking funnel web spider under the refrigerator, it seemed silly to recoil at a daddy longlegs. At this time of year — mid-late summer — nonlethal arachnids begin to dominate the bush. With a copious supply of rain earlier this summer, the spiders got an early start. Going down to pick up the paper in the morning means coming back with a web across your face; the same encounter on a bike ride or run is even more unpleasant, especially if you end up eye to eyes with the angry arachnid and its demi-deliquescent protein breakfast. It is one of those moments when you wish nature spoke English — “I’m sorry, but it’s not like wrecking your web gave me any pleasure…”. As the summer progresses we adjust to one another, or they to us; the smarter spiders learn to build their webs up high, with the greatest eight-legged engineers weaving the lowest edges of their webs just above the head of the tallest human.
Sydney Open is one of the best things you can do in this town. Organized by the Historic Houses Trust every two years, the event allows access to more than fifty important Sydney buildings, many of them normally off limits to the public. A City Pass allowed access to dozens of building in downtown Sydney, as well as properties run by the Trust, which are well worth visiting at any time of year. I purchased a City Pass and planned my route carefully, like a marathon runner at a free buffet, to take in as much as possible, from sandstone Georgian to High Tech and beyond. The buildings covered virtually every period of Sydney’s post-1788 history, and present a golden opportunity for a cheap and cheerful romp through the history of the city’s architecture.
A famous flâneur and me, Sat down one day for tea, He observed with a grin, That the the line is drawn thin, Between cities which look and which see.
Urban planning is a sound and necessary activity, but you can’t eat a menu, right? Buildings, trees, curbstones; it is particularity which makes a city and in the end it takes physical objects to settle arguments about what is good, bad and weird in architecture. In that spirit, here are some buildings good enough to eat.
Like cats chasing tails, all that is urgent in contemporary discussions of the city circles around the topic of density. While this makes it easy to define the shape of the boxing ring, it doesn’t set the rules of the fight, and boy oh boy is density ever a fight. Here in Sydney urban planning discourse feels like a nightmare dreamed in a fever, a chase scene in which it is impossible not to run in circles, slowly. As someone who cares deeply about Sydney’s future, it was a sweet relief to leave Smug City for a few weeks to see how they make cities in Europe.