A true story: one day at the New South Wales Department of Planning two planners are talking about different theories of urban planning. ‘Neoliberal planning,’ the first says, “that’s what we do.” “No kidding,” the other replies.
“No kidding” might be replaced by “yer darn tootin” after the release of the NSW Government’s A New Planning System for New South Wales – Green Paper. If the title doesn’t quite grab you, a new planning system, however boring, will have a far greater impact on people’s lives than more juicy topics like a new Museum of Contemporary Art or a new pavilion for the Venice Biennale. Planning is the most visible juncture at which architecture meets politics, and what the Government is proposing is interesting for the way that it reveals urban planning as the point where conservatism begins to conflict with itself, where a libertarian sensibility runs counter to pro-business economic rationalist conservatism. The development industry is not quite a friend of the invisible hand; it does best when certain freedoms are curtailed. This was shown most clearly in the US by the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which expanded the Constitution’s “Takings Clause” (“nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”) to allow governments to claim eminent domain for purposes of private redevelopment.
The global city is an oxymoron. No one lives there. Any decent-sized city is an intensely local argument generating machine and the way in which cities fight about architecture is as revealing as the materials of their curbstones. These arguments are unfolding history. It’s worth paying attention to whether they are depressing or enlivening, who participates in them and for what reasons. In the midst of relentless planetary crisis, these juicy little local fights can seem unimportant. A dispute such as the current one about the future of the banks of the Seine might seem indulgent until one remembers the hardly old but nevertheless a bit out of fashion adage about thinking globally and acting locally. Aside from what they can teach us, local questions provide a bastion of the real against all the gloppy, terminally imprecise words about global this and global that. At a certain point the urge to turn away from the virtual and toward the animal, the mineral and the vegetal becomes overwhelming and probably healthy. Perhaps the only way to overcome, or at least hide from the hegemony of numbers will be, like Laurel and Hardy taking the sea air in Saps at Sea (1940), to seek out familiar places where the discourse suits us.
If Paris is a city shaped like an onion, formed of concentric rings as fortifications have been demolished and extended, then the site of the new îlot expérimental on Rue Rebière in the 17th arrondissement is the thin membrane just beneath the outer skin. The site is 620 meters long and only 12.6 meters wide, wedged between the Cimetière des Batignolles and the rue itself, which is what one might call a quiet street, or perhaps one too shy or cranky to admit cross-streets. Beyond the cemetery the Périphérique roars along a viaduct while on the other side of the street stands the rather impassive Lycée Balzac, not awful, not particularly inviting. It’s exactly the sort of unlovely site a young architect ought to love, particularly for housing, particularly for the social housing which has now been built here.
Si Paris est une ville qui, grâce à ses fortifications successives, imite la forme d’un oignon, le site du nouveau îlot expérimental dans la rue Rebière au dix-septième arrondissement de Paris serait la dernière membrane avant la peau. Le site est 620 mètres de long sur 12.6 mètres de large, coincé entre la Cimetière des Batignolles et la rue Rebière, une rue peut-être trop timide ou même grincheuse à admettre les rues transversales. Au nord du cimetière gronde la Périphérique sur un viaduc et sur l’autre côté de la rue est le lycée Balzac, un bâtiment pas terrible, mais pas terriblement accueillant. C’est, en bref, exactement le genre de site à séduire un jeune architecte, particulièrement pour les logements et surtout les logements sociaux.
Unlike movies or the performing arts, architecture is not seasonal. There is no year end rush in which all the Gehrys and Koolhaases are “released,” no popcorn summer in which the Barangaroos and Ground Zeros of this world try to blow out our eye sockets with their empty spectacle. Cities just go on and on; one must make an effort to pick a moment and look back if we are ever to figure out just what on earth is going on.
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.
No matter how many corners they cut, cities find it hard to outrun their pasts. Early decisions, however casual, however pragmatic, have a way of getting written in stone so that even long after these stones have tumbled, their consequences remain in the correspondence between certain cardinal directions and certain values. However subtle the reality on the ground, north, south east and west take on indelible local meanings. If you stand on George Street and look east down Bridge Street in downtown Sydney, it is easy to perceive the original topography of Sydney Cove, or Warrane as it was known to the Gadigal people. Bridge Street dips down toward Pitt Street and then rises up more steeply toward the Botanical Gardens at the top of the ridge. Along the low point ran the Tank Stream, now covered over, Sydney Colony’s first supply of fresh water and the reason why the city is where it is.