Architecture - Urban Design

Six Degrees, Six Degrees: Sydney Architecture in 2012

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Darling Harbour with Philip Cox's Exhibition Centre to the right of the freeway. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.
Darling Harbour with Philip Cox’s Exhibition Centre (1988) to the right of the freeway. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

“Only a fool would stand in the way of progress, if this is progress.”

-Captain Kirk to Dr. McCoy in “The Ultimate Computer,” Stardate 4729.4


Cet air frais me donne du bien!

-Overheard in the Parc de Belleville, Paris, February 2012

The other day I installed new brake rotors on my mountain bike [1]. They are beautiful; every scrap of stainless steel not required to withstand structural stress and the build up of heat has been removed. A laciness which could be mistaken for decoration is no more or no less than the result of form following function. As a chain is a chain and a tire inexorably a tire, so the rotors would cease to be themselves were they square or triangular, made of concrete or glass.

Architecture is not like this. There is flab in architecture, a distance between whatever a true Existenzminimum would look like and real buildings. To call architecture flabby is not a criticism, a loose fit between skeleton and skin is the natural result of the necessary imprecision with which our bodies move through space. A ceiling in a typical house is nine feet or so above the floor not because its residents are 8’ 11” tall, but because it is conventional and pleasing for there to be a certain distance between one’s head and the nearest plasterboard. This is one of the small graces which allows people to meet in architecture.

Flab makes architecture possible. An over-simplified but still helpful distinction might be made between architecture which celebrates the flab (obviously baroque and rococo, but also stretching to most Art Nouveau, Niemeyer and Gehry) and architecture which attempts liposuction (the gothic tendency which envelops the Crystal Palace, Buckminster Fuller and Frei Otto (and then there is the structural exhibitionism of a Calatrava or a Richard Rogers, which tries to look like the second while gorging like the first, perhaps the architectural equivalent of a stapled stomach…)).

Either approach can be wonderful. The difficulty of architecture’s flab is that in the absence of inspiration other forces rush in to fill the void where a broken pediment or a titanium arabesque should be. Any inhabitant of any city need only turn his head to see examples, but I can think of none so deliciously exemplary as the new proposal for the mellifluously-named Sydney International Convention, Exhibition and Entertainment Precinct (SICEEP) at Darling Harbour in Sydney. Any tourist is likely to be more familiar with the area than the typical Sydneysider, which is the problem, I suppose. Darling Harbour was Sydney’s big urban renewal project of the 1980s, timed to commemorate the bicentenary year of 1988. The industrial waterfront was replaced, and replaced without a trace, by a version of what Robin Boyd called “featurism” on an urban scale. Darling Harbour’s problems are the result of trying too hard, not a mistake today’s Sydney is likely to repeat. The ordinary is nearly absent; like shiny buttons unstitched from fabric, virtually every building, good or bad, is some kind of attraction, good or bad. This fabric could be gently reintroduced, and contemporary post-Jane Jacobs urbanism would lean in this direction, but that would be too subtle for Sydney. Instead of keeping the good, removing the unredeemable and improving the improvable (it’s fashionable to hate the monorail, but at least it’s public transport), the winning proposal, designed by Lend Lease of Barangaroo fame and designed by OMA in association with Hassell, Populous and DCM takes a tabula rasa approach. On a site nearly the size of Barangaroo (20 versus 22 hectares), only a handful of huge buildings are to be constructed — a perhaps deliberately anonymous 900 room hotel designed by OMA, a new convention center which for some reason reminds me of the former Palace of the Republic in the former East Berlin, an exhibition center which looks big enough to store Saturn V rockets and an new theatre to replace the Sydney Entertainment Centre. In other words, for a billion dollars the current convention center, exhibition center and entertainment center are to be replaced by a new convention center, exhibition center and entertainment center, plus the hotel and a residential precinct designed by DCM (interestingly enough, the project’s developers seem to assume the hotel will be viable without the casino which is apparently so essential at Barangaroo, presumably an even more profitable location for a hotel).

Objection has been raised against the proposed demolition of Philip Cox’s Exhibition Centre, which won the 1989 Sulman Medal awarded to the best public building of the previous year in New South Wales. It is a fine building and deserves more than 25 years of life, but amidst the usual oxymoronic tripe about Sydney the Global City, the broader wastefulness of the project has hardly been mentioned outside of a few letters to the editor. The biggest story in architecture in 2012 is not coincidentally also the biggest story in the world: it seems the climate “alarmists” have been too conservative; our planet is on track to warm by six degrees celsius by 2100, and tipping points irreversible on a human time scale, such as the melting of the permafrost, are rapidly approaching and may already be in progress, if progress is the right word.

Six degrees is obviously alarming, but it at least gives architecture, which has been showing the fatigue of late late modernism for a while now, an urgent subject matter for perhaps the first time since the post World War II housing shortage. It means not only that every new building must be of the most impeccable, un-greenwashed sustainability (I recently saw a sign outside a suburban office building touting its “one star” NABERS rating — guys, this is not the Michelin guide [2]), but that building anew must now give way to adapting the imperfect buildings and spaces we have. Luckily there is real pleasure to be found in making do, the pleasure of mending a sock, growing a tomato or running in the woods instead of driving to the gym to wrestle with a coal-powered treadmill. The genuine sustainability of making do brings architecture closer to my new brake rotors by burning away a flab which no longer seems quite so well-carried as it does on a church by the Asam brothers. The best project I saw all year was the transformation of the Tour Bois le Prêtre in Paris from an unworkable housing project of the early 1960s into a bastion of what one of my old professors called “thermal delight.” Nearby on rue Rebière, ten architects built 180 new units of public housing on a sliver of a site carved out of the width of an over-flabby street. The architectural language is uniquely Parisian, but the project could be adapted to improve any city.

What is so stale in the language of contemporary architecture — the faceted ‘skins,’ the tortured trusses, the reliable disappointment of glass — is at least partly the result of too many choices and not enough constraint, or of arbitrarily imposed constraints, like the rules of soccer. Aside from being good for the planet and promoting solidarity (now rebranded as social capital) adaptive projects, such as the many assembled by the Pavilion de l’Arsenale in Paris for their “Re-architecture” exhibition earlier this year, are fun. Between the compromises of the design and construct process [3] and the tediousness of producing (and having to look at) computer renderings, does anyone working on a project like Darling Harbour or Barangaroo actually enjoy themselves?

Compared to the Tour Bois le Prêtre and rue Rebière, Darling Harbour is big and dumb, and yet I fear that Sydneysiders like big and dumb (or small and dumb when it comes to their dogs). A lot has changed in the past ten years or so — the “bush modernism” of architects like Glenn Murcutt and Richard LePlastrier, who famously combined the Australian woolshed with Mies has given way to Darling Barangaroo’s vacuous and eternally non-committal worldclass globalcity internationalism. At least the original International Style had rigor. As the opening shot of Touch of Evil (1958) introduces the film’s setting, tone, characters and story, so in a Glenn Murcutt house a window frame might simultaneously hold up the roof, ventilate a room, shed water, shade the sun and even decorate. In the new global generic the details where God lives are obliterated by boosterism and hype. Buildings are “developments” which “come on stream” in a “global marketplace.” One may or may not consider presumptuous bush modernism’s implicit claim to be a national architecture, but it’s better to be presumptuous than stupid, to be about someplace rather than noplace, to choose genius loci over an architecture so generic that even those in charge of Darling Harbour’s redevelopment seem not especially keen on their creation (The chairman of Infrastructure NSW, Nick Greiner, who last year promised us that Darling Harbour would contain no Guggenheims said of the proposed International Exhibition Centre, “It’s not a Guggenheim but it’s not a four-square [block]…It’s a sensible middle ground, it’s what you expect.”). Inspiring! Inspirational even!

That such projects are invariably presented by very serious people — neoliberal politicians, grayed out public servants, dour architects — makes their fundamental lack of seriousness all the more appalling. In any healthy city the casino at Barangaroo would be a joke rather than a fait accompli, but how can a government which claims to believe in the virtues of competition justify not holding an open tender to determine its operator? Leaving aside the project’s intrinsic wastefulness, at Darling Harbor a substantial swathe of publicly-owned land in our city was redesigned in near-total secrecy, without a master plan or a design competition. Instead of choosing between maybe a hundred proposals (the City of Sydney received 168 entries for the Green Square Library competition) they stuck themselves and Sydney with a choice between two tenders led by developers, and heaven knows if we’ll ever see the runner-up. At least Barangaroo went through the theater of holding an international competition before ignoring the result.

The very serious people of Sydney are aided by a strangely compliant public. Questions of design which would be normal fodder for debate and even intelligent conversation in other cities are here reduced to phony wars between Boosters and NiMBYs. Like Baron Haussmann, Sydneysiders tend to lack what René Heron de Villefosse called the “anxious sensibility which bestows a true love of the city” (According to Villefosse Haussmann “était dépourvu de culture et de goût et qu’il n’avait pas la sensibilité inquiète que doit donner le véritable amour de la ville.”). My theory is that the strange compliance of Sydneysiders runs deeper than the feeling that resistance, ignored one too many times, is now futile. It seems to me that the local manifestation of what Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder” in his important book Last Child in the Woods is not just that Sydneysiders, like prosperous citadins everywhere, spend more time in front of screens than in the bush, but that the sensory dulling of screen-time has created a predilection for big dull spectacle — be it amplified Opera on the Harbour, chewy red wine or Barangaroo — which inhibits the subtle, wily ‘city sense’ which to New Yorkers, Londoners and Parisians is nearly an instinct. Almost as a side-effect, or collateral damage, architecture becomes a question of economics rather than window details.

Villefosse’s “sensibilité inquiète” is a form of love for the city. As Sydney becomes less lovable, fewer people love it, the less lovable it becomes and we get more of what we got more of in 2012 — global developments, McMansions and glowering suburban apartment blocks, all baking under an enraged sun. The “thought” behind such buildings is so primitive that it is easy to forget how dependent they are on technology. The media lounge makes it possible to bear Sunday without a backyard. The air conditioner makes it possible to save the few bucks it would have cost to build proper eaves. In a sick way, the flab of architecture which once produced the mysteries of indeterminism, the in-between and the echoey church has been slimmed by the digital world into rooms where it is always 22° C, where one no longer has the pleasure of being a little too hot or a little too cold. Scientists assure us we’ll soon be hot soon enough. Sydney’s boosters assure us the city is on the move. Me, I just think it’s messed up.

[1] As on your car or motorcycle, the brake rotors are the shiny round bits which bolt onto the hubs and get squeezed by the brake pads when you want to slow down.

[2] Andrew Miller’s joke.

[3] A contract in which the builder works directly for the owner and the architect for the builder, often resulting in heavy-handed “value engineering.”

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