YET despite the sacking of Sydney’s finest treasures Sydney gave the Awfulizers (4)
four more years …
Why? How could this happen?
What lies underneath all this?
‘The Silent Invasion’ … ?
If you’re wondering why, after the biggest boom in Sydney’s history, everything new looks cheap, mean and prematurely aged, here it is.
Architecture expresses a society’s beliefs about itself; our take on humanity’s place in nature and the relationship of the one to the many. Architecture is the social contract made real. When those beliefs corrode, as in Sydney of late, the architecture can only reflect it.
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Housing development has outgrown infrastructure so much in one part of Sydney’s north-west that the State Government has suspended all planning proposals pending a council review.
Margaret Thatcher’s famously derisory “the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money” can seem unassailable, until you realise that the libertarian governance she pioneered shares the exact same fault.
Libertarian governments, like that we’ve just re-elected, fund their infrastructure not by taxes, but by the fiscal equivalent of burning fossil fuels.
Selling slow-evolved public assets for a one-off flare dresses wasteful infrastructure spending as good economic management.
In NSW’s case, six years of asset stripping (2011-17) reaped at least $50 billion. That’s three-quarters of a billion a month. It’s also cheating.
Because the problem with neo-liberalism, to reword Thatcher, is that eventually you run out of other people’s assets.
You’ve exploited the bejesus out of the place and nothing of quality or meaning remains, either to enjoy or to sell. In Sydney, this market-moronism militates against architecture in at least five ways.
Start with Philip Cox. He must feel like the world hates him. His finest works have been demolished for no good reason and his own firm threatened to sack him for speaking out in his stadium’s defence. Not because he’s wrong or losing it. Quite the contrary. Because they have (and want to keep) the $730 million job to rebuild of Allianz.
It’s not unusual for celebrated architects to be reviled in old age. The shifting sands of architectural fashion mean that what seemed beautiful and original comes to seem dull and obvious.
But that’s not the story with Cox. What has destroyed his two best buildings – the Exhibition Centre and the Moore Park football stadium – is the institutionalised triumph of greed over imagination.
The Exhibition Centre was Darling Harbour’s sprightliest and most heroic building. Unlike Cox’s nearby Maritime Museum, with its clunky wave-form symbolism, the graceful white-masted structure was a subtle evocation of things harbour and a perfect feminine counterpoint to the square-jawed heft of John Andrews’ adjacent Convention Centre. They were a good pair, the pretty and the stolid, beauty and beast.
Back when they were built, Cox and Andrews were Sydney architecture’s big bananas (Andrews often appearing in fringed cowboy jacket and ten-gallon hat). They were swaggering egos, and ruthless in their own way, but both still believed in architecture as a meaning-making art. It showed. Now, they’ve had to watch their best works succumb to the smug mediocrity of the ICC Sydney, manifesting nothing more than dull managerialism and the idea that belief of any kind is an anachronism.
Meanwhile Cox’s stadium – despite huge controversy, a 223,000-strong petition, a brief court injunction and an SCG Trust report showing that the $730 million rebuild could have been replaced by a $17 million refurbishment – is largely demolished.
None of the arguments bear scrutiny. They said the stadium was too small, but the replacement will have roughly the same numbers for general admission. They say it was unsafe and the seats flammable – but gave them away to other stadia for use, apparently not all were equally risky. Faux-facts at twenty paces.
We may never know just why the government was so desperate to destroy the building, although it happens that the demolition company is Lendlease – which enjoyed no fewer than 51 ministerial visits in four years 2014-18.
But one thing no one ever said in its defence is this building has value because it is beautiful. It feels good to be in, it dignifies people and at night, from Paddington, it glows like some intergalactic life form. We don’t say stupid stuff like that. Not in NSW.
Which brings us to the fate of the government architect. For 200 years, since Macquarie plucked out convict Greenway to design the Hyde Park Barracks, the NSW Government Architect was a tradition of distinction.
Right up until Chris Johnson took over in 1995 the Government Architect produced some of our finest buildings – James Barnet’s GPO and Lands Department Building, George McCrae’s Education Department and Walter Liberty Vernon’s Land Titles Office. All sold.
But it’s not just the buildings the soulless libertarians have sold.
The Government Architect’s Office itself was flogged for a piddling $800,000, and a working office of 120 shrunk to a merely advisory team of 12.
So now, even if a government wanted to produce a building of manifest belief – a building such as the late David Donald Turner’s fabulously accomplished Brutalist Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education building, now being refurbished as a private school – it would be impossible.
The scholarship has been lost. Macquarie was sacked for opposing the dull squattocracy.
*Now the dull squattocracy is in charge.
And then of course there’s public housing. The Sirius building, custom-designed around its houso tenants, and the handsome, generous Waterloo towers manifest an era when architectural belief in the importance of human dignity, the universality of human rights and proud public office seemed self-evident.
Now, they’ll be demolished, generous treetop balconies replaced by mean developer specials, emerald lawns by lightless bathrooms and windy concrete alleys. The dignity, the rights and the pride, gone with the architecture.
Forget confidence in the future. These days, governments rent space in cheap spec developments and even religious bodies, entrusted with our sense of eternity, build cheap commercial rubbish.
The newish Moore College building on City Road, all green glass and stuck-on stone, speaks more eloquently of whiteboards and KPIs than higher truths or greater good. Commerce is the new religion. No wonder developers rule.
Five ways, then, in which Sydney has become architecture’s enemy.
-Destroying the government architect.
Five ways Sydney seems determined to self-sabotage.
Sympathy? Not from me. A city that voluntarily gives such a government four more years to sack its finest treasures deserves everything it gets – and everything it loses.
Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. A former editor and Sydney City Councilor, she is also Associate Professor (Practice) at the Australian Graduate School of Urbanism at UNSW. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).