Back in the mid 1980s, a massive beautification program took shape around Darling Harbour to mark Australia’s bicentennial celebrations. Industrial workings were removed and the entire precinct cleaned up, new facilities were built including world-class exhibition and convention centres, harbourside halls and entertainment, parks and fountains, and of course the iconic monorail that now exists only in our memory. 25 years on, and current premier Barry O’Farrell has redevelopment on the cards once again, this time erasing many of the grand designs that marked Darling Harbour as a place of open public amenity and quality modernist architecture, a place that is still welcoming, charming and not overbearing in its scale, a place that captures the essence of the 1988 and all the bicentennial glory that came with it.
Barry O’Farrell is no stranger to upsetting the general public with his planning policies and acts of heritage vandalism of late, by treading over our views and in many cases blocking them out in the shadows of high rise towers. It is almost a given now that whatever he does in the context of planning causes most of us to stand back and take stock… We’ve gone from mild bemusement to temperate head scratching to a stark realisation of false prophecy fulfilled and now to absolute horror and shaken disdain, where it will all end nobody knows…
This time he has also managed to upset more than a few taller poppies along the way. Naturally if we are talking about an award-winning and quite stunning piece of Sydney architecture, and the architect, who is still very much in the here and now, gets wind of the idea the current Premier wants to knock it all down, just 25 years after it graced the city’s skyline, there is going to be a little ‘discomfort’ associated with the idea. Especially when that building, the Sydney Exhibition Centre, has attracted legions of fans of 20th Century architecture worldwide by the relevance of its form, function, and beauty and the way it simply enhances, rather than detracts, from the pleasant surroundings it finds itself in.
So what are we losing?
Phillip Cox designed the Exhibition Centre in the modernist style with multi-tiered glass surfaces over five interconnected halls with tall steel masts rising overhead in a maritime theme, glistening white in the afternoon Sydney sun. The project took 36 months to complete and was built by the Darling Harbour Authority for the state government of the time. The building has been awarded several acclaims including the highly coveted Royal Australian Institute of Architects Sir John Sulman Medal in 1989 and MBA Excellence in Construction Award in 2007. It is met at one end with the John Andrews designed Sydney Convention Centre, semi-circular in appearance and quite an impressive building in its own right. Both recently celebrated their 25 year anniversary with a black tie event. Both served as venues for events during the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Both, as I see it, are quintessentially Sydney buildings.
Phillip Cox has rightly slammed the government’s redevelopment plan as “an act of vandalism.” His impressive portfolio of Sydney buildings includes the Sydney Football Stadium and the National Maritime Museum, and his list of awards includes the RAIA Gold Medal, the highest accolade bestowed upon an Australian architect. He described the government’s plans, which have allowed big developers to completely take the reigns of both the planning stage and redevelopment, as “insane… How do you control developers with no planning controls over the area in question? They will take over the park, demolish the exhibition centre, an icon of Sydney, that will (soon) be on the heritage register… We have two commercial developers trying to make a buck out of it and minimise expenditure.”
He offered up a second option of utilising the existing Harbourside shopping arcade as part of the project. “We put an alternative solution to Nick Greiner (former premier and head of Infrastructure NSW) showing how all the buildings can be retained and still achieve their expectations for increased areas without doing all this horrendous vandalism that’s about to take place down there,” he told Fairfax. ”It’s obvious, get rid of Harbourside, it’s a failed shopping centre, put the facilities in the best location and still activate the area with cafes and bars and keep the existing buildings as part of the heritage of Sydney.” For that to take place, Harbourside, which is a privately owned shopping precinct, would have to be bought by the government, and according to Infrastructure NSW project manager, Tim Parker, that wasn’t going to happen.
John Andrews, designer of the Sydney Convention Centre, also received the RAIA Gold Medal and has been described as the first Australian architect with a truly international reputation. He was renowned for his work on universities in America in the 1960s including the Harvard Graduate design school, as well as Intelsat Headquarters in Washington, the CN Tower in Toronto, later returning to Australia to work on important commissions such as the Cameron Offices at Belconnen, and another university project ANU’s Toad Hall, so named by students due to its Wind in The Willows setting characteristics.
Understandably, he also has misgivings over the plan to tear down his most iconic work, slating the idea as “rather stupid.” And he elaborated “Does it make sense to pull down $120 million worth of (building) that’s perfectly all right?… As Australia, we just haven’t grown up, we haven’t developed any good manners and we don’t protect and look after our good things. I don’t understand why the (new) architects … are so keen to knock everything down,” he said. ”Why don’t they just reuse things and add to them?” To add insult to injury, Andrews only found out about the proposed demolition through a leisurely read of a newspaper article.
But Phillip Cox and John Andrews aren’t the only critics of the new state government plans. Former public works minister Laurie Brereton, who oversaw much of the original Darling Harbour redevelopment in the 1980s, branded the new project “the work of Philistines.” Australian Institute of Architects president-elect Paul Berkemeier, called for proper consultation and a complete set of models and drawings to be released…”They’re just ephemeral images. They could be made out of green cheese for that matter and you’d be no wiser” he said. And Peter Webber, former government architect and professor of architecture at Sydney Uni told Fairfax “The government should have prepared a separate master plan for the precinct, taking public opinion into account, rather than wrapping the master plan into the tender process… I think it’s a back to front process. Instead of allowing feedback as the proposal was developed we are presented with almost a fait accompli.”
Docomomo Australia, an organisation that is dedicated to the ‘documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the modern movement’ has gone one step further in their criticism. They have nominated the Darling Harbour site to ICMS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, for a heritage alert, the first time ever for an Australian site. Docomomo Australia vice-chairman Scott Robertson said Darling Harbour was “one of the finest modernist collection of buildings in Sydney”, and likened the government’s plans to that of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who also made the heritage alert list over his treatment of developments threatening heritage sites in Russia.
So what are we getting instead?
In exchange for the loss of these two (three including the monorail) outstanding examples of 20th century Australian architecture, we are getting a jumble of oversized public and private buildings developed and planned by big construction company Lend Lease for the state government. The scale will be big… Three or four towers in Haymarket up to 40 storeys in height adding over 540 apartments to the skyline and allowing, as Lend Lease Development general manager Gavin Biles says “more people to live, work and play in the heart of the city”…Well how nice that sounds. A new town square, boulevard connecting the the new precinct to the waterfront and so-called IQ Hub would also be created accommodating technology and creative entrepeneurs in low-cost workspaces. Again, how nice. The Sydney Entertainment Centre would also be lost but no-one is jumping up and down about that… you see, we don’t just whinge for the fun of it, people make noise when we are actually losing something of real value.
Tumbling onto Tumbalong Park, an overbearing theatre, booming down over what’s left of the public space. New International Exhibition and Convention Centres would be built, dwarfing everything that is currently there, and behind them, massive twin towers rising above the harbour like the former World Trade Centers of New York. Not much would be left of Darling Harbour as it stands now, all laid to waste in this 2.5 billion dollar blunder over 20 hectares of our sacred public land. In the interim, a temporary exhibition centre would be built at Garden Island to host events over the three year period of construction, but that encountered a few hurdles as well, with a deal breaking down in May between the state government and Pages Hire and Echo Entertainment Group who were chosen to construct the halls. A new deal has been brokered since, but it has set the government on a course of last minute preparedness, and given opposition leader John Robertson a perfect opportunity for the perfect jibe. “The O’Farrell Government and Infrastructure NSW can’t build a tent” he said. And he may have a point.
But Infrastructure NSW, headed by Nick Greiner, the state government department charged with pushing through projects of this magnitude, are adamant of its success. Darling Harbour Live, the project’s PR codename, delivers the spin: ‘By delivering a ‘whole of precinct’ approach that responds to the character of such a unique location, integrates seamlessly with the adjacent city fabric, and provides state of the art operation and functional performance, Darling Harbour Live will build on the vibrancy of Darling Harbour to create a memorable new precinct and public place on Sydney’s harbour foreshore.’
However, architect Philip Thalis, of Hill Thalis, who won the initial Barrangaroo design (before it was bastardized to suit more highrise residential and James Packer’s high roller casino) is critical of what they term ‘a whole of precinct approach’, claiming ”No holistic plan has been released, just a selective crop of perspective views… Again in NSW, we get planning by press release, instead of by public policy or real planning.” In other words, we, the public, are being left in the dark once again, a practice that Barry O’Farrell is becoming quite accomplished with.
And the AIA have echoed the mounting chorus of opposition, showing concern for the government’s technique of committing so much of the project “through a single contract with a single developer”. Its president-elect Paul Berkemeier commented “The government has contracted out its responsibility to prepare a master plan for the use of public land, as well as the rights to demolish and develop it… The Institute’s view is that city development is better served by a multiplicity of players in the development industry, not just one. That is the way most urban areas have been developed, and re-developed, in the past… What we question is the muddled brief to which they are responding and the out-dated and wasteful demolish and rebuild strategy underlying the whole proposal” and finally “the government’s responsibility is to defend the public interest, not to sell it”. But it seems that is exactly what they have done. By the Lend Lease consortium being given total access to this large and precious swathe of land in Haymarket for residential/commercial development, and in turn the project rights to the whole planning process and redevelopment of the public centres, this in effect reduces the cost to the government of supplying new facilities to the public. In effect, this is privatisation of planning. Our land, our city, and our architectural assets have been sold off to big developers, it’s as clear and simple as that.
Click on the pretty digitised images below for pictorial propaganda of how the site will look, from Darling Harbour Live. Notice all the pretty plastic people in various poses of joy and happiness. Why is it that all the plastic people in these digital images are attractive, Anglo and under 35?
A website called savethecentres.com.au has been set up to publicise the fate of the Exhibition and Convention Centres, and tell a compelling story of why we need to recognise the importance of these purpose built buildings. These centres are icons of bicentennial Sydney, they are a cohesive collection of 1980s modernity, and what we are getting will be simply an inferior product… Massive great bulky square blocks built in a generic ‘international style’ rather than Sydney-specific or even coastal Australian specific. They will do nothing for our city apart from make Lend Lease a lot of money and pack more in to a place that is perfectly designed as it is.
Not only is our public land being sold out but it is being done so at such a rushed rate, almost as if to get the results through before the public wakes up to the fact and realise what has actually happened, by which point, it will be all too late. To lose two iconic, world-class buildings that haven’t yet lived their full life, for the sake of a big business deal done by a short-sighted and architecturally ignorant government is more than just a shame, it’s a tradgedy for the people of Sydney and our status as an international capital of culture.
And as for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, our man Barry may trump him just yet. The dictatorship of this planning department grows more ruthless and powerful every day, more than willing to sweep aside any public opposition with keen PR spin and multi-billion dollar partnerships with single-minded developers like Lend Lease. Meanwhile our heritage and internationally acclaimed architecture gets brushed aside like things that don’t matter. Well, in a newsflash for Barry O’Farrell and his government, by the volume and standard of high profile opposition on show here, clearly they do matter… It’s time to treat them as such.
The DAs are on public exhibition until 2 August 2013. To comment on the designs, visit planning.nsw.gov.au
Save The Centres website here. Some beautiful images and articles about the importance of what we are losing. Sign the petition too.
Let’s all stand up for our heritage this coming Sunday and join CAWB on their public rally to preserve in tact the oldest public square in Australia and the oldest bridge crossing of the Hawkesbury River. This may be our last chance… Stop Mad Barry from plundering our living history!
We don’t often associate the 1980s with the term ‘heritage’ but with the renewal of interest in all things Retro perhaps the time is approaching when we may start to look at built forms of this vintage in a different light. Frankly, heritage is heritage, regardless of the era in which it was conceived, and should be regarded as such. On Sunday 30 June one outstanding example of 1980s heritage took its final lap of honour around Sydney, the city it graciously serviced for the last quarter of a century.
Known simply as the Monorail, this vision of modernist transport could be seen daily, snaking its way along a suspended steel track between the growing skyscrapers of downtown Pitt Street, brushing the fringes of Chinatown and rumbling sexily over the elegant Pyrmont Bridge, its passengers gawking at the wonderful vistas over a resplendent Darling Harbour, the ‘darling’ in fact, of that magnificent bi-centennial period of Australia’s history. With Space shuttle-like lines, the Monorail certainly made an impact in those heady days of Hypercolour T-shirts and C’mon C’mon Do the Locomotion with me.
Unveiled in 1988 to service the needs of commuters and tourists alike, its introduction coincided with the high profile redevelopment of Darling Harbour, from gritty working class port to entertainment, shopping and conference mecca, a lasting symbol of our coming of age boom-time and in fact the crowning achievement of Barrie Unsworth’s tenure as premier (no, not the ruthless dictator Barry we have now).
Much of that popular refurbishment of Darling Harbour is still there to be seen in its glassed archway and steel framed glory. The award-winning Exhibition Centre and curvaceous Conference Centre, the numerous fountain and water games, the Chinese Gardens, and of course there have been welcome additions over the years, the Sydney 2000 sculpture and Spiral Fountain for example. Some have come and gone as well, like the short-lived but ambitious Sega World. It all combines to create a kind of synergy, a tangible ode perhaps, to the feel of the day, to the late 1980s, a time of great prosperity and almost unlimited potential for Australia. Think INXS, annoying matchmaking robots named Dexter, Tall Ship re-enactments and of course all that bi-centennial patriotism. It was a magical time.
Returning to Darling Harbour in the present, many of us still feel a glint of nostalgia for that period, a small magnetic force that radiates from stepping through the scene today. We look around, take in the sights of the Harbourside halls, the overhead freeways, the passing Monorail, it brings us back to a more innocent time perhaps, a time when we were almost considered by the rest of the world as a fledgling nation.
But all those tangible feelings that surround the unmistakable shapes of Darling Harbour may soon be lost. Strangely, even this group of richly identifiable structures that were built cohesively only 25 years ago can’t be seen as permanent by the current regime of that other Premier Barry Mk 2, the faulty O’Farrell version. Plans have been unveiled to transform Darling Harbour once again, into something much bigger and more profitable. Massive highrise at Haymarket including towers of up to 40 levels , a new convention centre and the demolition of the Sydney Entertainment Centre, the current Convention Centre and visually stunning Sydney Exhibition Centre are being pushed through by this developer-drunken state government and their ‘business partners’ Lend Lease. This follows a redevelopment at the Tumbalong Park end where until recently a pretty pond sat where tourists could paddle boats around and look at the skyline beyond. While some public space was retained, the buildings were made bigger, and the pond ofcourse filled over.
So the Monorail, that wonder of the modern age, that glint in our eyes back in 1988 when we collectively thought “well, we have a monorail now, we’ve arrived as a city”, may not be the only casualty of the new school of knock-em-down planning in NSW. Much more of Darling Harbour’s golden age may go with it. More on this next time but for now here is an interesting story on it in the SMH. Click here.
Whether you lament the passing of the Monorail or not, it is worth remembering as an icon of that time, and Darling Harbour as a bubble formed within that exciting progressive period, under the richness of optimism that somehow manifested itself in the era, something that has only shown rare glimpses at the surface ever since.
What we tend to forget is, that although it may be perceived as old and tacky in our new millennium fashion fickle conscience, the Monorail is actually still pretty cool. I still see tourists plying the streets around Sydney, hearing the approaching rumble from who knows where, looking up to see this rolling juggernaut thundering high above their heads from some science fiction ideal, shaking their heads in wonder and commenting out loud “wow.”
And as a people mover, it still rates quite well, with around three million people using it per year, despite the high ticket prices. Sure it is not as effective as light rail, but it does have the added draw card of being a tourist attraction, as well as holding the stylistic x-factor. And it’s all still there, it’s not something we have to draw $250 million out of the public purse to build, this thing actually exists and could’ve remained part of our transport solution alongside light rail, alongside buses, well into the future. Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has unflatteringly used the terms “white elephant” and “almost a fad” to describe the Monorail in its final days but with 1,500 people entering a ballot to go for a ride on the last loop it obviously meant something to quite a few Sydneysiders. Two carriages and a small section of track are all that will be retained in the Powerhouse Museum, the rest will be scrapped.
Personally I will miss it… I was only a child when the Monorail was built and I can remember people used to venture into the big city just to catch a glimpse of the new machine. It was almost like the first days of steam in the early 1800s… people huddling around the unknown beast with a mixture of incredible awe and uneasy trepidation, quite an experience for a young boy at the time.
I think options could have been explored. With the timely introduction of the new Opal card there was an opportunity to link it in to the greater public system. Perhaps they should have re-labelled it the ‘Bi-centennial Monorail.’ A twilight moving restaurant or bar within its coaches, similar to the restaurant tram in Melbourne, may have given the Monorail a new lease of life. Sometimes a little creativity is all that is required for a fading business model to reignite.
If it did have to go then an elevated running track or cycleway was worth investigating, to give something back to the people of Sydney, to recycle a perceived ‘outdated’ form of transport with a new, cleaner, greener one, as well as being totally practical and just plain worthwhile doing. The infrastructure is pretty much there in its entirety, only a new decking platform with transparent side walls was required, which could have easily bolted on. If nothing else I will miss the sneaky motorcycle parking beneath and between the pylons. Anything that discourages cars from entering the CBD is a good thing.
And of course all those bars and restaurants that have enjoyed interesting close-up views from their windows and balconies, allowing patrons to gain new perspectives on what is essentially a marvel of engineering – their views will become slightly more ‘boring’ now that the Monorail is gone. I may be alone here but I think the city as a whole may become just a little more ‘boring’ with the loss of the Monorail. To me it’s part of our city, it’s still exciting as well as being part of our modern ‘heritage’ texture. But then again we, as a nation, are getting quite good at letting these things go so easily after the easy money has been made.
And as if to prove that point, the government website monorail.com was closed the day after the last Monorail ride. If you enter that into your browser you will get a business-like message stating ‘Sydney Monorail is now closed. Please wait to be redirected to the Transport Info Website.’ In other words, move along now, there’s no time for nostalgia here... The future became our history in the blink of an eye.
Click on the images below to start gallery. Ticket images transmarketing. Next time, we look at Barry O’Farrell’s awful, awful plans for Darling Harbour.