DISRESPECTING DARLING HARBOUR CLASS OF 1988

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.

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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.

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