This is another good news story – amazingly that makes our second for the year, I think I need a Valium. It relates to a former synagogue in Strathfield, and the local council’s unusual move to heritage-list the building against the wishes of its owners. This doesn’t happen every day, for some councils it doesn’t happen every year, and for many it doesn’t happen at all. So first and foremost our congratulations go to Strathfield Council, who passed the motion 4-1 at its 21 May meeting, and of course Mayor Daniel Bott who initiated the heritage listing.
Naturally for every good deed there is a denier, and in this case it is the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, who represent the building and the land it sits upon, and have declared their intention to sell off the synagogue as a prime development site. This is despite Strathfield Synagogue vice-president Sam Steif telling the Australian Jewish News in 2011 that “the only way we are going to get a minyan is if we put a mirror on the wall, but we will not sell the synagogue… If we got to that point I would go to the Jewish Communal Appeal and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and do anything I could to save it because this is a war memorial synagogue and we need to keep it.”
Unfortunately for the Jewish Board’s plans for sale, the heritage listing has complicated matters somewhat.
Built in 1959, the synagogue, known as the War Memorial Synagogue due to its internal plaques adorning the walls that commemorate Jewish victims of the Holocaust, was closed in 2011 as a result of shrinking congregations. The multicultural area was once rich with postwar Jewish immigrants, but over the ensuing decades the demographic has obviously changed as many of the Jewish families have moved away.
A preschool that operates on the site was initially set up for Jewish children but now caters for the greater community, and despite the closure of the synagogue, the site still operates at a profit thanks to the ongoing preschool lease.
Samuel Tov-Lev was the resident Rabbi for 15 years but his contract has since been terminated and he was effectively locked out of the site. He has campaigned for the heritage listing of the synagogue against the Board’s aspirations, and gathered 12,000 signatures in support. He sees the heritage of the building as unique in the area and deserving of recognition and retention. When asked about the successful heritage listing by Australian Jewish News he replied “I’m pleased but at the same time I’m very sad to see people calling themselves Jews fighting to destroy the holy and sacred synagogue.”
The Jewish Board of Deputies sees it only as an unexceptional building that contains plaques that could readily be moved to the centralised Sydney Jewish Museum. They have even gone so far as to say the naming of the ‘War memorial Synagogue’ was purely for taxation reasons, as memorial items attracted tax concessions at the time.
What they fail to acknowledge is that the heritage of the site is more than just the plaques that can be lifted and replanted elsewhere. It is, as with all heritage listed items, the synergy of the whole… It is the presence of the plaques, within the community where it was created, it is the modernist building design that reflected a new life for many postwar Jewish immigrants, away from the trauma of war, to a new country, a new community, so welcoming and accepting of refugees and settlers from all corners of the globe, and the symbolism that represents. It is the growth of that community to form a new society in a land so far away from their roots. It is the freedom and acceptance that made Australia such a reliable refuge for peoples removed from their homelands. And the simple walls of this synagogue represent much of that sentiment.
I think, despite the Jewish Board’s opposition, that Jewish people in general would be grateful for the protection of this historic suburban synagogue. I think that residents of Strathfield would be grateful for their council’s bold actions. And I think Australians in general would be grateful for the preservation of a piece of multicultural heritage, a small contribution to a country so great that people traversed the globe en masse because they wanted to live here – and part of keeping that country great, an important part, is maintaining its heritage for future generations to see, not just internal fixtures but the physical structures – and that blinding truth, unfortunately for some, far outstrips the requirement to make real estate profits to the maximum level.
Main image courtesy Australian Jewish News.
Thanks to Quentin Dempster on ABC’s 7.30 New South Wales for publicizing the story.
Sydneysiders are familiar with the seaside holiday town of Forster on the NSW mid north coast. Many of us have spent summer vacations in and around the centre, with its abundant beaches, rivers and lakes offering plenty of outdoor activities for the visitor. As a result of this popularity the skyline of Forster (and its twin town Tuncurry to the north) has burst sharply skyward over the years, as open real estate around the town becomes scarcer and developers move in to take advantage of the area’s cashed up holiday rental crowds.
On my last visit, I found something I didn’t really expect – a formerly sleepy seaside hamlet on the verge of much bigger things. Already several big towers have sprung up creating more of a Gold Coast style resort, leaving in their shadows vast chasms of crumbling vestiges of bygone days; fibro beach shacks and modest brick freestanding cottages, all but now slowly disappearing under the growing weight of modern skyscrapers.
What amazes me is the speed at which Forster and towns like it are changing, and just how easy we are to throw away any pieces of our past like scraps of bone to a hungry dog. Every corner you turn in Forster you see For Sale signs propping up decrepit buildings, or safety barriers around abandoned houses and 60s era motels, as they are no longer seen as profitable and either left to rot or handed over to caretaker real estate agents to find suitable developer buyers who have no qualms about turning these little slices of history into contemporary piles of rubble, with their high volume high density money making concrete cubes rising from the ashes…
So who will miss these vestiges, these quaint beach style fibro and brick cottages with their dried up gardens of hibiscus and frangipani that have served their purpose well over the years but just don’t make the cut anymore in this profit orientated, market driven, real estate focused society we call Australia?… I for one. I see the beauty in these buildings, these modest, airy, charming, homely remnants of a disappearing world that have been unashamedly sold out exclusively for the real estate value of the dirt on which they sit.
I believe the council and state government should be looking at the heritage value of certain examples of this style of Australian coastal architecture, c.1920s – 1960s and preserving them rather than allowing wholesale destruction, and at the same time applying the brakes to the total redevelopment of coastal towns like Forster, which is occurring more rapidly than many would like.
‘Tikki Village’, pictured below, is one example of a land sale that recently occurred for over a million dollars, presently holding several ornate little fibro cabins that serve the community with cheap long term rental options, but zoned for medium density development and at risk of being turned into towers.
If you want to see the real Forster, the old Forster as it was, you’d better go soon as much of it is rapidly changing. Locals are quick to point out how the character of the place is briskly disappearing, never to return as it was. Below is a gallery of photos of the town, including ‘Tikki Village’, but be warned, many of the buildings shown won’t be there for very much longer, or may in fact already be gone.
All photos copyright Inheritance.
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.
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.
Sydney Open is a bi-annual celebration held by Historic Houses Trust and one of the best days to stroll through the city and take a behind-the-scenes look at some of our most revered and loved buildings. Held over a whole weekend in November, the event consists of one day of Focus Tours encompassing some very special buildings and places, such as The Tank Stream and the QVB dome, both of which I was lucky enough to visit this time round, as well as a general pass on Sunday allowing access to 50 famous Sydney sites. From the classic to the ultra-modern, Sydney Open gives the public a chance to get to know their city intimately, go behind normally closed doors and look at some of the workings inside private spaces such as 1 Bligh St and the Sydney Hilton, and public institutions such as Parliament House and The Sydney Hospital. This is a day for engaging with architecture, people and history, the things that make our city what it is. Of course everybody’s day will be their own individual experience, with most punters happy to cram in as much as they possibly can before falling in a heap at 5pm closing time. And of course there’s the views; Many of these secret places command magnificent and unusual vistas over the city, from Level 7 at David Jones looking over Hyde Park, to the sky-high playground of those lucky kids at St Andrews Cathedral School, to the harbour views from the top of Deutsche Bank Place, so much to take in over one weekend!
All photos by Inheritance 2012.
Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art building on the shores of Circular Quay has long been a shining monument to the Art Deco style in locally quarried Maroubra sandstone fashioned during a time of our great nation building. Its location alone is supremely accessible and iconic, drawing visitors from far and wide. When arriving by ship or ferry, it comes into view straddling the docks where vessels tie up; by train it can be seen from the top of the observation deck of Circular Quay station commanding a fine view; even by car, as seen from the Cahill freeway, it stakes its claim as the prominent landmark on the western side of Sydney Harbour, golden when bathed in afternoon sunlight. The building itself is worthy of such a position, being designed by Government architect W H Withers in 1939 but not taking shape for many years due to the intervening war shortages, finally opening in 1952 as the Maritime Services Board building, later becoming the MCA as we know it today.
Now the Musuem has added its 53 million dollar prize extension by architect Sam Marshall, ‘the Mordant Wing’, and unveiled it to ‘mixed’ reviews. Andrew Andersons, the architect who converted the former Maritime Services Board building as it was into the MCA, descibed it as ”insensitive… As you get closer and closer to a building there should be finer details that hold the eye and delight. With this building as you move closer there is nothing more to see. That’s why it is likened to scaffolding.” He also noted the lack of windows on the North eastern corner, essentially wasting any use of the potential harbour view that may have evolved from a smarter building. Another critic, prominent Sydney architect Philip Cox said “Circular Quay is sacred. There was a one in 500 year opportunity to do a great building at Circular Quay.”
I myself am not here to pass judgement on the merits of this new age building which would no doubt have some modern art aficionados head over heals lusting over its sharp lines, the dialogue between the old and new(?), crisp cubic forms within the black and white contrasts or clever use of time and space. To me it looks like a bunch of boxes stuck together at random and painted in the cheapest colours that happened to be on special at Bunnings that calender month.
What I do have to question is how this extension fits with the original building. Does it do the heritage of the building justice, or the site? How is it inspiring, how does it invigorate and how is it sympathetic to the form of the current building? Is the scale of the extension appropriate, seeing as it seems to dominate the existing facade from every angle. How do the flat black and white textures compliment the timeless glowing Sydney sandstone, the commanding art deco lines; how does the shape fit as a whole with the original template that was there, and how does it sit in relation to the gentle curves of the lapping foreshore so near? Is this building worthy of being part of, in fact commanding this iconic location? Does it pay homage to the history of the immediate area, to the First Fleet’s landing, to the cultural meeting of European and Aboriginal Australia, to the early days of colony, to the rich maritime heritage of Sydney Harbour? The answer, I believe, is that it fails significantly and detrimentally.
Not only has the architect boldly patched on a totally self-indulgent non-descriptive non-relating wall of monochromatic lego blocks that looks like some puzzling game of 3-D scrabble on an oversized scale, but he has also had the indignity to place glass fronted upper levels over the top of the classic MCA facade, something akin to fitting the Opera House with roller shutters. And this is, essentially, after the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, the third most prominent building on our most important harbour, in our most important heritage precinct, metres from where Phillip walked ashore and modern Australia was born. Clearly, this is a sign of the state of heritage building thought in modern Australia 2012, where a beautiful 20th century building such as this just can’t be left alone to shine forever more.
If a new wing had to be built here on this site, then couldn’t it at least have it’s origins and influence in either early maritime Australia like so many of the surrounding (indeed adjoining) buildings, or alternatively pay respect to the previous inhabitants of Sydney Cove, the Cadigal Aborigines… An extension based on the forms, colours and tones of local Aboriginal design, holding inside a modern Australian art gallery – that would have fit perfectly and done the site justice and our city justice, finally showcasing to the visiting tourists of the world as well as locals, that there was a rich and thriving Aboriginal history here before European settlement and it deserves to be looked at, and it can in fact blend with what we think of as modern day Australia.
Now all you modern art marvellists, before you shake your head and shrug off my theories as heritage ego rambling, let me say this. This is a heritage blog. The building, this 53 million dollar edifice, wouldn’t even rate a mention here, if it wasn’t tacked on to the side of the important, sublime art deco MCA building like some digitalised tumor, in this important, sublime location on the shores of Sydney Harbour.
In fact I believe it should have been built, but not here… In Parramatta, or Liverpool, or North Sydney, it would have made a significant contribution to the culture and arts scene of these areas, and be welcomed as a means to share and decentralise our state’s culture base from the old, historical, rustic heart of Sydney that is the Rocks and Circular Quay. It may have even encouraged tourists and Sydney-siders alike to venture further afield bringing their arts-seeking funds with them. Imagine a ferry ride from historic Circular Quay along the Parramatta River, charting the flow of an evolving Australia, to a modern gallery in a hub of the city worthy of international praise.
Instead we have this, a heritage building compromised, heritage values lost, open park space by the harbourside lost, irreplaceable views lost, and an opportunity gone begging.
Black-and-white boxes is what we have gained. 53 million dollars worth of black-and-white boxes.
Interestingly, architect Sam Marshall was quoted at a mediation meeting as saying “I would have demolished the building if I could,” referring to the original MCA. So we have a project architect working on a heritage building that he has absolutely zero sympathy for to begin with – is it any surprise the extension doesn’t work?
Is this an ugly, unloved building? The SMH thinks so in its article of late last year after plans were outlined to redevelop the 1964 built Ryde Civic Centre with twin towers more than three times the height of the existing structure. I personally have driven past this building on many occasions, and always marveled through my foggy car window (foggy from the haze of constant traffic along Lane Cove Rd.) at its retro form, simple yet elegant lines and concave glass filled facade, reminiscent of the AMP Buildings at Circular Quay, the first skyscrapers of Sydney. Perhaps its the 1960s modernity of the design I admire, or the sheer smart municipal feel of it all. Perhaps part of what I find easy on the eye is the seemingly appropriate and sympathetic scale of the building to the surrounding streetscape, which is more than can be said for its planned replacements, two World Trade Centre-like monstrous tower blocks of 24 storeys each, accompanied by smaller podium buildings, for a total of 500 units, 600 car spaces, and a whole lot of extra congestion added to this already choking stretch of main arterial road.
What makes the plan even more shadowy is that motor transport will be the only mode of transport available to the inhabitants of these new skyscrapers, as there is no railway station nearby at all, a factor that would normally veto such a densely packed development in the first place. And as for open space, good luck trying to find that in the area. The road it fronts is the second busiest in the city of Sydney.
So who is the culprit, trying to rezone this parcel of public land and the raise the level of building heights up to the sky and pack in ever more rate-paying residents to this overcrowded precinct? It’s Ryde Council… Well, not all of Ryde Council to be fair, they have been deadlocked 6 votes to 6 in an intriguing and divisive battle between the anti-redevelopment faction, who seem to be representing the views of 99 percent of the constituents, and the pro-redevelopment, who are more interested in blocking the views. The Mayor, Artin Etmekdjian has used his casting vote on more than one occasion, quite controversially, to pass the motion of redevelopment, when he should in fact, in a matter of deadlock, use his casting vote to maintain the status quo.
From an outsider’s perspective, the deal is a crafty one. Ryde council hands over 60 percent of the land to Lend Lease at ‘market rate’ together with a loan of a reported 35 million dollars to help finance the development. In return, council changes the zoning of the land and throws the height controls out the window thereby increasing its assets from $18 million to $79 million. So, I guess the only real losers are the residents of Ryde and people of greater Sydney. Indeed, why wouldn’t any council go ahead and follow suite knocking down their own council chambers to build highly lucrative residential skyscrapers in their place?
And it gets uglier… The council appears to be on the verge of collapse, with members walking out of meetings, tensions boiling over, erupting in the extraordinary motion to sack the general manager of Ryde Council John Neish by the anti-redevelopment camp, in a move to hold over negotiations until after September’s local elections, when they feel they would have the numbers to scrap the land deal with Lend Lease, and pursue other more community-acceptable avenues. And so it should be; the elections are now so close and this is a very big issue for Ryde residents and anyone who uses Lane Cove Road/Devlin St. for commuting.
Residents are clearly not happy, as this can be seen to be a massive overdevelopment which lacks the rail transport infrastructure needed. More than 2000 letters of objection were written regarding the proposal. Labor Cr Jeff Salvestro-Martin said “The community is a very important stake holder in this whole process, and until now they’ve effectively being ignored. When you think that this is actually a civic centre… you would think the community is a very important stakeholder in that. We need strong leadership, someone to stand up and say, you know what, we actually haven’t got this right. We need to go back to the drawing board, re-examine this proposal right from the start.” Recently the anti-redevelopment faction have put forward a motion to establish a community advisory committee consisting of four sitting councilors and members of the public.
Hats off to the six councilors who haven’t bowed down. We can only hope that come election time things will change for the better in Ryde. People have had a gut full of this, seeing their suburbs turned into high density concrete blocks for the profits of multinational developers and self indulgent councilors. Developments like this change our city forever, and they are becoming far too commonplace in cities like Sydney in this day and age. This is one instance where acting with your vote may produce a more favorable outcome for the community. Unfortunately the fate of the wonderfully modernist Civic Centre is probably to become rubble no matter which way it goes at the election, as the anti-Lend Lease development camp haven’t pursued an Interim Heritage Order option even at this desperate stage. So Ryde will end up losing its landmark Civic Centre and gaining new towers either way, its just a question of size.
I for one don’t think its an ugly building at all, and would love to see the Ryde Civic Centre retained as a piece of 1960s urban engineering – from a time when our city was young, and what was important was how people lived, and how they interacted within their city, not how many you could fit into small concrete boxes rising unrealistically over the gentle surrounding suburban landscape. We need to conserve outstanding examples of this era of municipal building as much as any; together with other styles and genres of great architecture they knit together to form a rich tapestry of the building of our city over many generations, of the civic pride we once felt as a community, of what Australia really stands for. And that, stone by stone, is slowly being eroded from our common view.
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Main image , a beautiful shot of the Leslie J. Buckland and Druce designed Ryde Civic Centre by Peter Miller, onthewaterphotography.