The Global Urbanist

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The privatisation of East Darling Harbour

Lend Lease and Richard Rogers have won the right to develop the Barangaroo site in East Darling Harbour, overriding the Hill Thalis-led competition winning scheme. With the proposal for a 230-metre hotel on a new 150-metre wharf, critics say the NSW government is selling out the public interest by allowing private development on the water. Kerwin Datu recalls the history of the competition and examines the arguments made in favour of the hotel, and proposes a radical alternative to design competitions to change the nature of the debate.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Sydney

Topics: Integrated planning, Private sector governance, Property and real estate, Parks and green space, Architecture and urban design

Three articles in the Sydney Morning Herald cover the disappointment of many of Sydney's architects and planners over the NSW government's decision to award Lend Lease and Richard Rogers the right to develop Barangaroo.

Anger is especially directed at Rogers' proposal to extend a new pier halfway across the mouth of Darling Harbour and build a 230-metre hotel upon it. The other side of Darling Harbour is not shown in the plans; instead the pier appears to be surrounded by a large body of water in all directions to disguise its bulk relative to the mouth of the cove.

I must begin with full disclosure. I was originally trained in architecture at the University of Technology Sydney by Philip Thalis, and remain his friend. In what follows, I do my best to suspend my subjectivity on the competition, and concentrate on the thematic differences between the schemes, and an independent critique of the hotel itself. I also attempt to test the schemes against the will of the public, weak as it is, rather than my own. The reader will judge whether I am qualified to do so, and whether I have succeeded.

In the original design competition, the Hill Thalis' led scheme proposed to divide the site from north to south, with a long public promenade on the waterfront similar in length to Sydney's Hyde Park, and a line of buildings extending from the grid of the CBD and Miller's Point. Rogers and Lend Lease made separate entries, both dividing the site east-to-west with a new cove, creating a large public park in the northern half of the site, and high-rise development in the southern half.

Without judging any of the entries, Hill Thalis' scheme was thematically concerned with the site's industrial history, the extended grid recalling the finger wharves that once bristled Darling Harbour.

Both Rogers' and Lend Lease's schemes were concerned with the project's commercial viability, the consolidated development to the south promising greater financial returns for a state government obsessed with maintaining its AAA credit rating.

However, Paul Keating, one of the original jurors, objected to Hill Thalis' emphasis on the industrial past. For him, the only rightful proposition involves restoring the Miller's Point headland to its pre-industrial form, which would conceal the massive cut through the sandstone that overlooks the site today.

Suspending judgment a little longer, it could be argued that the essential difference between Keating's and Thalis' conceptions of the site is a matter of historical preference: whether you embrace the harbour's industrial heritage, or its pre-European landscape. Personally, I find strong arguments for both.

As the site's only political champion, Keating has laboured assiduously to work his vision back into the scheme, to the point where the tender for development rights has been turned into a new design competition that abandons the principles of the winning concept plan.

No popular champion ever arose to defend Thalis' scheme, despite occasional missives by the urban critic Elizabeth Farrelly and a roster of Sydney's leading commercial architects.

The general public has largely stayed out of the argument, partly because it doesn't really know what it wants. There is no overriding popular vision for the site.

When the wider public does raise its voice over the inner harbour, as it did in the early noughties, it has often been in support of Sydney's industrial heritage, and the continuation of light industrial activities on the waterfront. This is arguably more aligned to Thalis' post-industrial vision than Keating's transcendentalism. Yet this will has never been strong enough to carry into direct debate between political leaders. This vacuum allows personal visions such as Keating's to dominate the issue.

In the absence of firm public opinion, this might be fine as long as Keating's vision had some historical foundation. But in Rogers' and Lend Lease's new scheme, these historical arguments are muddied by the proposal of the hotel on the water. No justification for the new pier can be found in either the natural or the industrial history of the site.

There is strength for Chris Johnson's argument that the interweaving of land and water is part of the spirit of the harbour. However, this is satisfied by reinserting some of the coves back into the current shoreline. It is wrong for him to suggest that extending a new pier is integral to maintaining this spirit. New wharves and piers have only been built into Sydney Harbour for industrial purposes, when deepwater infrastructure was necessary to expand Sydney's maritime trade. The only recent developments over the water have been renovations of existing industrial wharves.

It is also disingenuous to say that the right to build on the harbour is in exchange for "giving back" land to the public in the form of a large park. The land is public to begin with, and the requirement for public land was always part of the brief for the masterplan. The developers are "giving back" only in the sense that they do not plan to "take away" more than they have.

It is disingenuous furthermore to suggest that building a hotel on the water is necessary for the financial viability of the development, or of the park, since the key principle underpinning Rogers' original scheme was that the entire project could be self-funded by development within the existing shoreline.

Finally, any justification for the pier on the basis that the hotel would be a new icon for Sydney harbour, comparable to the Sydney Opera House, is absurd. For one, the Opera House was not built on a new pier, but on existing land previously occupied by tram sheds.

The stepped orthogonal form of the hotel has no sense of place; it is the kind of ubiquitous form that could be an office or an apartment building indistinguishably, and which belongs buried amongst like-minded tower blocks in the middle of a rectangular street grid. Nor will the hotel become an icon of public life and culture as is the Opera House. The argument might make more sense if it were a new iconic Museum of Contemporary Art built to rescue that institution from the old Maritime Services Building on Circular Quay.

As it is, the hotel is simply a machine for private profit. There is a place for private profit, and that place is on existing land. The public interest is only served by increasingly devoting the harbour foreshore to public life and culture.

As Thalis said, however, all of this is "Sydney at its most typical", and little will change on the waterfront by rehearsing the same complaints over its privatisation.

This is a radical proposal made to spark questions more than provide answers, but consider this:

Any massive development scheme is a political project more than an urban design project. If there is to be a competition of ideas, perhaps that competition should be played out formally in the political arena. Perhaps ideas competitions should be conducted between politicians, rather than simply between architects, planners and developers.

Imagine that multi-partisan consortia of political leaders must lead all entries into masterplanning competitions of a certain size, and the winning consortium of politicians legally established as the development authority for the site.

Rather than Rogers going up against Thalis, Keating would have to go into battle himself, rallying old guards of the Labor party to his cause. If Richard Johnson, Richard Francis-Jones, and other of Sydney's great architects thought Thalis' vision worth defending, they would have to build a political coalition to make their point. There have always been politicians, such as Bob Carr and Frank Sartor, with enough architectural sensibility to articulate a strong vision when required.

In this way, competing ideas may be defended in the public sphere by individuals with egos invested in dominating public debate, and that might defend the popular consensus against egos such as Paul Keating's.


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