Garry Emery on Australian urban planning

Published:  October 16, 2011
Garry Emery on Australian urban planning

desktop asked Garry Emery to write about an Australian design project from the past 12 months that he believes defines now.

Size matters in some things, notably, urban things. We don’t have many large or significant urban gestures in Australia. We have no monumental arch, like St Louis. No Champs-Elysées. No Pall Mall. No Brandenburg Gate. No Red Square. No Washington Monument. No Colosseum. You get the picture.

Perhaps it’s in reaction to this absence of substantial urban set pieces that instead we do have in several provincial towns big icons designed to stamp a memorable impression. The Big Banana, the Big Guitar, the Big Pineapple, the Big Prawn, the Big Merino and other eruptions of bigness catch the attention and set an unremarkable place apart from otherwise undifferentiated surroundings.

The Big Banana and The Big Guitar (below) are a collection of big icons seen in Australia provincial towns, designed to stamp a memorable impression.

Australian cities were not planned with grand civic monuments or significant public spaces in mind. Pragmatic military surveyors laid down their street grids without fuss or flourish. Melbourne and Adelaide were planned on rational lines, with a central grid defining the city. Canberra is a tidy, purpose built national capital of radiating lines and broad axes, centred on its lake. Sydney was always going to defy rational planning. The hilly topography and the promontories and inlets of the harbour militate against axes and grids, and the city’s irregular streets follow the logic and lie of the land. The harbour and parklands apart, including the Olympic 2000 site, Sydney has few large or small urban places of distinction where people may throng. Like other Australian cities, its civic realm is scant and unremarkable.

Sydney possesses Australia’s only internationally recognised urban landmarks, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. The iconic coat-hanger bridge was an uncontroversial, functional matter. But the expressionist Opera House from its inception was accompanied by drama, hostility, treachery and, ultimately, compromise, as its visionary Danish architect, Joern Utzon, was hounded from Australia and his masterpiece handed over to others to complete – not to his original design. It’s a legacy that still haunts the city: the grand vision cut short.

Sydney potentially has another waterfront urban landmark of national and international significance. Barangaroo – ambitious, controversial, large-scale – would complete the neglected western edge of Sydney’s CBD with a large and significant waterfront development, and create a new financial district for the city.

Like the Opera House, Barangaroo is the work of internationally renowned designers: architect Richard Rogers from London and landscape architect Peter Walker from San Francisco. Both are at the apex of their professions.

Perspective rendering of the proposed Barangaroo development showing extensive public parklands and the new location for the financial centre

Barangaroo is significant both for its scale and the scope of disciplines and interests it draws together: architecture, urban design, landscaping, public art, historic interpretation, marketing, branding, digital media, graphic design and politics. It combines public and private development, treading a precarious line between these two competing forces. It promises waterfront access and a public waterfront park, greatly enlarging the civic realm in one of the most central and attractive of Sydney’s places, the harbour.

Barangaroo is a grand scheme with a grand vision. An inevitable question is how well will we handle this big design story? Will we whittle down the vision? Or will we manage to retain the bold design in all its parts throughout the many phases of its complex and difficult realisation?

Bilbao has the defining Guggenheim Museum. Paris had its grands projets, with big developments such as the Centre Pompidou and the Parc de la Villette. Cities from Beijing to Barcelona have embraced the wisdom of commissioning major design statements that embellish and define them as international cities. Will we manage to achieve the big gesture, the big statement, with Barangaroo? Or will we cut it short?

At this point, it is not possible to say. Barangaroo could go either way. It could realise its heroic ambition or be watered down by a thousand compromises. Its fate depends on whether or not we have the courage to recognise and endorse the vision and to execute it well.

From desktop magazine.

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