Passing through

How interesting to open the Herald this morning to see (coincidentally I’m sure) two major, scape-changing, high-profile Sydney building developments unveiled on the same day. And what different projects! One, the much maligned Barangaroo site, sees a congregation of generic office towers crowding down towards the harbour edge and looming ominously over the (quaint, diminutive, neighbourly) Rocks to the North. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-development, or even anti-high density. I strongly believe it makes environmental sense to densify pockets of human habitation and we should be doing so with some urgency. Plus I find suburban sprawl creepy.

The other project is Frank Gehry’s new building for UTS’s business school on a back lot in Chinatown, a soft pile of boxes that you can imagine melting under the summer sun, and/or stoically turning its wrinkled face towards a grey winter rain. The building has taken a punch in the guts, already knocked about by life, sunk slightly in on itself but wiser for it. Its rear facade is completely different, a patchwork of glassy shards in the midst of being disassembled or assembled. Both sides are Gehry-like undulating shapes, but put against the rendering of Barangaroo, the projects’ difference in human-ness is striking. I mean, the Gehry building dances, it moves, it reflects and participates in what it means to daily traverse the city. It will age gracefully.

The Barangaroo Action Group is launching legal proceedings against the state’s approval of the plans, so who knows what will go ahead in the end. But here’s what I’m thinking about: the performativity of our buildings and social spaces more generally. Place-making as Paul Carter calls it. What it means to live with, in, and amongst them. History and futures. Life between buildings as Jan Gehl emphasises. Here’s a big clue: the Barangaroo rendering is made from the POV of some airborne machine, a private helicopter perhaps hovering somewhere over Balmain. Who is going to experience the site in this way? If you teleport down in amongst the towers, I imagine it will feel much like many other disastrous Sydney streets. Deserted, dead, a discarded plastic bag flying in circles, caught in a windy cesspool between buildings. Ahhh Sydney.

Here’s another funny comparison. They haven’t made any transportation plan for how the 30k people working at Barangaroo will get there (scrapped light rail extension; scrapped metro). So the government is spending $286million to build a pedestrian walkway to the nearest train station. The Gehry building, as a postscript, will cost $150million.

image by Gehry Partners

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