The Barangaroo red herring

March 4, 2010

While tempers flare over the design quality (or otherwise) of the Rogers design for Sydney’s Barangaroo, bulk sale bargaining is putting the city’s long-term economic sustainability at risk.

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Barangaroo, a 22-hectare site on the western fringe of Sydney’s CBD, has been touted as the most talked about architectural project in the city since the Opera House. The site is equal to approximately one-third of the footprint of the Harbour City’s commercial centre and has been hotly contested over the past seven years, with architects vying for authorship of the design (including three Pritzker Prize winners and two AIA Gold Medallists) and developers battling for rights to the site.

The NSW Premier announced late in 2009 that Lend Lease had won the rights to develop ‘Stage One’ of the site based on its commercial offer, which was decorated with a concept master plan developed by the UK’s Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Aspect Studios (Landscape Architects) and local architects PTW, FJMT and LAVA. The scheme was presented to a public forum on 23 February 2010 and web-cast across the globe.

Much debate has focused on whether the scheme that won stage two of the 2005 international ‘ideas and concepts’ competition should have been implemented. As former prime minister Paul Keating reiterated in his aggressive public address at the opening of the forum, the Government had every right to pick and choose between elements of any submission made as part of the competition process. While the marketing spin from the initial competition states the jury was unanimous in its selection of local architects Hill Thalis/Paul Berkemeier /Jane Irwin (TBI), the citation may as well have read: ‘The locals can be the winners so long as they make their scheme look like the proposal from those people from the UK. You know, that proposal that the former prime minister likes so much.’ In plan form, the Rogers decorated Lend Lease bid is essentially a re-hash of its “runner-up” scheme from the original 2005 competition. In the z-axis however, this latest proposal is another story.

The TBI proposal was developed by the Government, with a 30 percent increase in floor area in the revised master plan issued with the Request for Detailed Proposals (RFP) for development rights to Stage One. The non-conforming Rogers scheme proposes a further 15 percent increase on top of this, plus a 213-metre hotel that is ‘outside’ the approved master plan envelope. While only a concept, the red exoskeleton of the hotel is reminiscent of signature Rogers’ buildings, including the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyds building in London. It is possible that this audacious proposal is included as a decoy, turning attention away from the enormously tall buildings that have been proposed to account for the necessary floor space yields lost in the provision of Keating’s ‘Southern Bay’ – simply put, a red herring.

Also contained within the current, approved master plan, and illustrated in the Rogers scheme, is a new headland park, undoubtedly a much-needed asset for the city. The proposal for the park is to obliterate any sign of the 1960s infrastructure, as, in Keating’s words, it was an act of environmental terrorism. Instead, the proposed park will attempt to mimic the former shoreline and topography – albeit atop of a car park. Based on Mr Keating’s diatribe at the forum, this Disney-esque concept is his idea. It is a proposal that undervalues the capacity of contemporary society to successfully reinterpret the ‘mistakes’ of the past and project a vision of the present into the future. It is also an ethical contradiction – the value system that promotes preference for a naturalistic shoreline over a linear engineered harbour edge, simultaneously endorses construction of a man-made pier on reclaimed land. This pier will form the entry to the 213-metre high ‘exclamation mark’ hotel – a truly public function in the eyes of Keating.

The original TBI scheme retained the linear edge of the 1960s docks and the black-and-white delineation between public and private space, but these elements were not its key strengths – they might even be considered matters of taste. Rather, the intelligence of the TBI proposal stemmed from the idea that small(er) parcels of land would be available for development amid a street pattern delivered by the Government. On face value, this could be read as nostalgia for the fine grain of cities such as Copenhagen, as hopelessly romantic as Keating’s pre-settlement headland. A deeper reading reveals a built-in adaptive capacity for the city both in the short and long term. A strategy that has inbuilt flexibility is particularly relevant given the recent performance of the global economy. What would happen should Lend Lease or its investors slip into financial difficulty one-third of the way through the process? Think Babcock and Brown circa August 2009 – where would such an event leave the state and the city? In this regard, procurement and design are inseparable.

There are some positive inclusions in the Barangaroo project; new waterfront public spaces, new ferry wharves, the promise of carbon neutral development, and possibly world-class architecture. It could be argued that these elements were incorporated with equal success into the losing Brookfield Multiplex bid, which was illustrated by Richard Rogers’ long time sparring partner Foster and Partners, KPF (USA) and Hassell. The most noticeable difference between the two bids was that the Brookfield Multiplex scheme lacked Keating’s Southern Bay. While the Brookfield Multiplex proposal morphed New York’s Hearst Tower (Foster and Partners 2003) the conceptual build form proposed by the Lend Lease scheme primarily reads as a collection of signature Rogers Towers.

What is most curious about the current debate is the focus on the design aspects alone. The process should be understood as an economic one, albeit with a physical manifestation. No city has ever developed at this scale on the basis of an architectural/urban design idea alone. In the case of Barangaroo, a large slice of the city has been sold to a single developer – a fast money grab for a struggling state government, but a case for concern in regards to its potential long-term economic impact, over and above any aesthetic outcome. Only 35 percent of the bid was assessed on design. Despite government smoke about the need to protect the commercial interests of the winning bid, you can’t help but wonder where the public interest lies in being denied access to the remaining 65 percent of the bid information.

  • peter March 4th, 2010 5:18 am

    Keatings intervention at east circular quay gave us the toaster so he doesnt have much to beat!

  • jack March 4th, 2010 6:35 am

    i think the scheme is great and the jealousy of the Sydney architects is unbearable

  • John March 19th, 2010 3:05 am

    Why bother holding design competitions and wasting taxpayers money in the first place. Just go straight to the developer and save time. There are plenty of Australian architects, planners and landscape architects that are more than capable of producing high quality work. Why are we so compelled to bring in the so called international experts? And we have the gall to call ourselves a transparent and democratic society!

  • brian June 20th, 2010 5:53 am

    if some of the red tape is not cut away and the claptrap from lounge chair potato experts ignored , not only will Sydney dawdle further behind Melbourne , but it will never achieve the status deserved : World City . As was the Sydney Opera House a vision that almost didn’t happen and which those earlier knockers condemned , Barangaroosouth will be lauded in the same way by those same twits .

  • "Friends of the developer" June 22nd, 2010 4:27 am

    Thank you architects, for rolling over.
    Especially your wonderful Institute.

    Good to know that money still talks in this town.

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