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AJ Writing Prize Winner: Alan Miller on Westfield Sydney Shopping Centre

Year one of architecture school kicked off with a discussion around the impossible question of “what is architecture?”

At those rare intervals during the following years when we students were in a generous mood and actually wanted to praise something, one of our highest accolades was to point at the design in question and proclaim, “that’s architecture,” implying that architecture, good or bad, is distinct from mere building.

Architecture implies a certain level of ambition, a willingness to wrestle with other architecture, past, present and future. When public discussion, as it periodically does in many cities, turns to naming “the ugliest buildings in town,” what is usually meant is the ugliest buildings with some architectural ambition.

The actual ugliest buildings — the cheapo apartment blocks, the McMansions, the strip malls - are just depressing; they lack the frisson of ugliness. They are not architecture, merely the residual detritus of a busy society. Because these buildings don’t play the game of architecture, they can only be discussed from a cultural and social standpoint, rather than the intersection of the social, the cultural and the aesthetic where real architecture resides.

In Sydney, where the division between architecture and its proliferating other is more obvious than in most places, the new Westfield shopping centre at the base of Sydney Tower rides the fence between the two. It may be terrible, but it is architecture and that means there are serious things that can be said about it.

Sydney Tower, completed in 1981, remains the city’s Stadtkrone. Since then it has become, if not a beloved heritage item, at least a familiar landmark and, with its golden pinnacle, a pleasantly gaudy counterpoint to that equally visible but much more refined icon on Bennelong Point. Before its current renovation, Sydney Tower’s structural lightness was its greatest virtue; there was something
approaching grace in the way it dominated the skyline while declining to make the most of its extremely valuable real estate on the Pitt Street Mall, a pedestrianised street with some of the highest retail rents in the world.

Alas, now dear old Sydney Tower has been “maxed-out,” its podium crammed with a six level retail extravaganza which has much to tell us about the way buildings are expected to meet the ground in our cities today.

To put it mildly, I’m no mall rat. Sydney Tower’s new podium is an upscale version of the hulking shopping centres which have enervated many of Sydney’s suburban high streets and not surprisingly the building itself acts out the conflict of trying to wedge that anti-urban model into an urban context. What greases the interface, though the squeaks are deafening, is called architecture. The
building tries, either ham-fistedly or cynically, to pass as some mistranslation of the architectural cutting edge, a Frankensteinian revival of the Melbourne avant garde, circa 2002. It tries to be cool, but the result is as groovy as a drunk investment banker in a Santa hat.

The project’s real creativity has been expended on cramming in floor space. Like a suburban mall, it is a deeply internal experience with nothing to say about, or to, the culture and climate of Sydney. Natural light is nearly absent. The floors, clad in a garishly veined marble imported from somewhere far away, often slope subtly, gradually wedging the visitor under ceilings of nearly domestic height. When the claustrophobia of these spaces is combined with the deliberately confusing circulation of a suburban shopping mall and a drunken proliferation of shiny surfaces, the result, if you pay attention to the space rather than the shopping, is almost psychically damaging.

Most of the architecture lies on the exterior, particularly on the corner of Pitt and Market Streets. The podium’s facade is dominated by a screen-printed glass awning which is simultaneously overbuilt, flimsy-looking and impractical. Too transparent to block the raging Sydney sun, and too high to keep the rain off anyone shorter than Fasolt and Fafner, it is nevertheless the first “architecture” you notice. The rest of the elevation consists of a darker screen-printed glass, the rigours of its fenestration pattern masked by the vomitous riot of its patterning and a general overproliferation of materials. Great architects tend to be aware of the scale at which their architecture operates.

Carlo Scarpa poured himself into sui generis details while Louis Kahn worried about monumental presence. It is possible to achieve both, but better to achieve one or the other rather than a bit of everything. At Westfield, most of the architectural expression lies in fussy details which predictably conflict with the fussy details of the mostly lavish shop fitouts. The whole project could be characterised as fitout architecture on an enormous scale.

Though nearly all are gone now, Sydney had a proud tradition of nineteenth century shopping arcades. Two examples continue to prosper today, the city block sized Queen Victoria Building (1898, nearly demolished in the late 1950s and refurbished in 1986) and the Strand Arcade (1892), across Pitt Street Mall from the Sydney Tower complex. The Victorian arcade combines exuberant detail, robust building materials and clear circulation indicated by ample skylights. Though private spaces, they treat the general public with enough dignity to allow them a straight passage between two streets. The pedestrian, whether shopper or flâneur, benefited from a covered shortcut while the arcade took on the liveliness of a city street.

Westfield, like a cockroach nest, is busy without being lively. It is as clear an example as you could have of the conundrum of Sydney’s wholehearted embrace of the neoliberal way of urban planning. Even if the architecture is resolutely contemporary, the idea of building a suburban mall in the centre of a major city is certainly retrograde, and it is no surprise that the result is a monoculture posing as public space. Some visitors may faint before what must be the most expensive croissant ($AU5.50) in the Southern Hemisphere, but those who persist face a more fundamental question: what exactly are we to do in cities? “You shop!” replies the mall though its PA system before once again striking up the Muzak.

Most urban planners now believe in fine grain rather than wholesale urban renewal, but they increasingly have only shopping and cafes to play with. The pluralistic streets of Jane Jacobs have been distilled into the “active frontages” to which so many planning documents aspire. Even as online shopping pummels bricks and mortar, planners demand more retail and developers higher rents. At Westfield this conflict manifests as an overwhelming brittleness which breaks like a wave on the surrounding streets.

The place is so market-driven that the tension of the balance sheet is palpable whether you shop there or not. Other than the beach, Sydney lacks a culture of public space. Nearly ten years after its opening, Melbourne’s Federation Square (2002) has taken on a heroic quality which was initially masked by the debate over whether it was good architecture or not.

Fed Square shines light on the debacle of Sydney Tower by proving that contemporary, and in its case singularly Melburnian, architecture can articulate genuine public space. If Fed Square is unimaginable in Sydney, the problem is culture rather than planning laws. Whether because of a convict heritage, harbour induced complacency or whatever other convenient explanation, in Sydney any project containing, as Fed Square does, two major museums, a gorgeous theatre and a fair dinkum piazza would necessarily include a few glass towers and a shopping mall to pay for the fun stuff.

This is the self-funding equation which has produced the controversial Barangaroo development proposed for the last remaining big site on Sydney Harbour (and for which Westfield feels like an ominous warm up). Outside Sydney Tower, the “public benefit” appears confined to some repaving, street trees and new benches, unless the mall itself is meant to be our piazza.

At issue is the definition of success in architecture. I’ve been pretty tough on the new Westfield, but it has been successful to the extent that people do go there and it is better to have people in a city than not. That this can be achieved, at least in the short term, with such chintzy architecture and at the expense of Sydney’s traditional high streets (George Street, a block to the west, is looking and feeling pretty run down) is disheartening for those who believe that architecture, like the Victorian arcades, ought to dignify a city and its people.

In a city so content to let the market decide what it wants to build, what do we do when the market decides that good architecture is optional? Sydney knows how to encourage development, but encouraging public space remains a mystery.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I know this place very well! There used to be a shopping mall there already and, the way you describe this one - no light, low ceiling, sloping floors - sounds like nothing's changed. So yeah, encourage development, but one that's pointless?! Well, pointless for who (?) That's the perspective Westfield (Sydney City Council) may have about the idea of encouraging construction of a public space. The public space first needs to make money(of course). But even then, remember the Sydney World Square catastrophe? Funny times....

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