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Australian city architecture – more positives than negatives

Paul Finch
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Paul Finch finds much to admire in major projects taking shape in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth

A pleasurable trip to Australia included notable occasions in three cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Apart from speaking at a Lend Lease urban regeneration conference, I visited two of its current Sydney developments, Darling Harbour and Barangaroo, the latter the site for three Rogers Stirk Harbour office towers, and a forthcoming even higher hotel and casino by Wilkinson Eyre, plus two residential towers by Renzo Piano. It put the fuss over Piano’s ‘Paddington Pole’ into a suitably parochial pigeonhole, like the ludicrous Project Fear claims about life outside the EU.

The Barangaroo site is the subject of local controversy. I found the work so far to be most impressive. The ground plane is working, despite an insistence by planners on too-wide waterside walkways. The argument about height made little sense to this outsider, mainly because the vast expanse of adjacent water sets the scale of the place, not the buildings.

Both this and the Darling Harbour mixed-use/public space project are a reminder that in order to achieve urban design of significance, you need a good-sized site,  not just a building plot. The desire to maximise returns on small sites inevitably limits the scope for generosity in relation to the area outside the ownership line, whereas if you are doing half a dozen buildings or more, then there is every possibility of creating a real piece of city.

Australian cities have very distinct characters. A perceptive driver on a winery tour to the Yarra Valley outside Melbourne suggested that the real difference between his city and Sydney was that the latter encouraged people to look out and beyond, whereas in Melbourne people tended to look in to the city itself. Well over half a million citizens were on the streets on the Saturday evening I spent there, celebrating ‘White Night’ – not this year’s Oscars ceremony, but a central city feast of illumination of every description, from dusk to dawn.

Not everything in Melbourne is yet perfect. The Docklands area has yet to really take off, though the Grimshaw station nearby is helping to shift the balance of economic activity. There is a very old-fashioned shopping mall emerging at Collins Place; by contrast a Lend Lease development called Melbourne Quarter shows promise, not least because (unlike the mall) it opens up connections, rather than closing them down, nicely shown in a figure-ground analysis.

Back in Sydney, an extraordinary anniversary was celebrated last week: the 200th anniversary of the office of State Architect in New South Wales, marked by an exhibition in the State Library. The challenges facing today’s incumbernt, Peter Poulet, are familiar: where to locate a rapidly increasing population; what to do about airport policy; how to stimulate start-up companies, and so on. The hotly contested redevelopment of the redundant White Bay power station will give a clue to the way things are going, with competing client teams including Lend lease/Google, and SP Setia, the Malaysian company behind the Battersea Power Station redevelopment.

My final destination was Perth, where I was able to see the wonderful emerging new Western Australia stadium (on a site with fabulous views of the city from the other side of the Swan River), by architects Cox, Hassell and HKS. I also enjoyed the new waterside development, Elizabeth Quay, linking the city centre to another wonderful expanse of water. Local miserabilists have complained about the public being allowed to experience it without all the restaurants and bars being fully leased. Happily, Perthians (or is it Perthites?) are visiting the ARM-designed project in droves.

My favourite recent Australian project, however, was in Sydney – a brick gem by Frank Gehry for a university business school. Worth the detour.

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