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The character of a city is more powerful than its buildings

Sydney might have to think about the odd protected view of the magnificent Opera House, writes Paul Finch

What sort of cities do we want in the 21st century? How much will they differ from what we have now? These questions were prompted by an informal discussion event in Sydney last week, where your correspondent made a contribution about lessons from London’s urban past and present, while KPF principal Paul Katz provided an insider’s view of New York’s recent history.

The meeting was in advance of a ‘Sydney Summit’ next month to discuss the long-term future as a world city.  The event has been prompted by Urban Growth New South Wales, a public body with significant landholdings, in particular waterfront and railway lands which are ripe for future development.

A briefing from Urban Growth’s chief executive, David Pitchford, was encouraging. It is clear that he and his senior staff have no intention of falling into the trap of thinking that leaping into a series of masterplans is the right approach. Instead, the intention behind the summit is to identify, in sequence, the sort of Sydney that people would like to see in 30 years’ time; how that future would be funded; what would be designed and where; and how all this would be occupied, managed and maintained. So the idea of the city would take precedence over specific proposals in the first instance.

Sydney currently has a difficulty with governance which many European cities have managed to avoid: it is split into a huge number of local boroughs, with relatively little ability to produce a coherent and deliverable city-wide plan. Add the fact that in terms of devolved centres it looks a bit like Los Angeles, and you realise that plan-making will be complex.

So the task of Urban Growth NSW and its summit will be partly to suggest governance and growth strategies for an extraordinary city in an extraordinary country with a small population but immense natural resources, which looks bound to become relatively much richer over the next 30 years, unless climate change produces consequences much worse than those anticipated.

Sydney

Rather than trying to ape what has happened in other places, Sydney should surely become more like itself rather than somewhere else.

It can exploit its own geography and urban precedents by adding to the rail network which existed from the outset; it can combine a successful downtown central business district with lower-density suburbs, while reinforcing the dense tall housing legacy of Harry Seidler; it can ensure that its remaining heritage buildings are protected, including the redundant White Bay power station, which could easily become a major cultural destination. It might even have to think about the odd protected view of the magnificent Opera House as it redevelops redundant waterfrontage.

This is a city in a state of flux, where concerns about architecture have led to policies that insist on any project above a certain construction value going to competition - the current most obvious examples being major projects by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Wilkinson Eyre. This is both a creative but slightly paranoid policy which assumes that developers will do their worst if they are not controlled by design competition, and that the usual mechanism to control quality are inadequate.

Of course, this may be true. However, it suggests that the perceived value of architecture is site-specific rather than city-wide, whereas ultimately it is the city that matters most. As Saskia Sassen pointed out at the World Architecture Festival, the strength of cities lies in their life as incomplete projects. That is why they survive developers, politicians, dictatorships, and economic and social cataclysm. Think Rome. The Sydney Summit will indeed be interesting.

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