Christopher Kearns, long time Singapore resident, keeps an eye on the building of icons in his former home of Sydney .
If you were to envisage your ideal, vibrant city, it would probably be in the form of towering structures built along an elongated spine, surrounded Manhattan-like as an actual island, or defined by a string of water bodies and parks to form a virtual island , with a cityscape that is framed between such a border, and the sky. At its tips, an iconic landmark (or two), may complete the vision.
Sydney’s CBD is one of a series of peninsulas that jut into its famous harbor. When European settlers first sailed in nearly 225 years ago, an original inhabitant who witnessed their arrival eventually named one of the city centre’s most prominent headlands, Bennelong Point, after himself. Barangaroo, it is said, was his wife.
In the 1960s, Bennelong Point was rescued from the obscurity of just having a utilitarian tram depot on it by Eero Saarinen (erstwhile iconic airport designer) – the judge who reputedly salvaged Jorn Utzon’s now-famous design for the Sydney Opera House from the pile of rejected design competition schemes. Other visionaries like Arup then made its iconic shell structures actually buildable, and more recently, the Australian Government obtained listing for the building as a rare UNESCO World Heritage Site for modern architecture. Its status as a city waterfront icon thus established, its successors can now be found from Dubai to Bilbao to Singapore (specifically, Marina Bay Sands in Singapore – but more on that later).
On the other (western) side of the city, Barangaroo was never really a point – or not that anyone can remember anyway. Darling Harbor was the working port that started to become obsolete as the demands for traditional shipping docks diminished, but its urban renewal was kickstarted by the Bicentenary (of European settlement) government’s series of big projects from the 1980s. Further commercial redevelopments of Cockle Bay Wharf and King Street Wharf towards the north saw what would become known as Barangaroo, and these remained the only working container wharfs as the new millennium dawned. Eventually it was determined that the remaining container wharfs of Sydney Harbor would be across the water at White Bay, and after an aborted Urban Design competition (won by local architects Hill Thalis), a leading private developer, together with a signature British architecture firm, have finally embarked on the first major expansion of the CBD in some 150 years. For at the end of 2009, developer Lend Lease together with architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP, also the airport designers of Heathrow’s T5) pipped to the post rival developer teams, with Foster + Partners and Christoph Ingenhoven leading the other competing designs. But if a foreign name architect winning was controversial, so too was their final design.
Image Source: Barangaroo South
Architects: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
Although comprising significant parkland and view corridors between buildings to reconnect the CBD with the water to the west, what marked discussion at the time of the announcement was a feature hotel tower in RSHP’s ultimate scheme, which extended out into the Darling Harbor bay. ‘Dubai in Sydney’ were the cries that rang out. Things had just about settled down, and Lend Lease was back going about their business of attracting banks and other top tenants to Barangaroo’s substantial quantum of new office space, when this year, one of Australia’s richest men, James Packer, announced his idea to claim part of the parkland for Sydney’s second casino. Not that casino complexes are necessarily at odds with iconic architecture (as could be argued in the case of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands), but more the issue has become – where should the extension of the city stop, and where a foreshore featuring enough open space for a significant public realm, should start. After all, the Marina Bay Sands casino could hardly have been built right in the middle of Singapore’s soon-to-open Gardens by the Bay.
With Chinese ownership of CPG, Sydney may no longer be a regular work trip destination for our top execs. But where, for interest’s sake, is this urban tale now headed? Maybe Packer’s idea won’t spin. After the issue of whether a second casino should be there (or should be at all), is debate on whether icons should in fact be hotels and casinos, and not just opera houses, galleries and airports (my own area of interest). Rogers and co. had already ignited that one. Their smooth, high-tech urban form will surely be memorable, but whether it is a landmark-worthy form that balances a truly iconic Bennelong Point one, only time will tell.♦