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I’ve been looking through my mess of newspaper cuttings on the Barangaroo development in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. Eight years’ worth, minus a couple of articles that my rabbit chewed during a period of accidental incarceration in the study - he's a survivor. My incomplete archive of newsprint doesn’t quite extend back to the original design competition in 2006 but it gives a pretty good outline of the extraordinary convolutions in this project. If anything gives credence to the clichés about the fundamental connect between Sydney development and big money, Barangaroo is it.

Barangaroo from the water with headland park on the left and construction still underway on towers to the south. The Packer tower will sit between. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2015
Barangaroo from the water. The northern end headland park with the doomed port control tower can be seen on the left. Construction is still underway on towers to the south. The much larger Packer tower will sit between - the city's tallest building. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2015

Currently billionaire James Packer’s ‘unsolicited proposal’ for a 275 metre tall tower is being considered as Modification No. 8 - or just ‘Mod 8’ as it has become, shorthanded at the end of a growing list of alterations. The City of Sydney’s lengthy submission opposes the proposal in tight clear language that nonetheless conveys a sense of bewilderment at the ongoing ‘planning creep’ which has seen a hotel appear over the water (Mod 4), then disappear, then reappear in a much larger incarnation replete with casino and apartments – all encroaching upon public recreation space in the middle section of the project. Apparently this is part ‘concession’ to public complaints about a hotel built on the harbour and part ‘necessary’ adjustment for financial viability after the extraordinary push of the envelope four modifications earlier.

Packer has long argued that a high end casino is essential if Sydney is to compete for the growing Chinese tourist dollar. And apartments in this tower are estimated to sell for up to $100 million – figures that might also tempt the new Asian oligarchs. Concept drawings show a glass shard that would be at home on the waterfronts of Hong Kong or the Middle East where the display of wealth and power has complete sanction. Packer’s interest is, we are to assume, equal to the national interest.

There has been much talk about transparency throughout the planning of the place, but just how it came to this is still not clear to me.

That is the unfinished story of built Barangaroo which occupies the middle and southern end of the precinct. The tale of the ‘headland park’ to the north, on the other hand, is mostly over - it opened to the public on 24th August this year. But that, too, has been a drama. The original winning entry from a group led by Philip Thalis back in 2006 began with the idea that the existing shoreline, which was then a flat apron of concrete built to accommodate shipping containers in the late 1960s, was to be respected as an erstwhile working waterfront. There was green space, some of it tiered, but this was obviously a modified angular landscape.

The Thalis design was, however, superseded in both its landscaped and built elements in an opaque process that saw buildings get bigger and parkland rearranged, much to the disappointment of many. The Barangaroo Action Group was one manifestation of this discontent. It had formed by 2010 to protest the changes and encourage citizens to help ‘Stop the Plunder of Sydney Harbour’ by telling the Government to retain a plan for the place ‘in keeping with the originally approved concept’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 8-9 May 2010).

It was design enthusiast and former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who did most to alter the angular parkway so as to create a ‘naturalistic’ park. As Chair of the Barangaroo Design Excellence Review Panel that had apparently embraced the Thalis scheme, Keating nonetheless convinced the State Premier Morris Iemma to reinstate the headland that ‘man, through industrialisation, took away’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 9-10 August 2008). That was back in 2008. The new place was dubbed Barangaroo after the strong-willed Aboriginal woman described with rare clarity in colonial accounts; along with her husband Bennelong after whom the point which came to accommodate the Sydney Opera House was named. By intent or otherwise the two places were thereby related as dichotomous points on either side of Circular Quay – man/woman, husband/wife, culture/nature.

Keating continued to guide the park design despite resigning from the Review Panel in May 2011, furious at criticisms about process and scale from Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, whom he dismissed as the representative of ‘sandal-wearing muesli-chewing bike-riding pedestrians’ – self-evidently the most undeserving of constituencies (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 2011). Upon the opening of the park in 2015, Keating argued that the resulting park would not have been possible within the confines of the planning process. It took his vision and ‘horsepower’. For that single-mindedness the Herald dubbed him ‘The lord of Barangaroo’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 22-23 August 2015).

Mr Keating is renowned for bold, and sometimes bizarre, hyperbole (by definition pedestrians don’t ride bikes). At the opening of the park in August this year he reportedly claimed that the newly landscaped space would Sydney's best example of a harbour headland 'before European settlement’ (Sun Herald, 23 August 2015). Allowing for the gradual growth of the trees and shrubs at Barangaroo – it is currently quite a stark park - that is an extraordinary prophecy. Barangaroo will never match the thick Angophora forests of Bradleys Head and Berry Island (now joined to the mainland to create a headland). Even Balls Head, the oldest plantings on which only date back to the 1930s, is more indicative of the pre-colonial foreshore. Though the jury seems to be out on the extent of Aboriginal burning - 'firestick farming' - around the Harbour, controlled burning at Balls Head and on Berry Island has approximated any pre-European landscape subjected to such a regime.

The Reserve is, in fact, a highly structured landscape. It is obviously terraced and the foreshore is lined with square cut blocks of sandstone, albeit stone obtained from the site. The waterline of the Point does now resemble the earliest charted foreshore but it is much less steep and the trees, a mix of eucalypts and figs, are not representative of the range or density of the original growth. To have replicated that would, of course, have compromised the all-important views. And then there is the curious inclusion of a formal grove of deciduous exotics near Hickson Road – what I took to be London Plane trees but which may be some of the North American Honey Locusts that have raised eyebrows among the horticultural community, not least because the plant is classified here as a weed.

The foreshore blocks and terraced plantings of Barangaroo. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015
The foreshore blocks and terraced plantings of Barangaroo. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015

For a man who emerged from the political labour movement in Australia, Paul Keating has a curious dislike of industrial heritage. Had the site of Barangaroo retained a vestige of the early colonial Georgian architecture he admires, Keating’s desire for a natural headland might have been curbed. But the structures of the early 20th century have no place in his aesthetic view. Indeed, years ago Keating argued for the demolition of the Woolloomooloo finger wharf – something many regard as a beautiful combination of graceful form and function. As it is, the finger wharves of East Darling Harbour  - today's Barangaroo - were demolished for the concrete container wharf of the early 1970s. The Maritime Services Board tower which sits atop the new park is all that is left of that era and, therefore, is slated for demolition – a particularly egregious eyesore in Keating’s estimation.

When the tower goes Sydney Harbour will have lost yet another skyline element of its industrial/commercial heritage – one to follow the erstwhile hammer head crane at Garden Island. While there was probably no way to adapt that structure for other uses, the tower is reusable as a viewing platform – one with a far more organic connection to place than the truly ugly faux spinnaker lookout built on the waterfront at Portsmouth. It is contemporary with the Opera House and represents the last incarnation of an historic working harbour, just as the gleaming shells on Bennelong Point symbolise a post-industrial waterway.

The area adjoining Barangaroo is already being emptied of its working class constituents as the government-owned terraced housing, originally built to accommodate waterside workers, is sold off.

Of course the view from Barangaroo headland is wonderful – and free. However,  the social context of the park is shifting. It certainly won't be the next hipster mecca implied by Mr Keating's characterisation of Clover and her muesli munching, pedal pushing constituents. Time may prove me wrong but my suspicion is that it will be less a people’s park for the residents of a multi-layered city than a tourist resort and a running track for the bankers who will have bought the nearby terraces as boltholes.

And when the two billion dollar tower is built on its southern edge, the park will also be the forecourt to another man’s vision, 'horsepower' and willingness to defy planning process. Packer's tower, rather than the 'naturalistic' headland, will be the obvious counterpoint to the Opera House on Bennelong Point: the latter a symbol of cultural aspiration, the former a temple to avarice both realised and hopeless. Australians are, we have just been told, the biggest gamblers in the world. The $20 minimum bet will still see a great many coming to try their luck at Barangaroo. What a profound statement.

The view to the south from the headland park. Packer's tower will on the other side of the water. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015
The view to the south from the headland park. Packer's tower will loom up from the other side of the little cove. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015

The view from Sydney's tallest building (the antennae of Centrepoint Tower is slightly taller) will be so much better than from the headland or even the old maritime tower but I doubt if the occupants will care much about the intricacies of park design or heritage. Then James Packer will be the real Lord of Barangaroo.

 

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I’ve just watched Hans Fjellestad’s 2012 documentary Sunset Strip – a good exploration of that famous Hollywood thoroughfare otherwise known as Sunset Boulevarde. There are plenty of rock stars reminiscing and a lot of salacious detail. One theme that emerged for me was the paradoxical relationship between change and stasis.

The Strip has changed dramatically since the first club was built. Each entertainment epoch has risen and fallen with consequences to the look of the thoroughfare. But its extraordinary role as a place transformed from a rural road to somewhere where excess was largely tolerated throughout from the speak-easies of the 1920s through to the next century. Police crackdowns in the late 1960s notwithstanding, it seemed that the Strip was a place of perpetual carnivalesque inversion.

Keanu Reeves referred to it as a ‘sacred place’ with resonances of the past still present. However, many with some regret at the people and styles that have followed their own heyday – thinking perhaps that the essence they cherished has been lost.

One event that had an impact on many was the closure of Tower Records around 2006. The building was a landmark that defined the Strip, and the music it made available was pivotal to the culture of visitors. Technology it seems had moved and people were no longer buying CDs in the volumes necessary to keep the huge outlet open.

I watched Sunset Strip on DVD rather than by download rental. The transience of that tangible technology (ie a disc rather than a digital stream) and the reality of lost places became weirdly convergent almost immediately afterwards when I popped up to the local DVD rental store, Network Video+DVD in Sydney’s inner west. The staff told me store would close in a month or so. Their whole library was being sold. People were streaming from home not coming in to borrow. Faced with that I bought some documentaries I would not find easily on-line.

Network Video at Stanmore, March 2015 photograph by Ian Hoskins
Network Video, Stanmore, March 2015, photograph by Ian Hoskins

Network is one of the only DVD rental stores left in Sydney. It has long been the best with an extraordinary stock and great staff (including the genial and knowledgeable Charlie who could pass for David Crosby’s twin). For this reason I thought it would live on indefinitely, providing a service to a niche but viable demand in a big city where such things should be possible. The apparent incontestable logic of the market has dictated otherwise.

The news was upsetting. Network Video+DVD, as the name suggests, has been there a long time – it predates the digital age and my arrival in the area. It is an institution, and its demise will sadden many, for Network disseminated culture and connected people in a way not dissimilar to the local municipal library. DVDs, like books, can be discovered on a shelf in a way they usually are not by browsing a catalogue. Were the store to be replaced by homes, it's loss would be easier to accept for Sydney is in the grip of a perpetual housing crisis. But it seems that the Network site will become another liquor outlet – evidence that the market isn’t always ‘right’, as if that wasn’t already clear.

The connection between the sense of loss and place has interested me for a long time because I feel it so often and hear it expressed by so many others. At its simplest it might be dismissed as ‘remember the good old days’ nostalgia, something I can find annoying and try to circumvent in my own reactions. There was a bit of this in the Sunset Strip memories.

As an historian I'm also aware that there is some relativity about profound feelings of loss. Change has been a part of ‘Western Society’ for a long time. The poet Henry Lawson decried the ‘brand new throng’ who were displacing his local community back in 1909 – a time we now look on as one that was surely slower and conducive to close knit community. Indeed this sense has affected people for centuries. Oliver Goldsmith’s lamentation ‘The Deserted Village’ was written in 1770.

But capitalism is dynamic – indeed ever more so since Goldsmith’s time. Places are disappearing or altered and damaged more quickly than ever. Environmental change intertwined with economics is increasing the pace. Change is now so fast it is hard to maintain orientation and perspective; so Australian academic Glenn Albrecht has identified a new malaise, ‘solastalgia’, a homesickness one feels while still at home – such is the swirl that envelopes us. It has, he argues, implications for mental health and social cohesion.

Given the profundity of the forces involved, this all seems irreversible but Glenn clings to optimism: ‘as recognition of the damage that degraded and desolated environments do to our mental health increases, it is possible that we can respond more effectively to simultaneously restore mental and ecosystem health.’ I hope so. In the meantime I guess I'll be watching fewer DVDs.

There is an introduction to Glenn’s ideas with specific reference to climate change at ‘The Conversation’.

http://theconversation.com/the-age-of-solastalgia-8337

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It being nearly Christmas, some may be considering things loftier than the usual splurge on gifts and food. My mind was turned to religious architecture again during a recent wander around Armidale in northern New South Wales – a country centre with two fine cathedrals (Anglican and Catholic) and a very handsome Presbyterian Church adjacent to the retail centre.

St Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cathedral Armidale NSW. Photo by Ian Hoskins
St Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cathedral Armidale NSW. Photo by Ian Hoskins

I often tell those who come on my guided walks around North Sydney that architecture provides the  most accessible way of comprehending the material culture of past generations. Unlike clothing, cars or other forms of technology, the structures of the past are still all about us.

Few buildings wear the ideological intent of the architect or owner more clearly than places of worship and their associated structures. These were literally built to express and evoke religious sentiment. And what I find especially fascinating is that, despite the apparent immutability of the truths presented in them, buildings erected by the various Christian churches in Australia reflect changing architectural fashion and thought just as non-sacred structures do.

Gothic architecture, in its various forms, was the dominant mode of sacred expression in this country through the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth. It is not surprising given that the consolidation of British occupation of the Australian colonies coincided with the revival of the Gothic in the ‘mother country’. Americans, by contrast, were far more willing to erect a church that looked like a Greek or Roman temple, something that would have appalled John Ruskin for whom classicism was synonymous with paganism.

The spiritual message of much Gothic architecture is clear. Cathedral spires and pinnacles reach for the heavens. Even in their absence the pointed arch window directs one’s gaze, and hopefully thoughts, upwards. Then, of course, in Catholic and some Anglican churches there is the obvious iconography apparent in statues and stained glass windows.

All this is very apparent with St Mary and Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral in Armidale. It was designed in 1910-11 by the firm Sherrin and Hennessey who did a huge amount of work for the Catholic Church at the time. Heavenly thoughts are conveyed to all who enter or pass by with the spire, pinnacles and pantheon of saints.

The Cathedral is built of brick rather than stone, as was the case with many Federation-era Gothic churches. In this instance the construction also shows off the characteristic local light and dark bricks and the polychromatic brickwork of the prolific local builder, GF Nott. St Mary and Joseph’s looks like it belongs in Armidale because of this localism.

The extravagant expression of Gothicism was pared back during the first half of the 20th century by the impact of Modernism, which celebrated mass production and tended to eschew ornamentation. Accordingly the celebration of the craft of the carpenter, bricklayer, and mason, so apparent in earlier Gothic structures, was muted and then lost altogether.

Cathedral Hall, built 1938, photograph by Ian Hoskins
Cathedral Hall, built 1938. Photo by Ian Hoskins

This move to austerity is so apparent in the ‘Cathedral Hall’ that was built by Armidale's Catholics near the sublime structure from which it gets its name. It is clearly a building that has been designed rather than simply erected as a functional shelter. The Gothic ancestry is referenced by the stylised battlements on the bay front. The decision to leave the grey concrete render unpainted seems to be part of the original intent of the architect or builder. There is a grimness about it that may reflect the impact of the Great Depression, just past when the place was built. Possibly cost was an issue. To me it also expresses an age when totalitarian ideas were in conflict with democracy and the Catholic Church was trying to find its place within this turmoil. But was arrival at the Cathedral Hall meant to uplift and express hope in the future through its modernity? Or was the bleakness an attempt to cower a congregation and secure their allegiance? Either way, for such as small building, it is amazingly affecting.

 

 

 

 

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Winter has ended and with it the peak season for catching Southern Blue Fin Tuna off South East Australia. And apparently it has been a bumper season. Long-lining commercial fishers are happy and so too are recreational anglers using rods and spear guns. The internet is replete with images and footage of men (they only ever seem to be men) proudly holding up their trophies or beaming over fish flapping around decks.

The tuna caught off NSW had already run the summer gauntlet along the South Australian coast where commercial fishers use purse seine nets to corale juvenile fish into port for fattening and then sale to Japan – the world’s biggest market for the Southern Blue Fin Tuna. South Australian Tuna Industry spokesman Brian Jeffriess was ecstatic: ‘It's not just the size but the better condition of the fish that you would have expected at this time of the year’. The Leeuwin Current was strong this season, favouring the fishers rather than the fish. As Jeffriess acknowledged 'Sometimes you get lucky and this year we did'.

Frozen Tuna at Tokyo Fish Market 2009
Most Australia-caught Southern Blue Fin Tuna is exported to Japan. Frozen Tuna at Tokyo Fish Market 2009 (Photo by Ian Hoskins)

The odd thing is that these fish are widely regarded as endangered – a result of devastating over-fishing in the post-war decades. That was the status recommended by the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee in 2004 and it still is so classified under the NSW Fisheries Management Act. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) goes one further and lists the Southern Blue Fin Tuna as ‘critically endangered’. The population is less than 10% of its pre-fished size.

This is not surprising given the Tuna’s physiology. They are apex predators – muscular, warm blooded - quick in the water but slow to mature to reproductive age. A tuna can live as long as 40 years but doesn’t reproduce until it is at least 8. Animals with this profile are more vulnerable than most to over-fishing.

So why are we still killing them?

One part of the answer is that, like so much in science these days, the figures are contested. Because it is a migratory species harvesting of this Tuna is managed by an international body – the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Blue Fin Tuna. Quotas set by this body have fluctuated over the years but have recently gone up because monitoring has indicated a rise in population. However the migratory habits of the Tuna also make monitoring difficult. The good news is that Australia's commercial fisheries are among the best managed in the world. But that doesn't alter the differing conclusions drawn from science which are pause for thought for fish eaters.

Another part of the answer has to do, perhaps unsurprisingly, with economics. There is money to be made both in commercial fishing and recreational fishing with its ripple effects in tourism. This is not to necessarily imply a few making huge dollars - though some may well be doing very well - but rather the harvesting of tuna supports the livelihoods of commercial fishers and small communities, and is therefore supported by governments.

A third consideration relates to our peculiar attitude to marine creatures. Denizens of the deep are somehow different to those that roam the land. In Australia we have largely marginalised the hunting gun culture that is still so prevalent in the US. But fish are the last wild harvest and catching them is still widely regarded as a right – a link to something elemental and basic perhaps. We are not only far more amenable to killing fish, regardless apparently of their conservation status, but we celebrate the activity. One of the You-Tube clips I accessed through the Ulladulla Game Fishing Club website, shows recreational fishers bagging Southern Blue Fin Tuna off the south coast of New South Wales. It begins with a proud shot of a gleaming power boat, follows through with the fight and finishes with the last gasps of a bleeding fish and big smiles and thumbs up from the victors. The action is accompanied by the muscular riffs of Metallica’s 'Enter Sandman'.

All of this is, of course, quite legal. It is also pretty clearly a demonstration of humanity’s 'right' to dominate nature and take what we want, not necessarily what we need. I know that the recreational Tuna catch is far smaller than the commercial, but there is something especially problematic about killing an animal that is, at best, struggling back from the brink - simply for fun. Professional fishers may well enjoy their work but it is ultimately a livelihood. Recreational fishers have more of a choice about what they catch.

Things change and sometimes very quickly. Our casual toleration of whaling persisted up to the 1960s at least. By 1979 Australia had harpooned its last whale and over the following decades whale watching rather than killing became profitable. Our centuries’ old hatred of sharks, so spectacularly demonstrated by countless photographs of crowds surrounding the hoisted carcasses of these 'monsters', is also shifting. People are actually protesting against the culling and hunting of sharks in the wake of fatal shark attacks. The refrain ‘we enter their world at our own risk’ is the common, and remarkably humble, response.

I wonder when caution and respect will be accorded the Southern Blue Fin Tuna at least by the recreational anglers.

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Just what gives someone charisma or presence is intangible. I do know it is often bound up with some attribute or characteristic such as reputation, physical size or beauty. Sometimes it is oratorical skill that wins over in the absence of any other obvious factor.

Bob Brown in discussion with Sophie Cunningham and Ashley Hay
Bob Brown in discussion with Sophie Cunningham and Ashley Hay (photo by Ian Hoskins)

When I met Bob Brown briefly in the book signing tent at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival last week, it was clear that presence could also be generated by serenity. Australia’s best-known environmentalist had a very palpable friendly gentleness. I had asked simply for a signature rather than a dedication but Bob enquired after my name, shook hands and said ‘nice to meet you’ - and seemed to really mean it. I was one of 30 or 40 queued for that signing. I think there was least one other. I assume all were greeted with the warmth I witnessed.

Bob's signing - the front of a long line
Bob's signing - the front of a long line (photo by Ian Hoskins)

Bob Brown was there to talk about his latest book, Optimism: Reflections on a life of action - which is essentially a memoir that runs from the young doctor’s encounter with Jimi Hendrix in his last moments at the emergency ward of a London Hospital in 1970 through an extraordinary life of political action, saving rivers and forests. But the purpose of the book’s introduction, and that of the talk I heard (the second of two that morning), was to inspire and encourage others on the ‘progressive’ side of politics to endure despite all the bad news and apparent impending environmental cataclysm.

Bob’s is the story of an activist who has experienced depression and hopelessness but found energy in being optimistic. It is a strategy that draws upon ‘learned optimism’, an influential strand of modern psychology which aims to counter depression through behaviour and without reliance on drugs.

It is ‘the intelligent’ that the Doctor appeals to, for they are ‘unsure’ and ‘weigh things up’. But ‘Mulling things over while the stupid and greedy ravage the planet’ leads to individual misery and collective disaster.

This psychological framing is not surprising given Bob Brown’s own training as a medical doctor. It also presents a counter to the faith-based lunacy of what the environmentalist calls the new religion of Growth, with its gods Materialism and Consumption and its ‘high priests’ in the Murdoch press. This new religion masquerades as ‘rational’ but has all but displaced the faiths of old.

Conversely, because it holds the key to planetary survival, environmentalism is entirely rational. That we are consuming the equivalent of 2 ½ times the Earth’s resources is stark evidence of that.

But acting upon that evidence, of course, is where clarity ends and policy, and therefore politics, begins. It is where black and white merges to grey. There was not much in Bob’s discussion or in the book that grapples with complexities such as the definition of ‘wilderness’ when Indigenous people claim pre-colonial occupation of the land. The fraught politics of the Wild Rivers Legislation in Queensland that saw Aboriginal groups ally with the conservative State Government to repeal the river protection Act earlier this year is one example of this.

The ferocity of the Marine Park debate in the lead up to the 2011 NSW election was grounded as much in culture as it was in science – a belief in the long held ‘right’ to fish versus the desire to exclude the impact of humans from some areas. It was indicative of the difficulty of convincing people to act effectively in a democracy when individual interest does not always immediately align with the collective good of all of us ‘Earthians’, to use Bob’s term. So in creeps the grey fog.

Bob Brown does not have a typical orator's voice - its actually something of a monotone. But by sticking to the black and white, and delivering that with gentle certainty, Brown kept his Festival audience enthralled and in agreement. It was admittedly a receptive and sympathetic crowd. Byron Bay is possibly unique in its politically powerful blending of Anglo-Celtic counter-culture and affluence. So somewhat ironically the atmosphere in the great tent – a most appropriate venue – was one of religious revivalism. As the place filled to capacity, those who wanted to remain within were compelled to sit or kneel towards the front. That was where I found myself, having arrived too late to claim a chair. And it was there that I came to sit next to a kneeling woman who began quietly sobbing and rocking back and forth, hands together almost in prayer.

Seeing the light inside the tent
Seeing the light inside the tent (photo by Ian Hoskins)

I admire very much the courage and conviction of people such as Bob Brown. But I do find myself often mired in the grey complexity – and sometimes in melancholy – ‘mulling things over’ trying to understand competing interests; to work out which are valid and which are mendacious, who are the ‘stupid and the greedy’ and who are simply defending their own place on the planet. I’m not sure if that means I sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees, or the trees for the wood.

 

 

 

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