View from Sydney, Australia

ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW (online) 21 February 2012

Sydney, more than ever, is coming to be a critical component of the architectural panorama. Many factors are coinciding together: big money, big clients, multicultural contest, opportunities for unconstrained experimentation and surprising public consent.

This situation appeals to many firms around the world, as stars like Jean Nouvelle and Norman Foster become involved in one of the most important projects of the city. Although the scenario appears to be a perfect opportunity to be a fertile ground to enhance the new Sydney, there is a creeping worry that not all of the factors will have the same weight; that money will overbear and the power of the developers could prevail over any idea of good architecture.

It is strange to European eyes that the debate about the city is not as heated as in Europe or, especially now, in South America. The absence of the same social problems, faced by Europe and South America, renders the debate less interesting, breeding civil and political apathy. The public feels less involved in the changes and the challenges of the city, perhaps because most new projects involve only private developers.

The city at the moment is embroiled in a trinity of major projects, fated to change the face and the shape of its streets. The University of Technology Sydney Campus, Central Park and South Barangaroo are all located in key locations around the city.

The UTS Campus master plan, designed by BVN, includes the projects of prestigious international and national firms like Denton Corker Marshall, Lacoste+Stevenson and Frank Ghery.

Central Park is a new area of mixed function, developed by Fraser Property and located exactly in front of the University, with undeniable European influences from Nouvelle and Foster. At the core of the project is a 6400 square meter park in the middle of the complex. It is composed of 11 buildings that will accommodate commercial and retail activity, as well as provide residential dwellings.

Barangaroo is the biggest project out of all three, costing around 6 billion dollars. Destined to be the new financial heart of the city, the master plan was developed by Rogers Stirk Harbours + Partners in the 2009 for the Lend Lease developers. The project consists of three towers, which when completed will provide almost 300,000 square metres of new office space and 15,000 square metres of new retail facilities.

All of the projects attempt to create a strong connection between the inside and the outside, using light materials, vast glazing and varying levels of opacity. The city is keen to present the trinity as separate interventions, however the social, infrastructural and economic impacts of these projects on the city would be too powerful to focus on the image of individual buildings.

These new additions will not just exist as individual puzzle pieces that answer the needs of the city, but would instead give an impression of mere economic tools, used to earn money. All the services that the trio include look like embellishments, employed to increase the exchange value, rather than as sensitive answers to how people will actually use the space and live in it.

Despite all these flaws, however, the projects are well designed. The build-quality of the complexes is extremely high; as independent campuses they are well planned and environmental sustainability has been taken seriously. The trinity look like little autonomous pieces in the city, each housing all necessary facilities and services to be self-sufficient, but are neither connected to nor inserted into the urban fabric. The new quarters are like neat squares sewn into a patchwork quilt but ultimately fail to support Sydney, which should feel more like a coherent puzzle, where all parts fit together to form a single entity.

Photograph: Ian Armstrong

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