No matter what you build on the waterfront of Sydney Harbour these days, chances are it won’t be liked. In a city whose crowning glory is the Opera House, the bar for architecture is set high and new buildings in the Central Business District (CBD) skirting the water’s edge have all been decried by locals.
One particularly hated apartment block overlooking Circular Quay is popularly referred to as “The Toaster”. The neighbouring Museum of Contemporary Art has been accused by Architectural academic James Weirick of exuding “an air of monumental mediocrity”. The museum’s new AU$A50m (€35m) wing has been denounced as little more than a box. But none of these buildings have bred as much outcry as the plans for Barangaroo, a AU$A6bn (€4.2bn) multi-purpose complex on the northern edge of the CBD.
Currently Barangaroo is a vacant 22-hectare parcel of land that was once a container terminal. The concrete bay gazes out onto some of Sydney’s much-prized waterfront, quietly awaiting construction that’s due to commence next year. The site will include office towers, a shopping mall, apartments and outdoor public space. Its centrepiece is a hotel designed by Richard Rogers, dubbed “Big Red” by Sydney-siders because of the red exoskeleton shown on the architectural plans.
The building’s plans have not been finalised, the images released are just an aspiration – the actual plans will be revealed when the development application is submitted – but the public is already discontent.
Neighbouring apartments are concerned the complex will block out their morning sun, heritage bodies believe that the attempt to sculpt the industrial dock back into a headland will look artificial, and most of Sydney doesn’t like the project’s monumentality: it dares to build not just on the waterfront but in it, Roger’s building was designed to sit on a 150m pier protruding into the harbour.
On Thursday, Lend Lease, Barangaroo’s developer announced that “Big Red” got a trim. The building will be reduced from 213 to 159 metres, on a pier that’s 85 metres long. John Tabart the chief executive of the Barangaroo Delivery Authority, who told the Sydney Morning Herald that his role as the head of Barangaroo Delivery Authority was to “keep the bastards [Lend Lease] honest”, proudly told the paper that “Lend Lease have listened to the public.”
Unfortunately for Tabart the public doesn’t seem grateful. In the same article John McInerney, a councillor on the City of Sydney, was cynical about the new changes: “It’s the old Lend Lease technique: you put in a really outrageous application and reduce it to the point where people say: ‘Thank God we’ve got them to compromise,’ without realising that’s where they wanted you in the beginning.” The Barangaroo Action Group reiterated their plans for a protest against the development next Saturday.
Philip Thalis, whose company Hill Thalis Architects won the initial competition to design Barangaroo is also unlikely to be appeased by Lend Lease’s changes. “It [Barangaroo] has the facile and glitzy imagery of a bad Dubai development,” he told Monocle.
Thalis was removed from the project after a clash with Paul Keating, Australia’s former Prime Minister, who heads Barangaroo’s design panel. Thalis refused to comply with Keating’s dream of transforming the industrialised area back to a pre-European-settlement coastline, referring to the idea as a “Mickey Mouse view of history.”
So far, not many have stuck their head out to defend the colossal plans for Barangaroo. “There may be someone that supports the scheme who’s not receiving a direct financial interest in it,” said Thalis. “I am yet to meet them."