Urbanism – Barangaroo

Debate rages around Barangaroo, Sydney’s largest and most significant urban development for decades. Lee Stickells outlines the situation to date, while a range of architectural commentators provide their perspectives.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting


Preferred Scheme Masterplan 1:6000

Overview of the preferred scheme for Barangaroo South, by Lend Lease with the design team led by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

Plan view of the competition model by Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects, Paul Berkemeier Architect and Jane Irwin Landscape Architects, which won the two-stage international design competition for East Darling Harbour in 2006. Below: Images from the preferred scheme by Lend Lease with Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

Waterfront Promenade.

Transport Place.

Globe Street.

The Canal.Below: Urban moments from the competition-winning scheme by Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects, Paul Berkemeier Architect and Jane Irwin Landscape Architects.

WATER SQUAREBringing urban life into contact with harbour waters.

WETLAND PONDStormwater polishing bird habitat.

TIDAL GAUGEThe paved surface of the platform slides, folds and twists to meet the water. Tides are measured along the sides and by rocks and peaks.

FOLDED EDGEInterpreting the shoreline, marking the edge of the elevated point park.

POD PARKSFolded terrain forming pods for play, respite and gathering. Gardens for withdrawal from activity filtering stormwater.

Sydney does great theatre. Forget Cate Blanchett and the Sydney Theatre Company down at Walsh Bay; it’s the tortured unfolding of the city’s urban design that provides the most affecting show in town. Often resembling a Theatre of the Absurd, sometimes even a Theatre of Cruelty, the processes of design, debate and development for Sydney’s major urban projects are consistently contentious and divisive. With the Opera House as an epic urtext, the redevelopment or reimagining of Woolloomooloo, Darling Harbour, the MCA and a number of other important sites in the city have been tales of grandiosity, volatility, voraciousness and sophism. Most often it’s been the Theatre of Lost Opportunity.

The redevelopment of Barangaroo is the latest production in town. For the past seven years or so the conversion of the former East Darling Harbour container wharf – a 22-hectare, pile-borne concrete apron capping a murky substrate of contaminated fill – has provoked angry debate. The basic process so far has seen the NSW State Government take control of the site and orchestrate a competitive masterplanning procedure involving developer-led design consortiums. The following is a very brief sketch of the project’s evolution and a consideration of some of the key issues to emerge from the debates around it.

In 2006 Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects, Paul Berkemeier Architect and Jane Irwin Landscape Architects (HTBI) won the two-stage international design competition for East Darling Harbour (see Architecture Australia November/December 2005 and July/August 2006). However, from late 2006 the team was excluded from the ongoing development of the site. Barangaroo (as it is now known) was subsequently listed as a State Significant Site, bringing it within Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act and exempting it from conventional planning processes.

The Barangaroo Delivery Authority (BDA) was created and a series of modifications to the concept plan approved: creating more coves, consolidating development in the south and segregating the northern parkland.

In December 2009, the NSW Government announced that Lend Lease had been selected as preferred tenderer to develop and create the $6 billion Stage 1 development. Lend Lease’s design team still included Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the key partner in their highly commended competition scheme of 2006. In fact, in February 2010 when the winning proposal went on public exhibition it was clear that the “modifications” to the successful HTBI scheme had effectively exhumed the runner-up’s corpse (not without signs of decay).

The slick digital sheen of the BDA’s website offers an uncomplicated, edited account of these developments (for example, all reference to the original competition is gone), but that surface veils a fraught public and professional engagement with the project. In a variety of media and forums there has been disquiet over the contentious changes to the initial competition-winning masterplan, the extraordinary escalation of the development’s scale and competing notions of Sydney’s heritage and its civic identity, as well as broader, uncomfortable questions about the fate of public life in the contemporary city. There are multiple strands in the fractious debates taking place, encompassing professional divisions, personal grievances, political sophistry and civic aspirations. In untangling some of those strands it helps to see them in relation to two facets: process and form.

Starting with the most personal issue for key actors in this drama, the unfolding of Barangaroo has put into question the integrity and worth of the competition process. Former prime minister Paul Keating, whose investment and influence in the project have been as dramatic as they have been pervasive (chairing key panels and publicly spruiking his own vision), categorizes HTBI’s eventual exclusion from the project as a simple case of “iteration”. He describes the original competition as being simply about ideas and suggests that HTBI refused to engage with the process of change necessary for its scheme’s realization. HTBI, on the other hand, has documented a set of uncredited work that effectively produced the approved concept plan, as well as a lack of basic professional protocol and communication on behalf of the client body. Client–designer relations can break down, and the completion of competition-winning schemes is never guaranteed, but the dubious processes involved at Barangaroo are disconcerting evidence of the way in which the city’s major developments are handled by government agencies.

Perhaps more disturbing is the chorus of voices (including other architects) who accuse HTBI of naivety and hubris. A critique has emerged suggesting that, despite the merits of their masterplan, the team could expect no more than the treatment they received: “City building is a vicious game,” the voices admonish. Again, architects must be able to articulate the strength and worth of their ideas but they can also expect and demand professional processes. The cynicism and ugly victim-mentality that suggests it’s simply the architect’s lot to be exploited condemns the profession to further irrelevance.

At a broader scale, Barangaroo has underscored controversial issues to do with the state’s planning processes. As a major project deemed to have state significance, the project is being assessed under Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. Introduced by an amendment in 2005, Part 3A reduces community involvement in the decision-making process and seeks to minimize the risk of delay or obstruction to a project by limiting the possibilities for review. Instead, the Minister for Planning maintains the power to make all key decisions, with advice from “expert panels”, limited input from other key agencies and scant opportunity for effective criticism.

At Barangaroo this contributed to a situation where the original floor area was increased by 30 percent in the revised masterplan issued with the Request for Detailed Proposals (RFP) for development rights to Stage 1. The subsequent nonconforming scheme proposes a further 15 percent increase on top of that, plus a 213-square-metre hotel outside the approved masterplan envelope. Based on that proposal, Lend Lease has since signed a contract gaining control of seven hectares of crucial city foreshore. However, the masterplan is still largely opaque to the public; key details such as the approved floor space, floor space ratio, ownership plan and the area of public domain to be dedicated to the City or other public authority remain unknown. It seems perverse that a development of such scale and importance should be subjected to less, rather than more, scrutiny.

Continuing the concern with process, Keating characterizes the 1960s development of Barangaroo’s concrete apron as an act of “industrial vandalism” perpetrated by the tsars of industry (particularly the ports and railways) who ruled Sydney at that time. He contrasts that autocratic process with his supposed championing of the public’s interest in the redevelopment of Barangaroo as a “new financial district”. However, little seems to have changed in fifty years except for the shift from industrial activity as the city’s development driver to post-industrial activity: the mega-floor plates of the burgeoning Australian finance industry replacing the concrete pad of the container port. The other process advocated by Keating, as a blunt revision of the historical processes that have impacted on the site, is the construction of an artificial headland at its north end. This is Keating’s baby: the centrepiece of a vision that encompasses a larger “rejuvenation and remediation” of the harbour’s headlands to some imagined Arcadian state.¹

Indeed, ideas about “vision” have largely driven discussion of Barangaroo’s form, especially as the concept plan has been modified over the last year. At one end of the spectrum (and site) is that concept of Keating’s: the bucolic grassed hill concealing a car park. At the other end are the calls for “world-class architecture” and new “icons” for Sydney: desires for a spectacular waterfront skyline enhancing Sydney’s profile as a global city. The successful Lend Lease proposal contributes dramatically to this with its fifty-storey hotel, described by Richard Rogers as a “unique landmark tower on a public pier” and by Keating as an “exclamation point”.

However, leaving aside questions about the historical perversions of Keating’s faux-headland and the laughable assertion by Rogers that a 213-metre-tall hotel can “touch the water lightly”, the most interesting thing about the debates over form has been the strange sense of scale at work. The site is 22 hectares, a sizeable portion of the city centre, yet most architects and commentators have approached it as if it’s a singular, homogenous form – an object to be moulded in one step, by one hand. As such, largely irrelevant discussions are conducted about matters such as whether a straight or curvy edge to the waterfront will be more appealing, neglecting the perceptual scale at work on such a large site as well as the accretive process that characterizes the emergence of city form. Ed Lippmann (a member of the second-placed competition team) demonstrated this well when labelling the HTBI scheme as “little more than a subdivision plan”. His assessment points to a key misconception: the subdivision plan is not just a prosaic partitioning of the site but a critical tool for successful masterplanning. Urban design is not just big architecture.

Ideas of the City
This distinction between urban design as the creation of an armature for development over time versus the design of city-scaled form is at the heart of differences between the HTBI masterplan and the Lend Lease/Richard Rogers scheme. It is not simply the choice between a more or less sexy vision; the formal differences embody contrasting understandings of the public realm and the incremental transformation of cities.

The HTBI masterplan was predicated on a clear distinction of public and private development – a traditional urbanism of public streets defining private development lots. It also worked at producing a finer grain of development – smaller lots to enable more diverse ownership, land value and uses, sitting within a framework of streets making as many connections as possible to the existing fabric of the city:

an urbanism of rich moments. As a development strategy it assumed multiples stages and an ongoing control of land release by the government to yield gains in land value. It is an urbanism often criticized for being conservative and dogmatic, but it at least maintains high aspirations for the public realm and the quality of public life in the city. Its structuring of an urban “armature” may be unfashionable, but it also contributes to an ongoing adaptability.

By contrast, the Lend Lease/Rogers scheme agglomerates the development footprint overwhelmingly in the southern third of the site (Stage 1). It does this in much larger building parcels, focused on providing the large floor plates demanded in the current commercial market. This also reduces the number of public streets and concentrates movement between the site and city into a few key connections. These feed a ground plane that is much more open and suggestive of a privately managed corporate plaza, rather than public streets. The larger development sites, and their bundling up of building and landscape, aid a strategy where the government quickly divests itself of the development responsibility to a single developer and reaps an immediate financial return – an instant urbanism: just add water.

Assuming something very similar to this proposal is realized, it may provide a cash injection for a hard-up state government but it is difficult to see how the masterplan can help produce the kind of urban life that Sydney should expect from Barangaroo. Its current scale and structure forego the kind of fine-grain urbanism that the City is struggling to reinstitute in its centre, the vagaries of the “cultural” components suggest those buildings will slip away during development (how many struggling cultural institutions are there already in Sydney?) and without a serious residential component the mix of uses will be low. Right now it is hard to imagine anything beyond a spectacular corporate quarter, with a carefully stage-managed sense of colour and movement. Rem Koolhaas’ 2002 essay on that kind of total environment neatly describes the effect of its creeping control over the whole of the city’s fabric: “Junkspace reduces what is urban to urbanity … Instead of public life, Public SpaceTM: what remains of the city once the unpredictable has been removed.”

But the headland park will be a very pretty place to contemplate all this from …

Dr Lee Stickells is a lecturer in architecture and urban design, and Degree Program Director (Master of Architecture) at the University of Sydney.

1. The ubiquity of Keating in this discussion is because of his strident advocacy during the development process. He has become a de facto architect and urbanist in his lobbying for a personal vision, and his boisterous activity is in sharp contrast to the profile of most architects involved. Apart from Philip Thalis (consistently defending his team’s scheme and the primacy of the public realm) and Richard Rogers (trotted out to recite his “urban renaissance” lecture for the umpteenth time), most have been conspicuous in their silence, perhaps content to circle and await the professional table scraps.

The debate continues …


Barangaroo offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically increase public engagement with Sydney Harbour. It’s a major missing link in the chain of sites providing permanent public access to the foreshore of Sydney’s greatest asset. Whatever else happens at Barangaroo, public access to the harbour must not be compromised. The Australian Institute of Architects believes this is a foundation principle. It is the job of the NSW Government to protect it in the public interest.

It has been difficult to develop the Institute’s view on the proposal for the future of this remarkable site because of the debate within the profession surrounding the procurement process. We acknowledge the involvement of distinguished members of the architectural profession in juries, review panels and as potential designers of some of the elements of the exhibited proposal. The following comments reflect in no way on their roles, but instead on the process itself. We also confine ourselves to the Stage 1 proposal, which the Government contracted Lend Lease to develop in February.

Open debate has not been possible until now because of the necessarily commercial in-confidence planning and financial negotiations that have taken place with the competing proponents. Now that a successful tenderer has been chosen, even contracted to carry out the work, access to information should no longer be an issue. There should be reporting on the financial outcome and the opportunity to understand why Lend Lease’s winning bid was successful.

The Institute believes that the present proposal to sell the rights for the development of Barangaroo to a single private sector organization involves significant risk. What is needed at Barangaroo is natural city growth; the public needs to be assured that the outcome will be diverse and exciting new city fabric, a world leader in design and sustainability, generous and inviting public spaces – and full access to the harbour.

The Institute acknowledges that the engagement of the private sector is a necessary step in the evolution of our cities. Private organizations must inevitably balance the cost-benefit equation in their own interests and those of their shareholders. The government needs to fulfil its responsibility as an informed client and advocate for the public interest by defining the broad scope of the project, rather than leaving this critical step to a development tender.

The Institute believes that government should provide a masterplan with a clear framework of streets, squares and parks that are designed for the people of NSW, not the interests of any single developer. Public infrastructure and public space should be clearly defined and delivered early, as occurs in many other First World cities. There should be no ambiguity of public and private space and no privatization of the harbour. The masterplan should create and protect views and connections to and from the city; it should come replete with a transport strategy.

We are advised that the Barangaroo Delivery Authority gave the highest priority to the public domain in negotiating the successful outcome to the tender process – as it should have done. But the information on display at the public exhibition of the scheme following the signing of the contract left an enormous gap in our ability to understand what is private and what is public. What are the decisions that have been made to safeguard the public interest? How can the Premier endorse the winning proposal if the public domain benefits it delivers are so unclear?

More questions. Was a government-led strategy passed over in the attempt to secure a good financial offer in the throes of the global financial crisis? Has the public interest been served in taking this path? Have we got the best design? Indeed, have we got a design, or yet another cog in the ramping up of the floor space for the site? There are so many unanswered questions – and we are assured all will be forthcoming in the (legally) requisite time frames, and that the amended concept plan submission to the Department of Planning will have all the detail one would expect. We look forward to reviewing the scope and detail of this plan and subsequent development applications.

But the most important question remains: if this site is to produce lasting public benefits, why has the government not taken a more active and direct role in delivering them, or at least explained its position more clearly, particularly in relation to the public domain?

Brian Zulaikha is the President of the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects.


Vibrant and exciting city districts all have a fine grain. To make a diverse and interesting layer of small-scale activities and spaces in a new piece of city is difficult. At Barangaroo, the danger is that it may never eventuate. The debates around a straight or bent edge, and a big hotel on a pier, have distracted us from some much more significant aspects of the future of Sydney’s newest, and possibly last, city precinct. The real issues at the start of a complex piece of city making are who owns it, who regulates it and who manages the various parts?

Generally, the more masterplanned and centrally controlled a place, the more it has that creepy Truman Show quality. Twenty-two years on, Darling Harbour still has that plastic feel. Darling Harbour and The Rocks are owned and managed by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, and both have all the soul of a shopping centre. Functioning cities are like an ecosystem – they rely on competing interests, opposing forces, juxtapositions and contradictions. Centralized planning and control of all activities within an area’s boundaries prevent this.

Even where central control no longer exists, an active fine grain is hard to achieve. Walsh Bay is lovely to look at but basically dead – only coming halfway to life during the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Circular Quay has limited streetscape retail – in the first block back behind the expressway, two of the four street blocks (AMP and Gateway House) have largely blank street edges and internalized food courts. The new KPMG and Macquarie Bank buildings at King Street Wharf are also disastrous at ground level – set back behind colonnades, they do nothing to activate the street.

In Melbourne it’s the same story. Docklands was carved up by the Docklands Authority into large chunks to suit large developers. It hasn’t worked to date, and while in the future may improve through it being handed to the City of Melbourne to manage, it is currently a largely windswept, deserted landscape. And yet the rest of Melbourne has got the fine grain so right. Admittedly there was a good underlying structure, but there was also simple legislation, established in the 1980s by state and local governments, ensuring 80 percent of new or changed building frontages were small-scale retail spaces and all buildings were built out to the street edge.

Across the harbour from Barangaroo, Pyrmont is a good model. Here the NSW Government’s City West Development Corporation, and then SHFA, managed and sold off land in much smaller pieces, over almost twenty years. As it nears completion it feels real, with a mix of scales, uses, quality and styles of architecture, and is now managed by the City of Sydney.

Do we want to create another piece of waterfront Sydney where the forces that change and shape real parts of a city don’t exist? How can we improve things in this, our last shot at Global Sydney waterfront? What lessons have we learnt, and what models should be employed? To make this new waterfront precinct really work, a simple set of principles needs to be followed: diversify the ownership, particularly at ground level; hand over management to the City of Sydney; construct all buildings to the edge of the street, with no colonnades; and ensure 80 percent of all street edges have small-scale, active frontage, with foyers, services and loading bays all within the remaining 20 percent.

The original Hill Thalis scheme had this idea about fine grain and multiple ownership as a core organizing principle. Lend Lease, however, is a sophisticated global company; it should understand the complexities and benefits of getting the fine grain detail right. Lend Lease could strata title and sell off the entire ground level, creating a rich texture of activities, frequented by all Sydneysiders, and, in turn, delivering higher values for their main investment – the high-rise towers – through positioning Barangaroo as a real and exciting part of the city, not just Gucci stores and vast foyers with the odd cafe.

The Barangaroo Authority and Lend Lease should agree to implement the above principles. Given the fine grain failings of much of Sydney’s waterfront, Barangaroo could in fact become Sydney’s best, most valuable and most popular waterfront location. Beyond the Lend Lease proposal we should rethink the original deal of 50 percent public park, 50 percent development. Do we really need so much park here when there are only around 3,000 people living in this area? (You need around 10,000 to create a sustainable community with a full line supermarket and services.) We could create another vibrant and more mixed-use community in the central part of Barangaroo, providing more Surry-Hills-style live–work buildings in small-scale ownership, which would complement the high-end office district to the south. And while we are at it, perhaps we should fix the Darling Harbour fine grain – subdivide it, return it to the City of Sydney and “Free Truman”.

Great cities have no single author. They are the product of multiple authors, regulations, commercial forces and shifts over time. We need to ensure that the debate about Barangaroo goes beyond the aesthetic and solves the real issues, allowing this new part of Sydney to make and remake itself.

Craig Allchin is a director of Six Degrees and Adjunct Professor of Architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney.


Paul Keating’s Disneyheadland dominated proceedings at the public presentation of the Barangaroo scheme, with the former PM using his opening remarks to justify the creation of an artificial headland park at the northern end of the site, and then the rest of his time being curiously defensive about the Barangaroo Authority’s choice not to go forward with the competition-winning team, with particular attention given to Philip Thalis.

Keating makes a case for the reshaping of the edge of the site, rescuing it from what he calls “industrial vandalism” and culminating in a “natural” headland that will complete the ring of Balls Head, Ballast Point and Blues Point with Goat Island at the centre. Curiously, the fact that this headland will be used to house a car park beneath was not mentioned during Keating’s presentation.

Beside the bombast of Keating, the presentations by the architects bordered on the banal. Richard Rogers gave a short talk about cities that he likes (out of all modern cities he likes Sydney “the most”) and Ivan Harbour ran through the less contentious parts of the proposal, concentrating on the ground-level public space while ignoring the towers and hotel.

The Q&A was revealing. MC Tony Jones made an attempt at robust debate. To his question regarding the inalienable public land of the foreshore, Keating responded with, “It is a clumsy way to make public space”, and stated that using streets to delineate public ownership of space “is fundamentally a dull, naff idea” – the crowd laughed on cue. However, questions from the floor primarily focused on details of traffic movement, noise and the public art program.

The architects were largely quiet, with the exception of Brian Zulaikha asking for more detail on the hotel and another question calling for a finer grain than that found in the urbanism created by large-floor-plate buildings.

Being Sydney, the final question of the night was from a resident of King Street Wharf, asking whether the panel thought the development would lead to an increase or decrease in their property value. It does highlight the primary driving force behind this proposal, which is not the urban form and masterplanning, but the spreadsheets that bankroll them.

The questions that were not asked are crucial. What is the nature of the deal between the state and the developer? What are the implications for the city when one developer is given such a large chunk of real estate? Yes, the details of the deal will be made public in time, but with the contract signed on the day of the public meeting, this information will be of hardly any use other than as historical record.

Marcus Trimble is director of Super Colossal.


Images from the preferred scheme for Barangaroo South, by Lend Lease with design team led by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.Above: City Walk–Wynyard Connection.

Hickson Road.

Shelley Street.

Barangaroo is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Its scale and location have the potential to set the future direction for our nation’s key financial city. It will support Sydney’s role as a growing financial hub in the Asia-Pacific, leverage the growth of the state’s economy and create major new public waterfront parklands in the heart of the city.

Set across 22 hectares on the shores of one of the world’s most famous harbours, this commercial, residential and leisure precinct will be the new western face of our city. At a local level, it offers more than half the site as waterfront public domain, including a new headland park. At a global level, it sets the scene for Sydney to attract international businesses by offering the large floor plates needed for the twenty-first-century working environment.

The creation of this major extension to Sydney’s CBD demands a stringent planning process that meets government guidelines and also incorporates the thoughts and expectations of the community. A five-year process has been integral to achieving a design for the site that will create a multi-generational landmark that Sydneysiders will be proud of.

In early 2005, the NSW Government announced that the container wharves at East Darling Harbour would be transformed into a new urban precinct. A two-stage international urban design competition for “concepts and ideas” commenced to explore issues of appropriate urban form and to bring the site back into the community’s imagination, as architects and designers from around the world explored possibilities for this extraordinary location.

The competition winner was announced in March 2006, with more than 4,000 people viewing two design competition exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Sydney Opera House. The jury award was accompanied by three recommendations to improve the winning proposal, including a natural headland form, a large northern cove and a large southern cove.

A concept plan was prepared in 2006 to help guide the future development of Barangaroo and to provide a platform to engage with the community and private sector. This was approved in February 2007, with consent conditions requiring considerable further improvements to the natural headland and the enlarged northern and southern coves.

In April 2008, the government sought Expressions of Interest for the right to develop the commercial area at the southern end of the site, again drawing the attention of the world’s developer and investment community.

By August 2009, the Stage 1 proponents had been narrowed down to two. The final selection was made with criteria including design, finance and risk, sustainability, delivery and planning, marketing and promotions and capability. The details of each proposal were evaluated by the Authority, technical advisors, review panels and the Authority’s Board.

On 20 December 2009, Lend Lease, with a design team led by Lord Richard Rogers and supported by local design firms, was announced as the winning proponent for Stage 1, with a proposal that requires a submission for amendments to the approved concept plan. Should this not be successful, a version of the plan with reduced heights and floor area, and without the proposed public pier and hotel, can be considered within the current approved concept plan. Information lodged by the final two proponents as part of the bid process has been on public display during February and March 2010.

In parallel with the southern precinct design process, planning and design work for the headland park and northern cove has advanced, with the recent announcement that Peter Walker and Partners and Johnson Pilton Walker will act as the Authority’s designers for this important part of Barangaroo, as well as preparing the public domain guidelines for Stage 1.

Where to now? The proposal by Lend Lease is subject to planning approval processes and public exhibition. Construction work is expected to begin this year. The first commercial areas at the southern end are expected to be completed in 2014, with all fourteen Stage 1 buildings expected to be completed within ten years. Design and planning is continuing for the headland park and Stage 2 of Barangaroo.

The busy wharves that once stood at Barangaroo were an important gateway for Australia’s trade, helping drive the growth of Sydney and indeed the nation. With the creation of Barangaroo, including public open space, mixed-use waterfront and a financial headquarters district, this western edge of our CBD will continue to play a critical role in the economic and cultural life of our city.

Todd Murphy is Development Director at the Barangaroo Delivery Authority.


In his 1984 essay, “The art of completing the city”, French architect and theorist Antoine Grumbach penned a piercing critique of modernist urban tendencies. “That planned utopia of pure forms floating in the ether of abstract location unscathed and unperturbed by any pressures from reality can only lead to a panopticon, where, in all directions, the eye regulates the gestures of everyday life.” I was reminded of Grumbach the other evening, when I attended a presentation of the current proposal for Barangaroo. There, among a series of infantile cartoon diagrams masquerading as urban analysis, was the panopticon eye – inexplicably radiating light through the Barangaroo towers from some undefined, yet presumably critical urban viewpoint in the vicinity of Wynyard Park. Noting, of course, that Barangaroo is only visible from this part of the city if you happen to be skydiving.

My bias, as a member of the original competition-winning team, must be disclosed at the outset. But setting aside my personal and professional disappointments, it is mystifying to me that Modern picturesque townscape is, once again, centre stage in urban Sydney. Perhaps it is a symptom of contemporary architecture’s ongoing predisposition towards formalism. Perhaps, in Sydney, it is heightened by a cultural obsession with the utopian individualism of suburban settlement patterns and the overwhelming desire for a view-of-one’s-own. The extraordinary parts of Sydney’s urban history are ignored: our beautiful and gritty urban places are cherished for their historic charm, but too few people value the subtlety of their urban geometries, their finely calibrated street hierarchies, their intelligent cadastral grain, concomitant diversity and the generous and layered way they form an inclusive public realm. It is no mistake that places such as Redfern, Darlinghurst and Millers Point are among the few parts of metropolitan Sydney that remain truly socioeconomically diverse.

Perhaps you could argue that a quintessential Sydney scheme is now on offer – brash and commercial – fetishizing “exclamation marks”, “fans”, “urban verandahs”, a new/old headland and “an additional 400 metres of waterfront experience”, while reducing the public realm to a retail interlude between intrusive compositional moments. We are told “programmed cultural events will make this a living part of the city” – an admission of failure, if ever I have heard one.

It isn’t the quality of the architecture or landscape architecture that will see this project succeed or fail; it simply isn’t possible to develop an open urban condition through this blunt procurement mechanism and monopolistic ownership pattern.

If you are in any doubt, take a walk through Sydney’s last failed urban experiment, Darling Harbour. To work as successful parts of the city, places need an integrated, intelligent, responsive and clear urban structure. They need multiple and diverse ownerships, uses and plot sizes. Then architecture is liberated in perpetuity to respond to changes in use, density, typology and theory that we cannot yet predict. At Barangaroo, without these foundational elements, architecture will always be enslaved to the demands of its overarching and static urban imagery. There isn’t any number of “activated retail streets”, “metres of waterfront experience” or “programmed cultural events” that can alter that – nor make Barangaroo feel anything like “a living part of the city”.

Laura Harding works with Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects.


Barangaroo, the person, is variously referred to as a Gadigal or Gamaragal woman and the partner of a Wangal man, Bennelong. Each is commemorated in the name of prominent areas, once headlands jutting into the post-glacial waters of Sydney Harbour. However, this naming is associated with different cultural territories, now referred to as “country”, and in reverse. The difficulties of cultural identity, of place and of naming are also evident in the reverse vision of naturalism prominently espoused by Paul Keating representing the Barangaroo Delivery Authority – the authority we had to have.

The Aboriginal name for the point of land colonial Australia variously calls “Jack, the Millers Point” or “Cockle Bay Point” is Coodye, while Tobegully is the Indigenous name for Bennelong Point. Both Coodye and Tobegully have lost their Indigenous sandstone topography and meaning. Both have been cut to form monumental escarpments, with the fill creating a level field following reclamation of the adjacent harbour waters. The fill comprised not only the cut sandstone, but the fabric of former Sydney buildings of the colonial and Victorian periods, which had formed significant components of the Sandstone City. Both reclamations are fields of lost culture and lost opportunities, as well as monuments to the labour of human industry to establish port facilities in an economy of greed.

Both sites have also been subject to visionary human endeavour. The infilled waters off Tobegully now support the conspicuous and inspired Sydney Opera House complex, once the vision of Jørn Utzon and ultimately adapted by the bureaucratic and personal whims of the NSW Government. Coodye’s future has been subject to similar processes with the enthusiasm of the former prime minister’s vision of a reconstructed headland (or, more correctly, less than half a headland). While the visionary spirit is to be commended – particularly for a politician, former or otherwise, in Australia – the nature of the vision needs to be questioned. We should also question whether the open space proposed is to be a truly public domain. Will it contain inspirational spaces that support the city and contribute to its future landscape character, or will it be more of the same fuelled by greed, corruption, fear and mediocrity?

The creation of a green headland and fake “cove” to compensate for the lost topography of Coodye and the Tumbalong foreshore does not necessarily mean the reconstruction of a pre-known form such as the two-dimensional pattern offered by the 1836 plan of Sydney’s estuarine Inner Harbour. Consideration needs to be given to providing suitable microclimatics for human occupation in an area subject to extreme westerly winds and the solar exposure associated with its western aspect, together with possible impacts of climate change. Before the glacial meltdown, the Coodye point formed part of a residual ridge-and-spur landform, helping to define the former river valley in a very different physical context from the present. To what period and landscape setting should the reversal vision accurately relate to?

The public open space on the primarily post-industrial lands from the mid-twentieth century that front Sydney Harbour have been very proudly conserved in ways that interpret both Aboriginal occupation and industrial heritage. For a former Labor prime minister not to acknowledge and celebrate that heritage, while remaining committed to a green future, is odd.

The Rudd Government has said sorry. It is time to move forward, learn the lessons of the past but not necessarily act backwards. We need to look and see ahead in a truly creative way.

Craig Burton is director of CAB Consulting.


Tidal cranes by Jennifer Turpin, from the HTBI competition scheme.

Events headland, from the HTBI competition scheme.

Container Park, from the HTBI competition scheme.

The issues that should concern us at Barangaroo are about process and politics, not design or starchitecture.

Barangaroo needs to be debated and analysed on a number of levels: the metropolitan, the city, the site and governance. What is the deal?

To the last first: the biggest problem with Barangaroo is not the height and colour of the tower, the “expropriation”

of the water plane or the shape of the headland; it is the nature of “the deal”.

The Faustian bargain that Paul Keating has (he claims) personally formulated, which sells his Bankstown soul for headland immortality, suggests that it is reasonable to sell off some land in the south to pay for the improvement of some land in the north; 50 percent public domain, 50 percent private; it all seems very reasonable. But why should the money raised be spent right there?

Why not at Parramatta, Liverpool or, for that matter, Bankstown? Further, is the financial structure of the deal the one that will maximize the return to government and, more importantly, the social benefit?

No, it is not.

Consider now the metropolitan context. At the City Recital Hall on 23 February, Lord Rogers gave a succinct summary of the challenges facing cities and the responses that would make them more sustainable: compact, polycentric, carbon neutral and higher density mixed use. He also identified the need to enliven public spaces with people – we need more residents in brownfield sites so they don’t become like London’s Canary Wharf – and the need to complement the existing radial infrastructure that is so common in major cities with the creation of ring infrastructure that would support the emerging polycentricity.

The current proposal for Barangaroo runs counter to all these principles. It concentrates more jobs and cultural facilities in the city, it has very few residents, it will further exacerbate the peak at Wynyard and absorb future investment that is needed further west.

Instead of explaining the deal or justifying his involvement, Keating has, over the last couple of months, concentrated a vituperative and distorted attack on the Hill Thalis/Berkemeier/Irwin team that won the original international competition. He asserts that they had unreasonable expectations of a continuing involvement and that the competition was only for “ideas and concepts”. It is here that Keating is really at his most egregious. The main thrust of the winning scheme was that there should be an extension of the city grid, that the public domain should provide the framework for the private sector to work within, and, by inference, that the whole delivery process could be undertaken by the public sector at much lower cost than by any developer. The scheme was not about the detailed design that Keating is intent on micro-managing and is incapable of seeing beyond.

The urban design/governance/ delivery proposition of the winning scheme is diametrically opposed to the Lend Lease proposal, which comprises strata overhead walkways, acres of private domain and the blank glaze of kilometres of Zegna retail offerings.

The winning scheme was changed considerably to accommodate the personal design preferences of Keating – the shoreline WAS modified, there was never any suggestion that the acres of car park remain – but not enough to satisfy his overweening egoism, and how else can you interpret his comment to Quentin Dempster on Stateline: “I cannot teach you taste”.

And we apparently cannot suggest to Keating what makes a great city.

Authenticity comes from having many authors, not from the corporate behemoths whose company Keating keeps.

Roderick Simpson is a director of Simpson + Wilson Architecture + Urban Design.


Problems at Barangaroo precede Richard Rogers’ current proposal. Nonetheless, it is shocking to see how this tawdry process continues to play out.

Besides revealing a clear and insightful understanding of the site, its history and its urban potential, the Stage 1 winning scheme by Hill Thalis/Paul Berkemeier/Jane Irwin (HTBI) demonstrated the crucial need for Barangaroo’s great public open space to be structured, served and accessed by a major foreshore street. By deleting this street – as Paul Keating’s scheme has – the headland park loses its urban interface, the vital public connector required for access, surveillance and activity. This boulevard facilitated and ordered public movement; it also allowed future modification. For example, the activities proposed in the winning scheme, since removed, could be added later if required. Or if the isolation Jan Gehl describes leads to a reassessment of the point precinct, the foreshore street would allow new possibilities. The kind of flexibility embedded in the winning scheme is an essential part of a sustainable urban plan.

Keating proposes that the reconstructed park (an artificial mound made of what?) spill onto a small-scale Victorian street at Millers Point – an obscure, tiny and constrained interface that should not serve as an urban edge to such a large park in this location. As Thalis has pointed out, the preferred landscape strategy will also clumsily merge the area’s lower and upper levels, permanently disfiguring our foreshore and reducing its capacity to align with future needs. It may even require wholesale demolition one day.

In contrast, the very form of vertical separation proposed by HTBI refers to a vital part of our urban geography. It solves issues of topography, use, scale and impact with great drama further north at The Rocks, Circular Quay and under the bridge. This robust sectional dialogue describes Sydney’s many historical layers in a manner that is not only exhilarating, it is fact! Sydney’s sandstone walls and cuts reveal a long and broad heritage – they belong to Sydney, they are ours – they do not belong to a panel seemingly set up to cut the best deal with the remains of a public competition. We have lost so many public streets, public funds, public spaces and opportunities through the deal-making process. However, this fact seems to evade Keating, who instead turns his wrath on those who do not agree with him.

Importantly, the HTBI scheme also broke up the site into parcels to be developed over time by different players. Introducing clear street layouts and open spaces, it maintains great coherence with its very special context. Disdainfully referred to by Ed Lippmann as a mere “subdivision plan”, this strategy sets up a future of competing interests across public – or, as Manuel de Solà Morales refers to them, “collective” – spaces. In presenting themselves as “visionary”, schemes like Rogers’ flatten their own complexity and diminish the capacity for time to enrich their parts – they are merely overblown architectural projects. Without clear urban structure, they restrict the flexibility we need in such large and crucial schemes.

By introducing the single consortium’s deal as the project, rather than a more sophisticated urban process delivered over time, ground-level space is compromised and activity, spontaneity and change are restricted. Access, character and scope are radically reduced. As streets lose their autonomy, that odd privatized quality emerges. Compromised precincts, urban simulacra, flaccid arenas for urban management – and all on our public land! Why should a public process favour single-consortium development? Why is this better for the public? On such an extraordinary site, it is an affront!

Let us make no mistake, it’s the money that won the project; it is the win-win mantra that has produced such wholesale loss in adjacent harbour precincts. How NSW is this reductivism? And how disappointing that a figure as important to us as Keating has become its chief spruiker. Does he believe that he can trade off the good (the fictional naturalistic headland) with the bad (a splurge of profit-generating towers), separated by an arbitrarily located cove or two to buffer any tensions that may result? As if all urban decisions can be delivered via the simplistic trade-off, as if urban tensions should be smoothed out! This strategy not only reduces the rightful place of competing interests in the market and at street level, it will cast the park adrift, heightening its isolation. Rogers’ scheme is merely the latest draft. Ironically, Keating is providing an ideal developer outcome – none of those troublesome interfaces to deal with, extra floor space to pay for it, reducing the public process in planning and delivery – but all at public expense.

Meddling so openly in a public process does not augur well for the future of this project; we can only wonder what comes next. No wonder it has been greeted with dismay by Thalis, whose public credentials are impeccable. Such willingness to junk a competition-winning urban scheme confirms that NSW has no capacity to host public competitions, to listen to those who may have insights beyond their own, or to defend public interests. And as for the public criticism dished out by Keating to Thalis, the current president of the Institute and others as they rightfully voice their genuine concern for these reckless interventions – well, it is just outrageous.

Brendan Randles is a director of Randles Straatveit Architects.



Published online: 1 May 2010


Architecture Australia, May 2010

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