ADRIAN LAHOUD LOOKS AT THE NEW PLANS FOR PARRAMATTA’S TOWN CENTRE.
WESTERN SYDNEY BARELY registers on the collective architectural consciousness.
Somewhere between the sweeping coastline, the gentrified inner city and the romanticised inland lies a sprawling absence. Excluded as the western suburbs are from the architectural press, and indeed from any of the processes that legitimise/critique Architectural production, one might imagine that they are devoid of either architecture or architects.
Perhaps this exclusion points to mainstream architecture’s retreat from an engagement with low-cost housing in the face of an aggressively priced and marketed spec home industry. Regardless, the “west” would appear to outline a frontier where the accepted notions of good design cease to operate – a space that can only be viewed as the site for a series of urban problems.
Although the western suburbs have effectively been dismissed as aesthetically irrelevant by the architectural media, they have become the focus of intense political interest as seats like Parramatta slide away from their traditional support for the Labor party.
Parramatta is the major business and social centre in the western suburbs of Sydney, and has two new major public infrastructure programs. The first is an extensive upgrade to the rail and bus interchange at Parramatta station, the second is the development of a “Civic Place” as outlined in a design report and masterplan prepared by the Department of Public Works and Services and Parramatta City Council.
Despite a very successful foreshore redevelopment prior to the Sydney Olympics, the Parramatta streetscape, particularly the Church Street Mall south of Macquarie Street, has been in a steady decline, a state that must be partly attributed to the success of the enormous Westfield complex. The new masterplan attempts to alleviate this by organising a series of public spaces about an axis connecting Lancer Barracks and St John’s Church.
Running east–west, this intersects with the major retail strip on Church Street, which runs north–south. The new spaces would sequentially accommodate a church place, a garden place, a market place, a civic place and finally a water place. These places present an unproblematic narrative of the site’s colonial history, celebrating the importance of the church, farming and fresh water in the foundation of the city.
By reinstating the visual link between church and jailhouse, the masterplan gives prominence to one reading of the city’s past and uses this to define its contemporary character.
Indeed, there seems to be an over-reliance on the historical built environment to try to ground Parramatta’s modern identity. This suggests, if not an ambivalence about its cultural identity, then certainly a confusion. Indeed, the planning documents conclude that the buildings should “celebrate Parramatta’s distinctive identity”. It is not stated what this identity might be, but there is a clear agreement that, whatever it is, it is distinctive. In other words, “we know this community is different, we are just not sure how”.
To open a broad pedestrian boulevard, “Connection Arcade” (which runs along Church Street alongside the Council Chambers) will be removed, as will a more substantial building behind.
This public space links back into the rail interchange and to Parramatta’s street grid via a concourse and a series of arcades and pedestrian routes that run north–south. According to the masterplan, “the central public space will be flanked by a two-storey colonnade with a mixture of civic, commercial and residential buildings above. The building facades facing the central public spaces are to be animated with balconies, articulated civic function areas and outdoor gardens.” These balconies are also expected to operate as a passive surveillance system for the space.
Taller buildings are proposed for the south with shorter ones to the north, in order both to maximise solar access to the public space and to maintain the scale of the surrounding heritage buildings. The vertical definition of the building envelopes suggests a public corridor, though the 23-storey height of the buildings massed to the south of the public space seem excessive, effectively blocking much of the rail interchange’s solar access. No doubt it was quite challenging to accommodate targets of 50,000 square metres of commercial office space and 60,000 square metres of residential space in the scheme. The way these proposed building envelopes face into the public space and come into contact with it at ground level has been well considered. However, to avoid the sense of always being behind the precinct while outside it, it will also be important to determine how the developments will address the rest of the city.
Expansive and open, the public spaces present a highly legible and clearly demarcated series of functions. The landscape design is the project’s strength. This avoids any temptation to create powerful alignments across the site, as if designed from 20,000 feet. Instead, the design deploys shifting geometries to engage the pedestrian as they negotiate their way through the series of distinct spaces. If any criticism can be made of this approach it is that it can often render space too clearly. The over-articulation and resolution of elements like paving, gardens, shade structures, colonnades, and so on can ossify one’s freedom both to inhabit the space and to imagine it differently.
Legibility is sacrosanct and, as with almost all planning controls, any ambiguity with respect to public space is problematic in the sense that it opens up questions of ownership to contestation.
However, according to writers like Rosalyn Deutsche, the democratic nature of public space hinges on this contestation. This ambiguity can often be found in more organic models of city growth and it is evident in parts of the Parramatta CBD, though it is probably somewhat resistant to the levels of corporate investment being sought through this masterplan. (A Property Council of Australia survey investigating business investment in Parramatta identified a lack of Class A accommodation and perceptions of a lack of public safety as disincentives for investment.)
Sydney academic Ghassan Hage posits a theory that, with respect to cities, state and federal governments are being transformed from managers of the national society into managers of the aesthetics of investment space. “Among the many questions that guide government policy, one becomes increasingly paramount: how are we to make ourselves attractive enough to entice the transcendental capital hovering above us to land…. How do we create a good work environment, a well disposed labour force and suitable infrastructure.” ›› The conditions that need to be met in order to address the apparent disincentives to investment can often run against the needs of the more marginalised groups in society. The diversity of the communities and businesses crammed into Parramatta’s meandering laneways and arcades is jeopardised to some extent by a project of this type. They would, in Hage’s terms, become an “aesthetic nuisance”. Perhaps the promise of the CBD’s “modernity” comes at the price of, or is at least in tension with, its social and economic diversity. A civic place should be a space where we can publicly affirm the different modes in which we might belong to a community. Successful urban design must fully engage these various practices in all their conflicting and contradictory complexity.
Adrian Lahoud is a Sydney-based architect.