Barangaroo is energy-intensive lunacy
5 October 2010
I learned a long time ago that wet long weekends were a good time to hunker down in the Brushtail Cafe. The place had had a new lease of life since Joadja decided to sell second-hand books and thus it was that I found myself sipping a long black and leafing through The History of the Future – Images of the 21st Century, a coffee-table job, published in 1993. It was, essentially, a collection of dreams of the present day as envisaged from the early 1800s on. And what struck me was how much some of the more demented visions of the 21st Century city actually resembled the NSW Government’s vision for Barangaroo.
Old Possum sidled over from the bar.
“They can’t even get the smaller urban renewal things right so how can we expect they’ll get anything as huge as Barangaroo done?” he muttered. “Have you been down to the Wolli Creek project lately? They started that about seven years ago and the place still looks like a construction site. Most of the shops have been empty since they were built.”
“What is it with architects and megalomania?” I muttered “What is this mad monument complex that drives some to actually admire the idea of an energy-intensive steel, concrete and glass tower rising out of the water?”
“I blame Le Corbusier, for a lot of this shit. Back in the 1960s the bloke was almost worshipped as a prophet, but look at this…” Old nodded towards the Franco-Swiss architect’s 1925 sketch of his vision for Paris. “He wanted to bulldoze vast areas of Paris and erect 60-storey cruciform towers arranged in a grid, with an 8-lane freeway running through the middle and vast windswept spaces in between. He was mad about the ‘liberating’ potential of the automobile and he was one of the advocates of getting rid of Paris’s trams. Now, because they can’t afford any more metro lines, they’re putting them in again”.
“In 1941, when it looked certain that the Nazis were going to win the war, Le Corb went to work for the Vichy regime – not that he got much out of them. The Big Ideas of the time were creepy. It was all about remaking the world as ‘hygienic’, ‘rational’, ‘modern’, ‘efficient’ … and also ethnically cleansed and racially purified.
“Those were the heady days when Hitler’s empire stretched from the Atlantic to western Russia. His architect, Speer, gathered together some of Europe’s most eminent town planners and road engineers to draw up plans for new cities for German colonists connected by a vast network of freeways stretching all the way to the Caucasus. The whole shebang was supposed to be finished by 1970. Trouble was, they didn’t have the oil to build this stuff – the Allies controlled it. After Stalingrad, Hitler’s new urbanist movement lost momentum.”
“Which raises the real issue”, I said, flipping through a few pages of The History of the Future. “All these crazy visions are predicated on abundant supplies of cheap energy. These dingbat visionaries just wished the problem away.
“The Barangaroo towers will be terrible from an energy point of view. It would have been great if the project could have been a model low-energy precinct with no air-conditioning and natural lighting but there’s no mega-profit in that.
“Why the hell does Sydney need another alienating mega-hotel anyway? If you came here, would you really want to stay in it? Or would you prefer somewhere more intimate, more in touch with real life? Why this assumption that people want to perch in the sky, like Hitler at Berchtesgaden?”
“Did you notice that Elizabeth Farrally, in the Herald, reckons the Lend lease plan is ‘way too polite’. Apparently, she wants it even grander and more nuttily conceptual.”
“Yeah, but you know Liz’s problem – she wants to be tough titties. Every now and again she has this terrible impulse to prove that she’s not politically correct. Like when she climbed Uluru to show she wasn’t going to defer to the wishes of a bunch of silly blackfellas. She’d like to be Paul Keating.”
“He sees himself as Baron Haussmann reborn. Remember when he wanted to pull down Circular Quay station and put the station underground? That grand aesthetic gesture would have cost a billion. Not just extremely impractical, but probably impossible because the trains wouldn’t be able to climb the gradients. Keating wouldn’t have had a clue about real technical problems like that. Nuts, just nuts.”