Inside the Collection

Barangaroo and Darling Harbour

Aerial view of Darling Harbour
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The current debate over the Barangaroo development recalls similar controversies during the 1980s, when the Darling Harbour precinct was being redeveloped. At one stage during the creation of Darling Harbour NSW premier Neville Wran, the main driver of the project, observed sarcastically that ‘we are going to hold a number of competitions for sculpture and civic works and it may well be appropriate that one subject be a white elephant surrounded by knockers rampant’.Both projects are among the numerous port areas recycled into new urban precincts. Since containerisation of freight was introduced during the 1960s this has been a trend in cities all over the world. In other respects the Darling Harbour and Barangaroo projects are quite different, most obviously in that Barangaroo will form a harbour side extension of the CBD, featuring office towers, a hotel and apartments. In contrast Darling Harbour was conceived as a leisure precinct of retail, cultural and entertainment facilities, ‘a place for people’ according to the slogan of the time.

The Powerhouse collection includes proposals for a Darling Harbour leisure centre whose earnings were supposed to help finance the new precinct. This was the casino complex intended for the city side of Darling Harbour, where the Cockle Bay restaurant strip now stands.

Model of a Darling Harbour casino and hotel designed by Harry Seidler
Designed by Harry Seidler. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This model of a Darling Harbour casino and hotel designed by Harry Seidler was one of several tendered for the design/construct and manage contract for the casino. Seidler’s proposal was produced for a consortium of Donald Trump and Lend Lease, which holds the contract to design and construct Barangaroo.

Model of a building by John Andrews
Designed by John Andrews. collection: Powerhouse Museum

Another contender was a design by John Andrews, who worked with a consortium of Genting International and Civil & Civic.

None of the potential designs was built after the casino operators failed to satisfy probity tests set by the NSW police. This was truly ironic, because police corruption was one of the main reasons for the casino project. Neville Wran saw a legal casino as a means of removing the most obvious evidence of police corruption in Sydney during the 1970s and 1980s, the flourishing illegal casinos known to everyone except, apparently, the police. Wran presented the casino project as an acid test for the NSW police force:

To put it quite bluntly it will be a test for the bona fides of the police force. There will be no excuses whatsoever for these places [casinos] to remain unraided and remain open when the legislation goes through Parliament. There’s no point in us going to this trouble if the police don’t support the Government

(Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 1985, p.1).

Sydney would have to wait until the 1990s until a legal casino was built at Pyrmont.

The casino plans added an extra layer of controversy to the Darling Harbour project, also under siege for its expense, its arguably trivial purpose and its monorail people mover. Generally speaking the design of Darling Harbour was well-received. In 1990 Architecture Australia noted that the 1980s had seen a rekindling of metropolitan sensibilities and a corresponding revival of urban culture…

A remarkable example of this is the Darling Harbour project, where the edifices of culture are integral to the definition of place. This new urban fabric, the Culture Park City, has been used to completely re-order the city into a new, highly designed fabric removed from the evolutionary bricolage of the existing city. (‘Theory and design in the 1990s’, Architecture Australia, December 1990, p.34).

Its interesting to read this today, because both the pro and anti Barangaroo camps are using Darling Harbour as an example of what not to do. Paul Keating: ‘Look at the disaster of Darling Harbour. That’s what happens when you let architects near your public spaces’. (Sydney Morning Herald 15 September 2009, p.3). While Darling Harbour’s mainly 1980s architecture finds few admirers these days, the precinct remains a successful urban park, well-peopled day and night. One wonders if this will be true of Barangaroo’s restored headland or its cluster of commercial towers.

Instead, the involvement  of international design eminence Richard Rogers suggests that Barangaroo will boast design spectacle rather than daggy but vibrant urbanity. Star architects have become a feature of controversial developments, with ‘wow’ architecture used to justify exemption from planning and heritage laws. Rogers’ former partner, Renzo Piano, pioneered this tactic in Sydney during the 1990s with his designs for Aurora Place and Macquarie Apartments soothing angst sparked by the demolition of the much-awarded State Office Block. Lord Rogers is presumably expected to create a similar design/public relations triumph with Barangaroo’s ‘floating’ hotel tower, a controversy focus similar to Darling Harbour’s casino.

Darling Harbour and Barangaroo share another feature: the demolition of the industrial and urban heritage of the sites. At Barangaroo Paul Keating’s disdain for industrial heritage seems to be the main factor at work, while at Darling Harbour the tight construction deadline was a major contributor to this outcome, although fortunately Pyrmont Bridge survived as a pedestrian thoroughfare.

The PHM collection includes many artefacts collected from the Darling Harbour site during the 1980s. My favourite is a set of concrete winged wheels which once adorned the roof of a Darling Harbour service station. Hopefully Barangaroo’s concrete will also evince flight.

Concrete winged wheels from the roof of a Darling Harbour service station
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Charles Pickett, curator Design and the Built Environment

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