Public versus Private : The tension between public and private interests in Sydney
We recently attended the Architectural Axis conference at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.
Amongst several exceptonal talks we attended was one by Peter John Cantrill as a prelude to the launch of an extraordinary book which is soon to be released, prepared by Philip Thalis and Peter John Cantrill with the assistance of the Government Architect’s office; the book is called “Public Sydney: Drawing the City”. The book is the culmination of many years of research by not only Philip and Peter John, but the work of university students during their many years of teaching, who have equally benefited from the experience. I am privileged to be one of them.
Using a consistent research methodology developed by Peter John and Philip with the foresight to extending and building upon the knowledge of earlier work, the work contained in the book is mind boggling in terms of its volume and quality.
The book documents the evolution of Sydney’s public spaces, open and closed public rooms of Sydney, and goes to some length to clarify the meaning of that term ‘public space’, but I don’t want to use this entry to explain the depth and rigor applied to the book, which is equally mind boggling.
What struck me amongst many of the insights distilled so clearly in Peter John’s talk was a particular anecdote about Sydney’s early development that particularly exemplified the tension between public and private interests which are prevalent in the development of any city, but which I believe are particularly emphatic in Sydney.
Peter John’s talk described Governor Philip’s intentions and presented never before published drawings, Governor Philip’s coloured drawings for the initial layout of Sydney, which clearly showed Governor Phillip’s planned layout for Sydney marked in red over a developing layout of the city at that time. The drawing was supplemented by a written description prepared by Governor Phillip himself.
Governor Phillip planned for the building of Sydney’s first public institutions and its first planned public square at the most privileged location at the southwest portion of the foreshore of what is now Circular Quay. This plan was being subverted by the private interests of military personnel who located their individual residences on private allotments along the western side of the Tank Stream (the river feeding into Circular Quay) which undermined the creation of the square and Governor Phillip’s plan.
Remnants of both of these simultaneous efforts remain in Sydney’s layout of the streets at Circular Quay, evident by the clashing geometries in the street alignments immediately south of the Quay.
These actions initiated a culture of tension between the public interests of the city and its private interests that pervaded Sydney and are clearly evident today. It is perhaps Sydney’s greatest asset, its Harbour that fuels the cultural tussle between public and private interests with both seeking prime vantage over it.
The plans for the casino at Barrangaroo on what was designated public land, ironically by Philip Thalis’s plans (as coauthor of the original Barrangaroo master plan competition scheme) is a prime example of similar tensions playing out today. Regrettably the plans for Barrangaroo are shrouded by the Bureaucracy of the NSW government who should be serving the public’s interests and laying out a clearly public foreshore to the harbour (as Governor Phillip did) instead of heeding to the interests of very opportunistic private development. The public should be screaming against the willful taking of the foreshore for private interests, but regrettably much of the argument from the public and indeed some of the more vocal members of the architectural profession are distracted by the image of the proposal rather than the reality, which is that the public domain of the original proposal has been savagely eroded; not only in terms of its quality, but even simply in its (numeric) quantities.
Ironically, in the context of the ubiquitous squabble over local development many of our clients, well intentioned developers and individual home owners, are being subjected to collective private interests (NIMBYism) under the guise of public interest. (Try attending one of the monthly Council Meetings at Leichhardt Council, and you will see this tussle emphatically exhibited; describing it as a circus would not be unjustified.)
As architects we must navigate a course that is cognisant and respectful of public interest and indeed the collective private interest in the development of our client’s private interests. Both need to be rewarded, but we need to be talking about how out proposals work for our clients, and for the public, and not how they look which is regrettably prevalent (but I will elaborate on this in another blog article). It is only in this way that we can articulate our worth as Architects (literally), and in doing so educate our clients, Council staff and the broader public, for our worth to be measured and understood rather than ‘liked’ or ‘disliked’. It is one of the reasons we provide detailed written descriptions of our projects on our website. It’s not about what they look like that should matter, it’s how they works, and how we were able to give value not through beauty but through meaning, thus the quote in the ‘We think’ section of our website that includes the quote “Beauty is truth & truth beauty” by John Keats, and it is this broader understanding of the ‘Public Sydney’ book that should be applauded.
We hope that the book is the resounding success that it deserves to be. Don’t miss the formal launch of the book tonight. Michael and I have already ordered and received our copy, and have been very privileged to have been students, employees and more recently collaborators with these extraordinary teachers and ambassadors for Sydney, Philip Thalis and Peter John Cantrill. It is fitting that the Institute of Architects recently awarded them for their contribution to the profession.
We wish them luck with the book, but know they’ve never needed to rely on it due to their intelligence and driven perseverance.