The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1923] Promenade of the Flaneur


There is a pulse, a sensation; a busker hammers a nail into his skull, his compatriot blows a mouthful of flames skyward, the semi-circle erupts in applause and disgust. Another street performer sits close by on a stone wall with a straightjacket and unicycle, waiting for his time with the crowd. Further along an aging three-piece bush band called the "Sensitive New Aged Economic Rationalists" starts up a jig, a small fox terrier leashed to the microphone stand. They sound awful.

Out of the vast shadow of the harbour bridge, past the historic Rocks district and the ferry terminal to the familiar white sails of the Opera House on Bennelong Point, this public space forms a linear narrative of the city's short 216 years. Following the deep sinuous curve that is Sydney Cove the promenade is clearly a tourist destination linking two iconic superstars. It is also a place of work, a meeting place, a place to eat, a place to watch and be watched, a place to be entertained, somewhere to stretch out on the grass. It is an image, a marketing tool and a highlight of many an overseas adventure. Most of all, it is a cultural landscape which is embedded sensually within the collective memory of the city, its occupants and all those whose who pass through it. A place where our cultural diversity is paraded proudly everyday. In this regard it facilitates the move from the conscious reality of a physical space to the unconscious realm where we dream and look beyond.

"Come on come on, keep up."

"What are you talking about Thomas(i)? You have an eternity."

"Yes but you don't, its almost two thousand paces from the bridge here to the Opera House, there's so much to see...So many people, so much change...It's a different time now. This place can haunt a man, bring a tear to his eye, make him burst out laughing all within a wink."

"They have a name for someone like you."

"Yeees, yes a flaneur I believe. "

Sitting on his secret harbourside promenade throne day after day the flaneur observes and distils, gleans and derives the very essence of the city. He knows this space intimately, he owns this space; this space owns him. He is a peripheral observer but also a participant, an occupant and an enjoyer; the curator of the people's promenade. He observes the diversity of its users, the tourist taking holiday snaps, the office worker seeking some lunchtime sanctity harbourside, and all those in between.

He has watched the city grow around him. First a deep tranquil cove where the Iora(ii)people fished and hunted. A primitive outpost port and jail for the outcasts of mother England. A busy interchange and the beginnings of an imperial civilisation, the quarrying of sandstone blocks that shaped the city. From the building of a government and nation to the towering glass and steel CBD of a thriving global city. The only constants are change itself and the flow of people who have moved through it.

"Where was it that you were hung, Thomas?"

"Well, see the jagged roof of the old Campbell's Naval Storehouse, now down the sandstone steps leading to the forecourt, right there. The gallows stood high. I was the first here to go you know. A real rat bag back then."

"Wasn't exactly a glorious death for you was it?"

"But infamous my friend. That's what started this all you know. A crack of the neck, then an eternity walking this stretch. Wouldn't have it any other way, look at this view...This privilege of mine allows me many friends, many acquaintances and many many loves."

"Three lifetimes' worth by now. Lucky you've got new clothes along the way. Wouldn't have had many loves in those old convict rags I imagine."

"Joke as you will my friend, come along, there's much for you to see."

Unimpeded pedestrians flow through this space, ebbing and peaking like the tide within the harbour. First the morning commuter rush as ferries, buses and trains converge. Then the lunchtime pilgrimage, which almost fills the space to the waters edge. Finally at the days end, the city comes to unwind and make the journey back home again.

This space epitomises Jan Gehls 5km world(iii); the pedestrian world. A world rich in both architectural and urban design detailing, macro and micro visual and physical interest, human interaction and comfort. Gehl identifies the pragmatic ingredients for successful public spaces as being protection against traffic, violence and unpleasant sense experiences as well as providing possibilities for walking, for standing, staying and for sitting. Opportunities to see, hear, talk and play. Opportunity to enjoy the climate and enjoy the aesthetic of a unique built and natural environment. Whilst these represent sound generic design principles for the universal design of public spaces, the true measure of a public space must be its ability to transcend its mere physical dimensions and list of qualitative measures. So what is it about this space that elevates it above and beyond? And, how is it representative of our local culture?

It is the potential element of surprise, encounter and adventure which forms the underlying excitement of the harbourside promenade. Like a subject who refuses to sit still for the artist, the harbour and environ is in a constant state of change and dynamism; always revealing something new. It is something in the space itself; a spirit lives. Peter Emmett writes of Sydney harbour being a 'place of enchantment. A place of universal cultural significance because of what it does to people and because they do things in response that become culturally significant too.'(iv) Phillip Drewe furthers this saying that we as individuals and as a collective are shaped by our spaces...'experiences of spaces that are most familiar and enduring in our childhood reverberate through our lives and provide an ultimate reference point for interpreting our place in the world.'(v)

This stretch lives deeply in the memory and lives of all Sydneysiders and those that pass through it. This is where modern Australia was born and where contemporary multi-cultural Australia is still growing. It is the one unique space in which the city as a social collective, regardless of race, gender, age or background, can come together and truly see itself. Promenade of the people. It is this unified social diversity that also makes this space a compelling reflection of the world at large.

Moving along, past the passenger terminal where the cruise liners arrive during the summer, each bigger than the one before. These floating cities are bumped into dock with the help of a flotilla of tugboats. Each time they arrive the city comes to greet this new mass spectacle, bid farewell to loved ones, others just get caught up in the commotion, gawk at their enormity and wave to people they will never know. Fireworks and a light show bid the seafarers off and wish them safe passage to the next port.

"Why are you sniggering, Tom?"

"The irony my friend. People spend a lifetime working for a berth on that vessel. All I had to do was steal a loaf of bread for the privilege. My trip wasn't as opulent I must admit, 250 days on treacherous high seas, shackled in chains. We all had scurvy, lucky to survive friend."

"Let me catch my breath a minute, it's a hot day."

"Over here then, under the fig tree."

"This tree would almost be as old as you."

Sitting beneath the fig tree presents an uninhibited view back across Sydney Cove to the Opera House. The flaneur once counted fifteen photographs taken within this same spot over an hour. Of those he took six himself, carefully composing the traveller with the white sails hovering in the background. The subjects hailing from Korea, Germany, the USA and one elderly couple from France who demanded a reshoot after a ferry partially obscured the view.

"Hey Tom, move, these people are trying to get a photo."

"Move? But I am what they really want to take a photo of."

"Sure it is beautiful but the building and this place is all about the people. The people who perform in it, those that go to watch, those sitting on the steps just enjoying the buzz of the harbour.

Imagine this space without the people, so lonely. No no no, what you need is the people. It is the people that make this place what it is not the other way around. As soon as you realise this the better their photo will be. Now hurry up and stand with me. You don't have to smile."

Continuing along the promenade, they pause before the Museum of Contemporary Art. A stately sandstone building previously the home of the Maritime Services Board whose motifs and reliefs still decorate the larger than life entrance way. Banners draped across the buildings facade announce that Lee Bull and Bridget Riley are currently being exhibited.

"The first market was right here, you know."

"When I close my eyes I can still feel it. Ever just closed your eyes and felt a place? People coming and going, busy about their business, talking, laughing, sound of buskers. Just the stench is missing."

This space was once the core of the working harbour, a naval outpost, place of merchant exchanges and the birthplace of a colony. On the pavement bronze medallions delineate where the old high water mark used to reach. Now the wide promenade literally walks us over water.

"Heard of Jeff Koons, friend?"

"Yeah, the American artist, right?"

"He built an enormous puppy out of pot plants on that very patch, one of the most bizarre but strangely beautiful things I have seen. Quite sad when they took it away, really."

"Its in Bilbao, now."

"Bill who?...Mind you, he would have been the laughing stock back then friend, incarcerated for madness I imagine. How things change...I really wish more would weave their magic like he did."

Moving around the promenade to the circular quay ferry terminal, senses heightened by the deep echoing sounds of a didgeridoo backed with ambient techno music; merging two cultures into one sound. A ring of people gathers around watching the men dance, ceremonial paint splashed across their bodies. Two seated men breath heavily into their carved instruments. One elder is walking around the ring of people with a pile of eucalyptus leaves smouldering on a bark vessel. The audience each taking a turn to breathe in the soothing smoke.

"This land was not empty when you arrived. Where have the first people of this space gone, Thomas?"

Before settlement this place nurtured the Iora's daily rituals of fishing, hunting and gathering. A supply of fresh water ensured the local tribes were never too far away. On Bennelong Point where the Opera House now stands, is an ancient aboriginal ceremonial site, where stories of ancestors, the land and "the dreaming" were played out. The substitution of one cultural sacred site with another.

"You ask difficult questions. This is so sad...and is something for which I am truly sorry. When the first ships arrived here we had cargo for which no one foresaw the consequences. Amongst our supplies we also brought influenza and cholera. The effects were devastating."

The real tragedy was the dislocation of the Iora people from their land. Robert Hughes writes; 'they carried their conception of the sacred, of mythical time and ancestral origins with them as they walked. These were embodied in the landscape, every hill and valley, each kind of animal and tree had its place in a systematic but unwritten whole. Take this away they were not deprived of property but of their embodied history, their locus of myth, their 'dreaming'. To deprive the aborigines of their territory, therefore was to condemn them to spiritual death - a destruction of their past, future and their opportunities of transcendence."(vi)

Despite the dislocation of the aboriginal people from their land, there is still an enduring and deeply embedded cultural and spiritual connection with this space. Today, it is the fuse of traditional and contemporary music and dance that tells the story, transcending the show above being just another busking act; and the crowd loves it.

"Shall we go around to the Opera House?"

Walking further around the promenade, past the ferries and catamarans. Dodging the commuters running for the 6 o'clock Manly ferry, a few clutching brown paper bags; a beer or two for trip home. Round the bend and the Opera House now within full view, its beautiful white arcs trace up into the afternoon sky. The water's edge ever present, sloshing and splashing rhythmically against the seawall from passing ferries and the merging of the tides. At last the nor-easter breeze blows in off the harbour bringing cooling relief to the hot city day. The two move over to the water's edge and stare into the harbour.

Using the metaphor of a 'veranda' as an open edge condition, Phillip Drewe discusses how space, particularly in Australia, is equated with individual freedom and independence. But it is not an unrestricted openness that we seek as much as a safe openness. It is the juxtaposition of contact with nature with security and protection. It is the balance between looking out and shelter which is found in the veranda.(vii)

In this sense the harbourside promenade is Sydney's defining and truly public space, a consummate instance of local culture, our veranda. This space is a gateway, a centrepiece and a heart. It is where people flock on days of national celebration or when there is nothing better to do. It is a respite from suburban monotony where universal free access is the imperative. A place where pedestrians dawdle, philander and generally take it easy. It is the one place where Sydney as a social collective converges and, face to face, can see who we really are; a celebration of our ancestry and cultural diversity. This is the Sydney way, the harbour and water's edge, the blue skies but more importantly taking the time to enjoy it.

Arriving at the base of the Opera House podium the two move half way up the first flight of stairs. They turn and take a seat, looking back across Sydney Cove to where their promenade first began. From this vantage the whole city is revealed, the skyscrapers sparkle reds and oranges in the late afternoon glow, the busy comings and goings of a working harbour and the people. This is indeed a throne; a throne over the peoples promenade, upon which the entire city is able to sit and dream.


End Notes

(i).Thomas Barnett, convict and first man to be hung in Australia at age 17 for the crime of stealing some butter, dried peas and salted pork.

(ii).Iora - tribal name of the aborigines who inhabited Sydney Cove pre-European settlement.

(iii).Jan Gehl, Danish Urban Design Professor

(iv).Peter Emmett, pg.6

(v).Phillip Drewe,pg xiv

(vi).Robert Hughes pg 17, 18

(vii).Phillip Drewe pg xiv


(1)Phillip Drewe, The Coast Dwellers, Penguin Books, Australia, 1994.

(2)Peter Emmett, Sydney; Metropolis, Suburb, Harbour, Historic Houses Trust, Sydney 2000.

(3)Jan Gehl, "Lively, Attractive and Safe Cities - But How", Museum of Sydney Seminar, February 2005.

(4)Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, Pan Books, London, 1988.

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