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

[ID:1925] The Untoppled Omphalos


The Invisible Untoppled Omphalos (1)

On the corner of Castlereagh and Hunter streets in Sydney, not far from Circular Quay, stands a monument to mark the site of the first Christian service in Australia. On it are engraved the words What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? Thus was a new culture impressed upon an ancient landscape. For Australias first convict settlers who in 1788 landed at Circular Quay the greatest punishment was total isolation from Europe. Australias built environment today arguably has no more freedom than that granted to our first convicts. Trapped between European history and the Australian landscape, between the spirituality of two continents. However Circular Quay has broken this trend to gain a spiritual place in the Australian psyche.

What kind of place is Circular Quay? The Aboriginal tribes of Sydney would be a good point to start. To the Eora Aboriginals who had lived around Sydney for 40,000 years (2), Circular Quay certainly had a sense of place. It was a summer campsite, a spot to fish and launch canoes before a rising sun. But this physical use was embodied through a spiritual ideal. To the Aboriginal people, religion was not about a transcendent higher power; their beliefs were reflected in the surrounding landscape, dreamtime stories told of a creation when the landscape was formed and rules were set down for living in it. Thus the landscape was embedded with a spirituality of place, genus loci. Circular Quay was not just a place it was one place within one great place. But does this resonate for morning commuters today for whom Circular Quay is perhaps one race within one great race?

So how can this genus locus be transferred to an urban European context? In a country where urban dwellers have increasingly little contact with the Australian landscape and where our religious sites are largely in another hemisphere, how can a sense of spirituality in the landscape be conjured?

To achieve this, Circular Quay would require the intervention of one of the worlds great Architects, Jorn Utzon, who in 1973 designed the Sydney Opera house, forever placing Circular Quay on the international stage but more importantly giving Circular Quay a spiritual and cultural identity in the eyes of Australian people. Circular Quay is the most successful example of place making in Australias built environment.

Utzon designed the Sydney Opera House as a series of eight theatres beneath white shells, evoking images of Sydney Harbor and the Australian identity. Built on Bennelong Point, ironically named after an Aboriginal, kidnapped and then civilized by the first Governor, dying later from alcohol. The Opera House was to be the centrepoint of the Harbour and a landmark for passengers arriving at the Quay. With its terraced steps physically linking the street with the theatres, and a commitment to providing government subsidised access to the arts, Utzons Opera House was to be unlike other theatres of the world. It captured Australias national identity creating a spiritual site for the Commonwealth. Appropriately the first concert staged in the completed Opera House was held for the workmen who had constructed it. In the subsequent years the Opera House has became hugely popular with the Australian public, its performances have an annual audience of 1.1 million people (3), over 5% of the Australian population, while a further 240 000 visitors take guided tours of the building (4).

The place the Opera House had gained in the publics mindset was clearly demonstrated during the 1997 East Circular Quay development. A high-rise residential apartment project alongside the Opera House, East Circular Quay was disparagingly labeled the toaster by protesters seeking to maintain Circular Quays existing vista and Utzons artistic integrity. Protesters argued that views of the civic space were being blocked by private infrastructure, while the projects Architect, Andrew Anderson argued against a Baroque view of straight boulevards, claiming that the approach to an architectural site could be enhanced if the user was taken by surprise (7). The ensuing protests and intervention by then Prime Minister Keating meant that the development was lowered and simplified, a compromise that maintained the Opera Houses external image but undercut its true ideals by converting public land to private uses.

While it was inevitable that a building as powerful and iconic as Utzons Opera House would come into conflict with its neighbors this debate served to highlight one of the fundamental issues facing Circular Quay as private capital increasingly came into conflict with public space.

However Utzons Opera House is only one part of Circular Quay. Perhaps the beginning of European settlements can show a more complete view of the forces that are shaping and challenging Circular Quay today. By 1792 Sydney was an isolated outpost of 3068 Europeans. Circular Quay was at this time not so much a public space as the city itself. However its role as a public space was already being established. The first settlers were determined to create an ordered European city in the chaotic and unknown environment. This desire was best expressed by Sydneys first governor Arthur Phillip, when in 1790 he said There are few things more pleasing than the contemplation of order and useful arrangement arising gradually out of tumult and confusion (6), perfectly capturing the Western view towards land use.

Streets were built along grid patterns and the resulting blocks of land were devoted towards fixed and defined uses; this was a time when Governments still took the leading role in urban planning. Along the eastern side of the Quay the Governors residence was built. Along the western side, which became known as the Rocks, housing was built. The rocks gained a strong cultural significance as a place of working class, high-density housing which personified the Australian ideals of hard work, mateship and egalitarianism.

However in the modern era, as Circular Quays property prices have soared and free market governments have come to dominate Australias politics, private interests have been charged with developing Circular Quay. International style skyscrapers came to surround Circular Quay, and while the developments had varying degrees of architectural success (Harry Seidlers Horizon apartment tower is one of the better examples (7)) these developments were eclectic, bearing no relationship to the Sydney landscape or Australian culture. The Rocks, which once embodied working class Australian culture, has likewise been gentrified, transforming the working class homes into inner city townhouses, maintaining the physical space, but eroding the cultural space.

While Utzons Opera House with its eclectic form shares this detachment from Australian architecture and landscape many would argue that it is part of Circular Quays past not its future. The big civic gesture is becoming increasingly unpopular amongst conservative, free market Australian governments, and Circular Quay has increasingly come to be dominated by commercially directed rather than publicly directed spaces. For governments commercial developments are popular in public spaces because they provide guaranteed use and direction for the site.

Here is one of the key differences between indigenous land use and western land use. Australia has always seemed an empty country; its landscape is, if not larger than life, then certainly larger than its inhabitants. The Eora, as a nomadic group were reliant on the large and mainly empty environment around them, their dreamtime stories making a virtue of the landscape as a creator of life. For European colonial settlers there was a retreat, even a fear of the empty landscape. Development occurred largely in communities pushed up against the coastal fringes of the continent, away from the vast interior. This continues today and arguably our western society has difficulty dealing with unused space.

Robert Venturi said, People dont want Piazzas theyre at home watching TV (5). Because of our low density and suburban society this is perhaps truer of Australians than other people. Along the Western model of land use these unused public spaces soon become desolate and crime ridden, social activity moves out and undesirable activity moves in.

For public spaces to work in our postcolonial society they must be directed towards defined uses. As Architects we must be more active in directing our spaces. Much of the activity in Circular Quay comes from the ferry terminal and railway station adjacent; together they provide a steady flow of users performing a truly public activity.

Similarly some level of commercial development does provide guaranteed activity to the Quay and can be beneficial to the public sphere as a means of providing direction and use. However good commercial spaces should not be used as an excuse for good public spaces. The commercial need must always be subordinate to the public need.

Australian public spaces, Circular Quay being a prime example, are at their most successful when they are filled with publicly directed activity and movement. Another example is Melbournes Federation Square, by Lab Architects, designed around public galleries, exhibition spaces and theatres. As a general rule the undirected, empty town square will never work as an active and healthy public space in the Australian city.

The need to direct and control space therefore, for the present at least, characterises Australias urban environment and public places. The Sydney Opera House is the focus of Circular Quay because it goes beyond this pragmatic and straightforward use of space. Utzons design, through both its form and its use, created a transitional zone, linking the land with the harbor, the public with the space, linking indigenous beliefs in the spiritual landscape with western needs for a directed landscape.

Most importantly like all great architecture it links who we are with who we might be, that is a society that gives public access to the arts priority over commercially directed land.

So while Utzons Opera House is only one part of Circular Quay it is the part that gives form, meaning and significance to the whole. It created a spirituality of secular humanism, providing public ownership and access to arts and culture. It also gave spiritual identity to an urban space. It created a place that can be as good or bad as the society around it, but a space that is fundamentally alive. At its best Circular Quay can uplift society as a whole, providing a secular vision free from religious and social division.

While Utzons Opera House and Circular Quay, the public space it has created, have achieved a powerful place in the Australian psyche, will this be maintained in the 21st century? Or like so many great buildings will it became a monument, a relic to a past society and its alien values?

One of the strongest qualities of Circular Quay is that it has reflected a real image of Australia and its people rather than a dated representation of eucalypts and corrugated iron. However as Australias demographics and identity change Circular Quay, as a public space, may cease to reflect Australia at all. Robert Kaplan in his book The Empire Wilderness argued that; like the era of the empire state and the feudal state before it; the era of the nation state is ending (8). In western nations, with growing wealth disparities, a loss of big civic values and increased levels of communication; people are finding they have more in common with their virtual neighbors on the other side of the world than with poor communities on the other side of the tracks. This, he argues, has lead to the development of an increasingly disparate and fragmented urban sphere, with gated, satellite communities and secured apartment towers on the one hand and dilapidated failed ghettos on the other.

While the institution of the nation state will not end, power and significance may increasingly move towards smaller institutions, city states, spawning insular and exclusive public values rather than all embracing public values, their spirituality expressed in insular fundamentalist religion and a move towards more manageable communities. If so Australia may become what Aboriginal Australia once was, a collection of many nations with complex connections and differing identities.

In this scenario Circular Quay would maintain its physical presence as a pragmatic and workable public space for its immediate residents and similarly would maintain its visual identity as a global image of Sydney. However it would loose its spiritual identity as a symbol of national civic unity and values. It would lose its most important identity.

So if Australia is becoming what Aboriginal Australia always was, then what has happened to the Aboriginals who gave meaning and significance to Circular Quay before 1788? Increasingly labeled as a single problematic and unmanageable culture, their experiences have been of alienation from the public sphere. The Eora Aboriginal tribe were scattered and destroyed by the effects of white settlement and its diseases. The Aboriginals of inner Sydney today have come from a variety of Western New South Wales tribes and live predominantly in the Redfern Aboriginal housing development just south of the Quay (2). Designed with the vision and optimism of 1970s planning, Redferns social fabric has been crushed under the weight of modern reality. A mixture of a lack of employment, a lack of government investment and applying Western land patterns to an Aboriginal community has condemned Redfern to poverty and crime, and the development is seen as a ghetto by many of Sydneys residents and legislators. Underlying racial and economic tensions finally spilled over in 2003 after the death of an Aboriginal teenager in a police chase, leading to rioting and attacks on police, events previously unheard of in Australia.

The Redfern riots demonstrated that problems of one social class could not simply be pushed behind a wall. It also demonstrated that Utzons Opera house and the values of collective ownership and collective belonging it espoused were not relics to a past Circular Quay but a hope for the future.

If Sydney and Australia are to prosper, and the desire to prosper is a strong one, then we will have to remember that a society is measured by the architecture that brings people together not by the architecture that keeps people apart. In doing this public spaces foster good communities and embody our collective consciousness.

In Circular Quay Sydney commuters, and the wider world, do not see a public space that reflects Australia at the physical level nor does it play lip service to clich

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