‘Learning from past disaster’:Rejected visions for Sydney that were never realised

Sydney’s The Rocks was set to be razed in the early 1960s to make way for a Brutalist-style complex of up to 40-storey high-rise apartments catering to office workers and “middle-class families” spread across treeless podiums above street level.

Its colonial history was saved from the wrecking ball when developer James Wallace Pty Ltd couldn’t afford to buy existing properties for redevelopment,said Professor Rob Freestone,the curator of a new exhibition calledUnrealised Sydney opening on Saturday.

Professor Rob Freestone,the guest curator of a new exhibition at the Museum of Sydney,stands in front of a model of a proposal that would have razed all of the Rocks. It didn’t go ahead because the company that won the tender couldn’t afford to buy all the properties needed for redevelopment.

Professor Rob Freestone,the guest curator of a new exhibition at the Museum of Sydney,stands in front of a model of a proposal that would have razed all of the Rocks. It didn’t go ahead because the company that won the tender couldn’t afford to buy all the properties needed for redevelopment.Nick Moir

The exhibition at the Museum of Sydney includes other visions of anonymous high-rise precincts that Freestone said were part of a mission to remove heritage and workers’ terraces from Woolloomooloo to Macquarie Street.

Other plans that never got off the drawing board included a multi-storey car park fronting the entire length of Circular Quay;an Opera House in the Domain;and plans for a Discovery Village at Darling Harbour that recalled the 1960s TV showThe Jetsons with a futuristic dome.

Freestone,a professor of city planning at the University of NSW School of Built Environment,said an important takeaway of the new exhibition was “beware of high rise”. That’s particularly the case when tall buildings are proposed in precincts that don’t have them already,such as the now moderated plans for Blackwattle Bay.

The exhibition includes official and unofficial plans,competition entries,unsolicited proposals,design challenges and ideas festivals for major projects.

Planning and construction after World War II was promoted by governments as a way of providing for years of prosperity and progress,said Freestone.

“Brave-new-world thinking brought with it new and revived utopian visions of rebuilt cities sweeping away slums,congestion and other unwanted legacies from the past,” he said. “The years after World War II saw complete replanning of precincts,not just buildings,on a scale that increased into the 1960s.

“Alongside the proclaimed technological and mobility advancements came serious community resistance for the first time in Sydney ... We have fortunately taken some learnings from past disaster.”

Sydney was the only city in the world to have a statutory requirement for a design competition for major projects,said Freestone who has written extensively on the topic. These mandated design contests had produced “excellent buildings far more conscious of their settings”.

Freestone said the competition to design the Opera House – which attracted 237 entries – laid the foundation for a process that produced “truly good design”.

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“The Opera House became such an iconic structure that’s influenced everything that came after it,” he said. “With a competition,you get excellence. Rather than just going to someone to say,‘Can you whip up an opera house?’,” he said.

Not even Utzon’s original vision was realised. The exhibition includes some beautiful drawings with gold leaf of a floating foyer facing north between the two halls.

Competitions,though,did not always eliminate controversy,with Utzon “packing up and leaving” and Barangaroo’s original concepts frequently eroded by major modifications.

Architect Philip Thalis told theHerald in 2016 that the defining characteristic of his scheme – which won the design contest for Barangaroo –was that the foreshore was inalienable public land.

“That’s why the jury said we won unanimously out of 137 schemes,”he explained. “We knew what the privatisation pressure was ... So we wanted a scheme that was resistant to the worst tendencies. And that’s exactly the opposite of what’s been done ever since.”

Freestone said he had been heartened by how improved planning and community activism had generally succeeded in blocking and modifying some designs.

“I think a big theme for me for this whole thing was how the involvement of the public has added value to the process.”

The Rocks’ scheme was state of the art at the time,with its international towers and circulation system that separated pedestrians and traffic.

Freestone discovered the “unloved” Wallace model of the Rocks languishing in a government office corridor about 15 years ago. He earmarked it as the “salutary centrepiece” for a retrospective exhibition of lost proposals,which has now been realised.

He was inspired by a 1974 book by formerHerald editor and author,Eric Irvin:Sydney As It Might Have Been:Dreams That Died on the Drawing-Board.

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Julie Power is a senior reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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