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What makes an icon? On the design and disposition of Sydney’s architecture

What makes an icon? It’s a question worth asking since Sydney’s newest self-declared icon, Crown Sydney, partially opened earlier this year.

The promise of iconicity was at the core of the rationale put before politicians and the public to justify the annexation of Barangaroo’s planned harbourside parkland for a VIP-only casino, 6-star hotel and luxury apartments for the superrich. In late 2012, James Packer wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald of his ambition to ‘complement the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House’ with ‘a world-class landmark resort on Sydney Harbour.’ This was an apparent act of benevolence to help the people of Sydney address an underinvestment in tourism infrastructure and ‘the catalyst to help turn the city around.’

I am sceptical (as I think most Sydneysiders would be) of the hyperbolic declarations of ‘architectural achievement’ made by property developers. Too often, there’s a discord between optimistic artist impressions – glossy renderings of impossibly verdant vertical gardens, rooftops bathed in artificial golden-hour light, majestic city views (‘indicative only’) – and the tawdry finished products.

Likewise, I was sceptical of Crown’s proclamation of Sydney’s newest ‘icon’. According to who, and what? We’d like to think of iconicity as determined by broad consensus: an ever-evolving social contract governing the attribution of cultural value and narratives of significance, drafted and redrafted according to successive generations’ shifting ideals, their evaluations of aesthetic, technological and cultural achievements (or failures).

Yet, those who presumptuously declared Crown Sydney’s iconicity understood the power of doing so. If it were the biggest, the best, the most impressive thing of its kind, that could offset the optics of appropriating public parkland for private exploitation and distract from the surreptitious exercise of political influence to circumvent planning and licensing laws that would have rightly prevented an otherwise illegal proposal. Packer’s specious argument that this was ‘for the good of Sydney’ created a false dichotomy between public interest and economic growth – a dubious defence of private gain masquerading as public (but only privately-accessible) spectacle.

Now, beleaguered by allegations of Crown’s criminal conduct and royal commissions in multiple states interrogating its probity, Packer wants out, and the $2b icon he built ‘for the good of Sydney’ could soon be under foreign ownership. So, what should we make of Sydney’s newest ‘icon’? What does it contribute to the narratives of cultural significance embodied by our iconic architecture?

Robin Boyd’s influential polemic The Australian Ugliness (1960) offers an unrelenting critique of Australian culture through incisive readings of our built environment. In place of a distinctive and coherent architectural vernacular, Boyd posits ‘Featurism’ as the unifying characteristic of Australian architecture – more a thoughtless practice than a particular style or taste. Where the serious-minded architect seeks to create a unified entity that satisfies competing functional, economic and aesthetic demands, the Featurist disrupts coherence and efficacy with trend-induced compulsions to unnecessary ornamentation. It takes the form of applied veneers to raw materials or, more egregiously, the introduction of non-functional, arbitrary elements that distort true forms. In Boyd’s milieu, it manifested as feature walls, plastic-coated furniture, splashes of primary colours and street-facing picture windows (blinds always drawn). Speaking of Sydney’s uninsulated, unheated domestic dwellings – those of a city optimistically oriented to a never-ending summer – Boyd sees Featurism as the tendency to ‘put two-toned crocodiled surfacing on the wallboards before comfort in the unseen air.’

For Boyd, the mishmash mania of patchwork cityscapes Featurism creates and the gratuitous, consumerist impulse to embellish it cultivates are ‘bound up with the collective character of the Australian people’. Featurism speaks to a deep ambivalence that disturbs Australian identity:

Cruel but kind … vitality, energy, strength and optimism in one’s own ability, yet indolence, carelessness, the ‘she’ll do, mate’ attitude to the job to be done. The Australian is forcefully loquacious, until the moment of expressing any emotion. He is aggressively committed to equality and equal opportunity for all men, except for black Australians. He has high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of confidence in anything he thinks.

The expression of this ambivalence in architectural forms inhibits the potential of considered, cohesive design to create spaces, public and private, that enhance our lives and give clarity to our communal dispositions. This is not only an aesthetic failure, but an ethical dilemma:

the entirely superficial, frivolous appeal of a Featurist object can never assist human awareness, wisdom and understanding. It is for this reason alone as degrading to human nature as it is to art.

The features in question may have changed over the decades, but Boyd’s hypothesis has endured and can be recognised in our most beautiful and beloved architectural icons. What narratives of significance are embodied in their Featurist equivocation? How do they respond to architecture’s ethical imperative; in other words, what kind of society do they imagine and create?

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In Sydney’s infancy, ferries were the primary link between the North Shore and the city. A new connection was needed to alleviate congestion and accommodate the future transport needs of a rapidly growing city. As a 1933 newsreel declared,

the ferries, for all their quaint charm, belong to the past. The old order changes, and so arises the steel colossus of the new age, Sydney’s Harbour Bridge.

Like the Eiffel Tower, the Bridge’s intricate network of riveted steel reverberates with the promise of the modern: an ambitious vision to overcome obstacles and enact transformation, enabled by technological innovation, industrial might and human ingenuity. It’s a vitality Grace Cossington-Smith captured in rhythmic, radiating bands of luminous colour. The two arms of the majestic iron arc coming together signalled emancipatory, egalitarian hope as much as awe – what other insurmountable problems could be tackled by public investment that isn’t only reactive but speculative? As well as sustaining over 1,200 workers during the dark days of the Great Depression (hence the phrase ‘Iron Lung’) and propelling local industry, the Bridge was at the centre of a broader vision to connect Sydney’s sprawling suburbs and for nearly ninety years has remained critical to Sydney’s transport networks. There is more romance to this structure than its arch alone.

That kind of future-building is no longer typical, but Boyd notes the Bridge was very much a typical Australian project. The construction workforce was local, but the design, management and 80 per cent of the steel came from Britain. The sandstone for the pylons was quarried at Moruya, although for Boyd these constitute ‘the crowning achievement of Australian Featurism’. Above the level of the deck, the pylons serve no structural purpose. They are an entirely decorative addition that, despite greatly inflating the project’s costs, were considered necessary to soften and beautify the ‘ugly’ industrial heft of the steel arch. They camouflaged a resolutely modern design, distracted from the quintessential modern material, with the more familiar characteristics of a nineteenth-century suspension bridge – a regression to our collective imagining of ‘how things should be’ rather than what they are, a denial of functionalist forms. Sydney had built itself a modern icon, but the Featurist pylons suggest intimidation at the aesthetic power of the new.

Boyd’s critique of the Bridge might characterise him as an iconoclastic modernist demanding a purity of forms and materials. However, he saw two genuine logics that could inform effective design practices: functionalist forms and poetic expression. Each is a valid means of achieving different purposes. It is as fanciful to imagine a world where our homes, factories and office blocks achieve profound creative expression, as it is one in which our public institutions and gathering spaces adhere to austere utilitarianism. The issue of Featurism arises when one logic is muddied by the other, landing uncomfortably between utility and poetry, and doing neither very well.

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If the Harbour Bridge is Sydney’s industrial colossus, signalling its birth as a modern city, the Opera House might be its concrete coming-of-age. Jørn Utzon’s sculptural sequence of soaring concrete sails – a design so intimately responsive to its inimitable setting that it’s hard to imagine any other building in its place, nor this building in any other place – was undoubtedly a stroke of genius. But, as is well known, Utzon’s design was more master concept than master plan; details as fundamental as the geometry of the roof had not been determined, nor had accurate surveys of the site been completed. Nonetheless, in 1959 Joe Cahill’s Labor government rushed to break ground to quell the threat of conservative opposition – a political necessity that precipitated architectural chaos.

Utzon’s ‘spherical solution’ enabled a practical, though unprecedented, method for constructing the roof. It gave the structure a consistent geometry and a remarkable sense of organic unity, exceedingly complex shapes coalescing into a dynamic, expressionistic entity. Yet it also drastically decreased the internal space of the shells, causing major problems for the design of the interiors. Further delays and mounting costs quickly turned the Opera House into a site of political contestation: did we need this thing, and at what cost?

The animosity between Utzon and Askin government, elected in 1965, led to Utzon leaving the project. Mew Minster for Works and noted Opera House sceptic Davis Hughes did not share Utzon’s appetite for experimentation in search of novel solutions that would realise his vision for the building. Hughes declared that what the project needed was an injection of good old-fashioned Aussie pragmatism – proven methods that could be costed, put into a timeframe and delivered.

Sydneysider Peter Hall (who had initially supported Utzon’s reinstatement) was appointed as the project’s new architect. His team inherited the thankless task of salvaging a work of genius whilst appeasing an obstinate ethos of practicality, of retaining the spirit of expression whilst achieving economic viability. Under the revised parameters of the spherical solution and on the advice of acoustical and engineering experts, it was decided that the dual-purpose major hall would become a single-purpose auditorium – the Concert Hall – with opera relegated to the minor hall. Hall conceded this was an ‘artistic loss … the unity of the architecture suffers from that.’ The tall stage towers required for opera that had justified the shape of the roof were no longer required; the roof was no longer responsive to the building’s function. Had its expressive form lapsed into the merely decorative?

In fairness, the exact function of the building had never been adequately decided. It was nine years after the initial brief that the need for 2,800-seats in the major hall to ensure financial viability was determined. Utzon’s interiors were working with half the floorspace of what was eventually built; the result would have been not only uncomfortable but unsafe. Hall wrote:

The job was being built, in effect, without definition of what was expected of it … what were we supposed to build?

The wonderfully acerbic 1968 documentary Autopsy on a Dream contains fascinating footage of the House’s empty shells – at that stage, a giant concrete gazebo on the precipice of monumental failure. Did Hall rescue the Opera House from an interminable spiral of design and redesign, from the risk of never being finished? Or was Utzon’s vision inhibited by a philistine pragmatism, the public baulking at the price tag of a masterpiece?

Architectural critic Elizabeth Farrelly echoes Boyd when she writes:

Australia’s relationship with the avant-garde had always been timid, toe-in-the-water stuff. We were curious but mistrustful; interested but deeply risk-averse.

It is a legitimate critique of Utzon’s design, if it could really not serve the purpose for which it was intended. But it’s more relevant to see its limitations in the context of a society that was building an Opera House without knowing what it wanted it for. Perhaps there could have been the ideal synthesis of form and function, were it not for the rush to commence works, the necessary counter to a stubborn lack of imagination. But this history is redolent of the Australian ambivalence Boyd critiques – an ambition to high art compromised by the fear of what it takes to achieve and scepticism of what it’s worth.

The mythology of the Opera House has perhaps overplayed Utzon’s genius and, as Anne Watson has argued, underplayed Hall’s role in making radical compromise to resolve its fundamental design flaws. This might be because it is a rare instance of the public privileging of the aesthetic. It’s difficult to balance artistic ambition and economic rationalism because the immaterial values of the former are incommensurable with the strictly material terms of the latter, the only terms which seem to matter. The great irony is that the House’s iconicity has done more for Sydney’s economy than anything that goes on inside the building itself or any of the more ‘pragmatic’ uses for $1b of public spending governments might propose. Nonetheless, we’re left wondering: could it have been better? Should it have been better?

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So what, then, do we make of our newest icon? Packer’s skyscraper was a Featurist project from the outset, designed to distract from the true malaise that continues to afflict Sydney: the failure to cultivate local creativity and express character through art and public spaces, as much as it does its food scene. The site’s original purpose as parkland was a necessary public benefit to come from such a large-scale redevelopment of public land. Imagine the potential iconicity of a twentieth-century industrial wasteland on the harbour repurposed to respond to the twenty-first-century needs of the community? Instead, such needs were superseded by the supposedly worldly wisdom of a casino baron who proposed, unsurprisingly, a casino.

From the vantage point of Alan Jones’ penthouse, it’s unlikely Barry O’Farrell could imagine a different future for Sydney than the one put before him. Packer’s project would tap into the perfect market: foreign high-rollers too rich to be vulnerable to shocks, an infinite font of future tax revenue. But they had to be given a reason to come. It had to be iconic.

Crown’s rationale for iconicity wasn’t speculative civil engineering or cultural aspiration, but neoliberal rationalism. To lure the high rollers, to tap into this ‘market’, there had to be views of those other icons, the Bridge and the House. Under the pretence of economic viability, and enabled by Packer’s privileged political access, Barangaroo’s planning principles were trounced. Buildings in the precinct were supposed to scale down towards the foreshore, giving way to public enjoyment of the harbour. But the Crown tower was permitted to soar to the once-illegal height of 271 metres, its enormous podium showing no reverence for public use or its natural surrounds. Not content to be the tallest building in Sydney, the tower twists to maximise the number of apartments, hotel suites and gaming rooms with ‘iconic’ views. The form reveals itself as following an explicit function.

Crown Sydney drags the Australian ugliness out of the twentieth century and into our globalised present: a gratuitous embellishment of the harbour and city skyline, a priapic glass monument to late-capitalist excess and neoliberal myopia. Its economic rationale consisted of reliance on a single foreign market which, even before the pandemic, had shown itself susceptible to domestic Chinese politics and Crown’s own criminality, as well as the free movement of people. Its architectural rationale only furthers an economic outcome for the investor, purposefully oriented to create a lucrative market from another feature, the ‘iconic’ view. The feats of previous generations and a city’s cultural iconography are exploited at the expense of the public for the benefit of a billionaire. Crown Sydney commodifies iconicity, whilst its own claim to iconicity is parasitic. This is by design.

The Australian ugliness is not the absence of beauty; it’s only partly an aesthetic question. It is the lack of strong design principles, the Featurist impulse to distract and dazzle rather than develop cohesive responses to the competing functional, economic and aesthetic demands we make of architecture, responses that should service the current needs and future aspirations of users. How could such a significant redevelopment of public land be so skewed to the interests of one party?

The collective ambivalence Boyd identified behind the Featurist façade of our cityscapes prevails today, expressed in a new form. The narrative that’s told about the role and function of our public spaces – what we want from them, how they shape our lives – still prioritises the developer and the investor because we still think of ourselves as a society of individuals rather than a society at all. There’s no starker illustration of this than the sight of a rough sleeper curled up under the portico of the gutted Sirius Building. Were we to prioritise communities, we would see different outcomes in response to architecture’s competing objectives, creating a city in which such absurd disparities are no longer the norm or, hopefully, even possible.

Perhaps this is changing. Since the pandemic, our spatial experience of cities has been radically altered. For many, the domestic space has been reinvented and there is a resurgent sense of community as we rediscover our local green spaces, recognising ourselves as one amongst many unknown neighbours enjoying the same simple pleasures. Perhaps this will encourage more people to advocate for projects that prioritise the current and future needs of communities. Perhaps this will generate more projects like New York’s High Line – surely the icon of successful urban renewal. Unsurprisingly, the High Line was not dreamt up by a developer, but the local community who could imagine a better city emerging from the scrapheap of industrial modernity.

The disunity and disarray of the Australian ugliness may have found an iconic new form in Crown Sydney. But to overcome the Featurist impulse, we need to invest in better design practices and tell more compelling narratives about community-centric development. We need to resolve at least some of the collective ambivalence Boyd identified – to be able to say, without equivocation, that we value the good of all over the interests of individuals, and that our true, enduring icons are those that continue to enrich the community.

At this year’s Sydney Festival, I joined the huge crowd that had gathered at Barangaroo Reserve to watch the Bangarra retrospective, Spirit. After a year of lockdowns and virtual alternatives, to gather as a community, as one amongst many others, and partake in the collective experience of art was genuinely thrilling. To do so in such a spectacular setting – the Bridge soaring, city lights reflected on the inky harbour, ferries gliding by as dancers shared stories of ancient songlines and contemporary dispossession – was iconic. It should be these kinds of moments that drive narratives of significance and that inspire the design of spaces where cultural value can be created.

 

This piece is part of our Friday Features project which is supported but the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

Image: MDRX, Wikimedia Commons

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Joshua J Taylor has lived on Gadigal Country for most of his life. He holds a Masters in Film Aesthetics from the University of Oxford.

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