Fun and Games
Venues for 2000

Sydney is in transition quite unlike anything in recent memory. Games fever has brought out the best and worst aspects of a city learning to live with the hoopla of being the center of the known universe for those inescapable two weeks in September 2000. Instead of investing so much of its identity in the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, another trophy can be added to the mantelpiece.This one comes at a price - $2.7 billion - and plenty of controversy in tow. Apart from the huffing and puffing, retractions and denials, the Games venues have been overlooked in a way some of its administrators can only dream about. This is something of a prerequisite for such a major event. Australians relish a whiff of scandal and a good stoush. It is a barometer that Sydney is on the receiving end of something far more than it ever bargained for.

The Opera House is proof of just how Australians consummate the deal - rapturous conceptions followed by a breach birth and tantrums. This is the Australian way. Sydney’s drought of quality public projects has seen it slide beneath the contemporary design radar. Until recently the city had fallen on hard times. The genius of the Opera House and tragedy of Utzon has managed to give Sydney the appearance of a design edge. But the real froth and bubble is now owned by the Games. There is a ritual cleansing and de-mystification in this. Australians have a traditional distrust of authority and bureaucracy - two features in such abundant supply. Despite, or because of, the exponential growth of sporting administrations, Australians have been slow to love them. More encouraging is the relationship between the Olympic Coordination Authority (OCA) and its teams of architects and consultants who have laboured away at the edges. Dipped in invisible ink it seems and in this regard there are echoes of Utzon. Taken as a whole, they have generated exemplary work on a vast scale without precedent in the modern Games era.

For a brief, rather unpleasant period, these became a gift-wrapped burden approaching epic proportions for all of the wrong reasons. In this day and age they beg the question of whether they have become too big and costly. Apart from ambitious administrators and cultural insecurity, why does anyone want, or need, them? Yet still the competition intensifies among cities anxious to receive the torch of opportunity, debt and social dislocation. There is an intriguing masochism to all this. Just as athletes who hurt over and over in their climb to the top, Sydney has suffered badly in its ascent. But it has also won. Suddenly the far horizon has arrived and construction sites, until recently an orchestra of jackhammers and power saws have gone. The distant mirage is so suddenly a palpable reality. Thanks to an infrastructure overhaul of airports, rail and roadways, constipated transport roadways are beginning to move with an almost laxative ease. Along the way skills have been polished and some 48,000 construction jobs created. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, more jobs will have been created by closing ceremony.

Sydneysiders driven to ecstasy at winning the prize have been left feeling hollow by ambitious profits This has required an extravagant degree of humour. Authorities may prefer to airbrush many of there problems from history, but truth has a habit of bleeding through the undercoat. At the end, something else has emerged apart from the jockeying for seats, self advancement and protection of yellow-throated frogs. There is an unmistakable strength and quality in the venues which have risen in the back-blocks of the western suburbs such as Homebush Bay, Horsley Park and Blacktown. Forty kilometres to Sydney’s west, Rooty Hill’s Imperial Hotel will be sublimely positioned to provide hospitality for international visitors and locals forced to flee steroid fed inner city rents. Will Tom and Nicole be tempted by a room and a beer? Perhaps they will joined for a toast by supremo Juan Antonio Samaranch. No matter. For a giddy, quixotic, moment, Rooty Hill, along with its western suburb neighbours, will be shadowed as locust clouds of international media descend.

Blessed with enough beaches and natural assets to tempt illegal entry, Sydney is a giant sponge for tourism. In one sense it never needed the Games to validate itself or win passing flattery. Yet there has been a conspicuous void in quality urban development - a reality only intensified by the totemic majesty of the Opera House. In this respect Utzon exposed the feebleness of aspiration that earmarks so much around it. The Games facilities are part of the redress of lost time and opportunity. Of course there is more to it than this. Others have worked tirelessly on a small scale and stitched into the urban fabric architects such as Richard LePlastrier, Ed Lippmann and Englen and Moore have raised the standard and possibilities. Games architects have risen to the occasion and firms such as Durbach, Block & Murcutt (DBM), Tonkin Zulaika, Stutchbury and Pape, and the larger ones such as Hassall Group have worked to a fine human scale. Their architecture is imbued with a sense of place, poetically grounded in practicality. Stutchbury and Pape’s archery pavillion and DBM’s epiphanous toilet stations are a glorious relief in more ways then one. Suddenly Sydney appears to have re-discovered what Utzon and others demonstrated all along - that buildings can sustain and nourish us.

Less in evidence however, on the fringes, are expanding Australian suburbs dreadfully short of ideas. Here new housing design turns back the clock to a time of quaint nostalgia and size before quality. Many of the brick veneers mimic Australia all the way back to Federation style of a century ago. Quarter acre allotments once reflected moderation and the escape of a lawn garden yet ‘contemporary’ houses are like beached aircraft carriers.

Built to their boundary, these convert leisurely prospect and neighbourly encounters to the stray glimpse upon entry to, or exit from, remote controlled garage doors.

These flowering suburbs sprout fluted columns and ornate facades in honour of ancient Greek civilizations and Hollywood epics. Such houses are remarkable in their greedy response to simple energy management issues. Australia’s central city districts are hardly more original or generous. For this reason alone, the Games reverse this spectacularly unfortunate aping of history. The gift of wide open spaces, something so deficient in European and Asian cities, has been consistently abused in Australia. A forest of planning regulations and readily compliant architects have made Australia’s urban stage conspicuously lifeless. More aspirational design can be found in Australia’s sports architecture and engineering. Some of the pattern for what has occured at Homebush Bay and beyond stems from Philip Cox’s Sydney Football Ground Stadium (1987) and Daryl Jackson”s Great Southern Stand in Melbourne (1993).

Sydney hardly needs to pump its natural assets. That was identified long before white settlement in 1788 through the connection Aboriginals had with the land and sea. The bigger challenge is to recapture the appearance of nonchalance and untapped ability. Australians long fostered the myth of raw natural talent and success through minimal preparation. With the Games at least, there is no substitute for preparation and perspiration. All around has been frenetic, relentless design and construction. There is some truth in Australians reputation for improvised utility. Often working to astringent budgets, its architects and builders have evolved solutions and repsonses far more appropriate than the example of its suburbs or bland city towers. These Games reveal a consistent thread of practical beauty. Instead of chook sheds we have received elegant pavilions. Instead of rude concrete boxes we have received buildings of fluid grace. These make Sydney infinitely more interesting and enduring.

The backdrop of Sydney Games controversy should not augur well for the creation of memorable venues, yet under the Olympic Coordination Authority’s stewardship, a quite extraordinary result has been achieved. Behind all of the marching band and ticket deal undercurrents have emerged structures of singular energy. Lean construction budgets and a keen sense of purpose have all but eliminated the sagging belly of gratuitous style blocks. Above all the Games projects are Australian in the way they respond to the specifics of place.

Games visitors will not receive a simulacrum of North America or Europe. Most of these structures speak directly and without stylistic conceit. They let breezes and sunlight dictate how spectators and athletes will experience their spaces. Architects behind these Games recite the mantra of site response and climate. Given a clean slate and sharp brief they have achieved what many administrators have not. The dynamic rhythms we expect of elite athletes flow through from the soaring light towers of Tonkin Zulaikha, the lustrous arches of Hassell’s railway station and airship quality of DBM’s amenity blocks. Preparations have caused plenty of red faces, but the facilities deserve to be spared embarrassment. It is an astonishing achievement to telescope four years of frenetic activity that would otherwise have taken a decade of muddling, if ever, to achieve.

Sydney’s reinvention has not been without cost. It has had to chew off a piece of its hide to grow stronger. Yet the benefits are now obvious. These are especially historic times made more so by its response of vast scale and strong quality. The past decade has seen a growing confidence and competence in Australian architecture and this emerging talent is now convincingly revealed. In the process, a city has been transformed. These projects provide Sydney with the necessary muscle and backbone to perform for a nanosecond in 2000 and well into the future. For a city supreme in superficial confidence there is suddenly reason to believe that the underlying doubt and disturbing revelations have run their course. With these venues, Sydney has undergone a subtle but profound shift of attitude. The cocksure sprinter in calendar pose has acquired the most sublime gift - a marathoner’s heart.

Peter Hyatt Copyright


Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.