Graham Hammill’s Sexuality and Form: Caravaggio, Marlowe, and Bacon features an analysis of ‘The Baltimore Panel,’ a painting also known as ‘The Ideal City’ and usually attributed to Fra Carnevale. Hammill describes the urban space represented in the painting as “extremely pacified, regulated,” a “monumental assertion of emptiness” where “motion […] is burdened by vacancy” (24). Hammill notes the way the figures in the painting are “literally cut through by the lines that give the painting its pronounced perspectival feel” (24). The largely empty piazza is surrounded buildings in different historical styles. However, the dominant feeling isn’t one of vibrant diversity. Instead, it is the emptiness of the square, with its clean horizontal lines in the foreground and middle ground. The surrounding buildings of uniform volume prevent a sense of openness that a distant horizon would afford. This combination of emptiness and confinement create a particularly disquieting affect.
It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to recognise the similarities between the mood of the urban landscape in this picture and Sydney’s most rapidly developing suburb, The Green Square Urban Renewal Area (GSURA). By 2030, the GSURA, which encompasses Zetland, Waterloo, and parts of Alexandria and Rosebury, is set to become the most dense area in Sydney. It is already full of new, three to ten story apartment blocks and areas of landscape gardening that are still yet to acquire the lived-in feel that gives the places a sense of warmth and comfort.
From a car (the Eastern border will be familiar to anyone who uses South Dowling Street for their daily commute) it can seem an alienating space. The previous suburban format of a brick bungalow on a quarter acre block has been scaled up to an apartment format that is high enough to obscure any far horizons–just like Carnevale’s piazza.
Many of the characteristics for which suburbs have traditionally been criticised are still in place: superficial novelty against a background of sameness, buildings that facilitate a culture of co-isolated living where residents move between the home, work and the supermarket with minimal interaction. The mixed businesses of twentieth century suburbia have been exchanged for doggy day care centres and late-night gyms, backyards with grass lawns have been exchanged for landscaped parks.
It’s easy emphasise the dystopian aspects of such an urban environment. From the outside the atmosphere can easily give off negative affects. Just like ‘The Ideal City’ many of the spaces have a strong perspectival feel that makes them look like materially realised architects impressions. The streetscape lacks any of the traditional markers of the quaint common to the buildings in the Federation Style, which were standard in suburbs of the first half of the Twentieth Century. There’s no red brick or coloured glass panels. No decorative wood or cast iron fringing verandas. No chimneys, terracotta, pitched roofs, corrugated iron, stucco, exposed wood or tiled risers.
While the content and scale are different, a similar stylistic adherence to pastiche remains. Functionalist and minimalist principles that often typify modernist architecture are present to a certain degree, though not in any strict sense. Instead, buildings advertise themselves through all manner of features. These might be colourful panels, unusual fin-like protrusions, patterned screens, lashings of wood, pointless additions that are meant to look essential to the structure, shiny red or blue brick simulacra, and different shaped loggias.
The area is not likely to please anyone with a preference for the vernacular, modernism or combinations of the two. However, there’s a strong argument to be made for the role genericism plays in making something readily adaptable to the lives of people who don’t register meaning in stylistic references to an Anglo or Eurocentric past. This is a post modern International Style that is more bulky, garish and fun.
To experience this urban landscape is to undergo “the affectively low key response to minor differences perceived against a background of sameness” that Sianne Ngai names as characteristic of the minor aesthetic category of ‘the interesting.’ The Sydney Architecture Blog encapsulates this sentiment when first speculating that in twenty years time the area will be a “museum of kitsch” (perhaps architectural critics where saying the same thing about Haberfield in the early twentieth century?) followed by the qualification that: “Like it or not it has some interesting forms going on.” That seems about right. There’s nothing is definitively impressive or disgusting about the GSURA. It takes a while to work out what to make of the place. Strong reactions of cynicism or defensive reverence wouldn’t seem to get to the truth of the matter. Some things are kind of good. While others seem a bit ill advised.
Here’s a list of pros and cons:
- The avenue of lemon scented gums along Wolseley Grove, for smell and sight;
- The open green spaces (The Rope Walk, Walaba Park, Dyuralya Park, Joynton Park, Tote Park) increasingly well-used by owners of small dogs;
- The dynamic and colourful Viking Building is one of the more confident examples among many buildings that exhibit a kind of half arsed playfulness (although calling it an ‘architectural masterpiece’, as they do in the promotional video, is coming on a bit strong);
- Koichi Takada‘s work on interior of East Village Shopping Centre (he also designed the Crown Groups, Infinity at Green Square Station)
- Laser-cut cladding on the exterior of buildings, a laudable intent but it makes the building look like one big piece of veneer, like the new McDonalds which hide their old mansard roofs behind screens so they appear rectilinear and therefore, ‘very Un-McDonalds.’
- The peculiar bits of ‘public art.’ I suppose I could grow to like these. I imagine the intent as being something similar to the Facebook poke, “We thought it would be fun to make a feature that had no real purpose and to see what happens from there. So mess around with it, because you’re not getting an explanation from us.”
- The largely empty, permanently shaded and windy areas that look as though they’ve been set aside for public usage. It’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying themselves in these spaces unless they’ve treated themselves to one of these packages.
There are still occasional glimpses of the area’s industrial past, a crumbling brick wall and some rusted corrugated iron squeezed in between a warehouse and an apartment, or a an old industrial brick facade soon to be dwarfed by a new residential development. At the South Dowling edge there’s the exemplary, heritage listed AGM Glass Factory (now Kennards hire and a great example of the International Style) that, along with the old Reschs Waverly Brewery, is a worthy border for the area.
Development proposals are displayed along the boundary fences of the two hectares of land that feature a heritage listed water pumping station and valve house. Dahua Group acquired the site in 2015 and have enlisted ASPECT Studios to build approximately 450 units. Along with the audaciously named Infinity by Crowne, which is underway right on top of Green Square station, this and other developments mean more of the same for the GSURA.
It’s sensible to be anything but ambivalent about the future. Perhaps the influx of new residents will bring an increased buzz to the area, with more of the new shops, restaurants and cafes that make it a decent place to live. But the blindingly bright, soul nourishing horizon, which shines through the gap in advertising signage for Crown’s Infinity apartment complex is going to be become something most residents, and certainly most pedestrians, will have to develop routines to seek out or substitute should they want to avoid living in the confines of ‘The Ideal City.’ With Centennial Park just over the other side of South Dowling and the beach not too far beyond, I suppose that’s not too much of a tall order.
Hammill Graham L. Sexuality and Form: Caravaggio, Marlowe, and Bacon. University of Chicago Press, 2000.