Newsletter 367

Published November 30, 2020

When the NSW State Treasurer writes an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about all the buildings in the city he’d like to bulldoze, one can only marvel at his brazen attitude. Dominic Perrottet’s jokey tone doesn’t convince me he’s really joking when he says he’d like to knock down building such as the MLC Centre or the Sirius Apartments. Dom’s stance is that of the “unenlightened amateur” – AKA. The Man in the Street. Unlike the “architectural sophisticates” he doesn’t know much about architecture but he knows what he likes.

He also knows he’s “stirring the pot”, happy to show us what a straight-shooter he is. While some of his targets, notably the Cahill Expressway, are easy fodder, it’s a different matter to want to demolish buildings by Harry Seidler – an architect who may not have won many popularity contests, but who retains a distinguished place in the story of Australia’s built environment. It’s also a pretty cheap shot to attack everything built in a Brutalist style. The Man in the Street will never appreciate Brutalism, and I admit it wouldn’t be my choice for a desirable abode, but by now it’s undeniably part of our heritage. A living city shouldn’t be eager to expunge the bits of its history that don’t find favour in contemporary eyes. Look at Beijing for instance, where the past has been ruthlessly eradicated, taking the city’s history and character with it.

I’d be more willing to overlook Dom’s jovial opinion piece were he not Treasurer for a government that has shown a supreme contempt for what gets knocked down and what gets built. Remember the $2 billion scheme to demolish and rebuild two sporting stadiums? The crash-or-crash-through processes associated with Westconnex and the wretched Light Rail (that nobody uses)? Don’t get me started on the Powerhouse Museum – a scandal that won’t go away. Despite the spectacle of Treasurer and Arts Minister strolling around, saying “Don’t worry, all is preserved!” it’s perfectly clear the government has no intention of preserving the site. The dishonesty and bad planning has simply taken on a new disguise.

Is it a coincidence that our amateur architecture critic is also The Developer’s Friend? Under the current regime a complete lack of transparency and accountablity is routine  business practise. Call me a spoilsport, but what passes as humour in Dom’s article looks to me like arrogance, ignorance, crude populism, and signs of that born-to-rule mentality which is such a feature of the Libs on both a state and federal level. In NSW only Rob Stokes and Matt Kean stand out as ministers willing to take a reasoned stand on behalf of heritage and environment as opposed to the party preference for vandalistic megalomania.

We do need debates about architecture in Sydney, but we should be more concerned about the buildings that are being approved, such as those crumbling apartment blocks in Mascot, rather than the landmarks the Treasurer would like to tear down.

This week’s art column looks at the Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial at the Art Gallery of NSW, which features eight artists, most of them in the “emerging” category. It is, at least, a show in which the curator, Anne Ryan, has had the courage of her convictions, selecting on the basis of works rather than names. It would be a good principle to extend to all the gallery’s exhibitions and acquisitions.

There’s a blog too – a quick response to Brett Whiteley’s painting Henri’s Armchair going for $6.1 million at auction this week. The SHM asked me for some thoughts on this year’s auction prices and art market, and this piece is the result. I’ll send you through to the newspaper, as is the policy nowadays, but post my own version next Tuesday.

The movie being reviewed is Oliver Sacks: His Own Story, a really touching documentary by Ric Burns, looking at the great neurologist who died in 2015. Sacks, to me, is like David Attenborough: one can’t help but admire his work and his humanity. Although the Trump empire seems to be crumbling it’s disturbing that we live at a time when arrogance, selfishness and narcissism are so amply rewarded. When it comes to deciding what buildings need to be bulldozed and what should be built, we’d be better looking at the work of an urban humanist such as Jane Jacobs, rather than snickering at the puerile jibes of Dominic Perrottet.