So why is Sydney ugly? Well, it’s not really, with its sparkling light, blue sky, headland parks, bountiful vegetation, alluring topography, honey coloured sandstone, splendid harbour, unparalleled climate and fresh ocean air.
Good cities are more than god’s gift, they are textured, they have energy, buzz and grit, designed to capture the mind, offer possibility and mystery.
Melbourne was planned, with a riverside grid, while Sydney, once an unruly village, was not. Sydney’s slender streets, like New York, should make it more charming, not less.
Sydney is almost certainly over-governed, being home to State Government and its agencies as well as the City Council. This multifaceted approach to management causes constant disparity, meaning more often than not nothing happens. Take, for instance, the countless proposals to demolish the Cahill Expressway at Circular Quay which have been lost in the processes of management and, in particular, isolated decisions of unconnected authorities. The contrast between these cities lies in their approach, with Sydney government agencies not straying from their ‘core business’ and Melbourne combining the talents of engineers, architects, planners, artists, environmentalists and politicians to constantly re-imagine the city and champion good design.
In the late 1950s, Sydney embraced the skyscraper with vigour. Heritage buildings were eradicated for skyscrapers, historic suburbs for road reserves. Laneways were considered a burden, not a benefit, and everything was growing bigger and more brash. Melbourne, by contrast, protected heritage, laneways, and the finer grain of the city through the simple device of height limits, which capped pressure to demolish and acted, in effect, as heritage legislation.
In Sydney, we look back at these times with despair. It’s still happening. Take Sydney’s Barangaroo as an example of grossly over scaled buildings and vested interests prevailing in the city.
Both cities fail as you move through the growth rings. Farmland lost to hectares of depressing eave-less boxes where aluminium framed windows sit on sun-baked walls with air-conditioning whirring day and night. Each house separated just enough to ensure public transport is never feasible. Ugly? Yes. It’s the underlying ugliness that’s most worrying, the total disregard for the environment. As if we have learnt nothing.
The difference between Melbourne and Sydney is not the grid, heritage, or climate, but Sydney’s cultural coyness. While Melbourne is not really bold, it has just resisted forces, such as the development lobby, roads lobby and political pressure a little more.
The source of Melbourne’s beauty, which is as much spiritual as physical, is its sense of awareness, cleverness and adventure.