The Good, the Bad, the Boring: On the Site of a Former Slaughterhouse and a 'Mad Max' Movie Set, Sydney Has Created an Efficient but Ultimately Disappointing Home for the Olympics

By McGuigan, Cathleen | Newsweek, June 5, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Good, the Bad, the Boring: On the Site of a Former Slaughterhouse and a 'Mad Max' Movie Set, Sydney Has Created an Efficient but Ultimately Disappointing Home for the Olympics


McGuigan, Cathleen, Newsweek


Around the vast new Olympic Park in Sydney, Australia, there are four humble buildings scattered like dice, dwarfed by the sports complexes that will be home to the Games that begin in September. The little structures are identical except for the color of their fat steel arches, each a different hue plucked from a kid's crayon box. At first it's hard to figure out what the buildings are: they look like giant caterpillars, their puffy, twisting white fabric roofs stretched over the bright steel ribs. At night, lit from inside, they look like glowworms. OK, they're the bathrooms--but they couldn't be farther from the dank cinder-block public loos you usually find at sports arenas. They look so cool and the concept is so witty that the toilets are upstaging the multimillion-dollar structures.

Cities fight to host the Olympics because they're desperate to show their face to the world, and for Sydney, the stakes are enormous. It's remote: 14 air hours from Los Angeles and nine from Hong Kong, and only 3 million tourists make the trip each year (New York gets 10 times as many). But during the 16 days of the Games, the city will host 1.5 million visitors, and more importantly, a global television audience of nearly 4 billion. With $1.8 billion in Olympics construction--the largest building project ever undertaken in Australia--Sydney wants an opportunity not just to get beyond the images of bounding kangaroos or Paul Hogan's throwing another shrimp on the barbie, but to create something uniquely Australian. The local Olympics authorities signed up a raft of top local architecture firms to create the sports arenas, the amenities and the Olympic Village where 15,000 athletes will stay; the only major outsider is an American landscape architect who developed the master plan for the Olympic Park. But ambitious as Sydney's Olympic building program is, it somehow misses the mark: most of the big facilities look more practical than spectacular, and by clustering them together, far out of town, the city has failed to exploit its unique local flavor and natural assets.

Sydney's never been known for its architecture, apart from the famous Opera House, but rather for its stunning waterfront, with its azure bays that fan out from the city center to the beaches and lush shores of its fancy suburbs. Many of the modern high-rises in the city are downright ugly, a bow to pragmatic development rather than civic pride. "The great disadvantage of the city is the harbor," sniffs Glenn Murcutt, Australia's most famous international architect. "If you get a building with glass in it to see the view, you don't see your own building. We have some of the most mediocre buildings in the world." (Murcutt, significantly, sat out the Olympic building marathon.) The downtown used to die at night, but like a lot of cities, Sydney's now becoming less suburban and more Europeanized--a trend avidly promoted by its lord mayor and encouraged by a new influx of Yuppies who want to live downtown and hang out in sidewalk cafes, wine bars and late-closing restaurants.

Yet the local planners who envisioned the Olympics opted not to capitalize on Sydney's new cosmopolitanism: rather than scattering the venues for the Games around the city, as Los Angeles and Barcelona did, they essentially built a new suburb nine miles northwest of downtown. It was a practical solution--a way to avoid traffic snarls and other logistical problems during the Games while attracting long-term development to a once blighted outpost. Homebush Bay, where most of the sports venues and the Olympic Village are sprawled across a 1,900-acre site, had been home to the largest abattoir in the Southern Hemisphere, where up to 20,000 animals a day were slaughtered. Nearby was an abandoned brickworks, a place so desolate that director George Miller found it a perfect location for the movie "Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome." In less than five years of construction, this unforgiving wasteland has been largely cleaned up and turned into a sports theme park that will be used by families and sports-mad Aussies for years to come, local authorities hope. …

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