Reinventing Sydney

By McGuigan, Cathleen | Newsweek International, June 12, 2000 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Sydney


McGuigan, Cathleen, Newsweek International


Around the sprawling new Olympic Park in Sydney are scattered four humble buildings, 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 further from the dank cinderblock 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.

That's not quite what was intended. 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 tele-vision audience of nearly 4 billion. With $1.8 billion in Olympics construction--the largest building project ever undertaken in Australia--Sydney is seizing this opportunity to make a statement. Local Olympics authorities signed up a raft of top Australian 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. The organizers' aim is to get beyond the images of bounding kangaroos or shrimps on the barbie, and to show the world something uniquely Australian.

The effort is long overdue. Despite the fame of its Opera House, Sydney has never been known for great buildings, but rather for a stunning waterfront, with azure bays that fan out from the city center to the beaches and lush shores of its fancy suburbs. The Aboriginal people built no permanent structures, and the Europeans who came later built in the style of their distant homeland. The first government architect for New South Wales, Francis Greenway, was exiled from Britain for forgery--an apt skill for someone knocking off European designs. "Sydney's great urban tragedy is that its topography and harbor are so seductive we've ignored our architecture," says Richard Johnson, a top Australian architect. Many of the modern high-rises in the city are downright ugly, a bow to pragmatic development rather than civic pride. "We have some of the most mediocre buildings in the world," sniffs Glenn Murcutt, Australia's most internationally renowned architect. "If you get a building with glass in it to see the view, you don't see your own building." (Murcutt, significantly, sat out the Olympic building marathon.) The downtown used to die at night, but now it's becoming less suburban and more Europeanized--a trend avidly promoted by its lord mayor and encouraged by an influx of yuppies who want to live in the city center and hang out in the new sidewalk cafes and wine bars.

Yet the local Olympic planners 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 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 Thunderdome. …

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