The New South Wales government has announced plans to sell off the Ultimo site of the Powerhouse Museum, part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, and use the money to fund a new museum in western Sydney. The last part is positive – the rest would be a mistake.
It’s commendable that the government is proposing major cultural institutions in western Sydney, particularly in centres like Parramatta. As David Borger, Western Sydney director of the Sydney Business Chamber, has argued persuasively in The Sydney Morning Herald, there has been chronic underinvestment in the city’s populous west.
But it would be wrong-headed to sell the Ultimo Powerhouse. Governments should understand that cities take decades and centuries to evolve, and that such rash decisions come at the expense of future generations.
A city of mistakes
As reported in the Herald, the Ultimo site would go to developers for an optimistic A$200 million or so, most likely for apartments. However, the Powerhouse’s rare grandeur makes it manifestly unsuited to such a conversion. It’s ideal for its current purpose – as a major museum or other cultural institution.
To gut such a public asset would replicate recent, similar mistakes made at Darling Harbour and Barangaroo. In such characteristic parts of the city we need a balance of public and private. Yet increasingly government is missing in action, wantonly trading in prized public spaes and forgoing the role civic elements play in intelligent city making.
Look at the smash-up at Darling Harbour. Why fashion a dumb, disposable city, where speculation is prioritised and where a slew of major public facilities are treated as discount commodities? As the best contemporary urban projects demonstrate, building a vibrant city balances economic decisions with thought-through cultural, social and environmental priorities.
Barangaroo, meanwhile, represents the nadir for Sydney. On 22 hectares of public land stretching along 1.2 kilometres of our city’s most available waterfront, the favoured developers have been gifted seemingly unfettered rights to build as they please. James Packer’s proposed tower, stuffed with a hotel, casino and units, poses as the pinnacle of greed.
We submitted a design for the Bangaroo site in the 2006, which would have kept the foreshore as public parkland, linked to the city by a network of generous public streets and new public transport. This, surely, would have been a better solution.
Get the balance right
People are attracted to places that mix public and private spaces and activities, a theme explored in our book Public Sydney. Instead of the sterile concept of a CBD (central business district), the city centre is really our social heart. It’s better placed for public events and demonstrations and is the centre of politics and religion, our most historic place and the epicentre of public transport. There’s plentiful research that supports culture’s role in making cities attractive places to be.
The real estate industry’s proponents claim that development drives all. But why let them spin profit at our expense? People make the city and it belongs to us – people involved in all modes of exchange, in living, walking, creating and visiting public places. Developers reap their benefits from places already teeming with life and enriched by public transport, institutions, spaces and natural beauty – that is, underpinned by public investment.
The Powerhouse Museum. Image: Sardaka at Wikimedia Commons.
Some suggest that the Museum’s Ultimo location is inconvenient. While Harris Street remains dominated by traffic, access is improving with the construction of the Goods Line pedestrian corridor and the extension of the nearby light rail line through the inner west.
There should be a great synergy of important institutions along Harris Street with the Powerhouse, the ABC, the University of Technology Sydney and the TAFE coming together to form a science, design, media and education precinct. Fantastic connections wait to be made between those institutions. Removing the museum would delete a crucial part of that grouping.
Couldn’t the museum be in both Parramatta and Ultimo? The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection has well over 500,000 objects, with only a fraction on display. Surely there’s enough material for an expanded Powerhouse with two genuine bases, each with its particular focus. After all, many such major institutions around the world occupy multiple sites in inventive ways.
Why the obsession with selling?
The major political parties seem obsessed with privatising public spaces – including the Powerhouse Museum site in Ultimo, other harbour-front sites, Bridge Street’s magnificent array of sandstone heritage buildings, and public housing at Miller’s Point. Such sales are peddled on the thinnest of short-term economic analyses, discounting the broader values of such assets over longer time frames.
Public assets are hard won and once sold, or leased, near-impossible to reclaim. Surely the well-documented unpopularity of asset sales is because the public intuitively understands that you don’t willingly flog your assets at bargain prices. That attitude should prevail for unique treasures like the Ultimo Powerhouse.
Some in government seem to think that beautiful buildings on prime public land are wasted on citizens; we who are the actual owners. But why allow the best parts of our city to become exclusive playgrounds for the rich? We should instead proclaim our rights to the equitable, sustainable, democratic mix of the open city.