Silverback rules in the urban jungle
Illustration: Edd Aragon
Rock-star architects, software packages worth more than a small skyscraper and wild amorphous buildings that twist, glow, buckle and undulate on every world skyline: is the world really changing beyond recognition?
Is the straight line over? Or is this whole thing just another skin-deep fashion, as enduring and significant as the miniskirt or bellbottom jeans? As Richard Sennett noted recently, ''yesterday's smart city, today's nightmare''.
And if there is a new world (dis)order, why aren't we getting more of it for our billion at Darling Harbour? More glamour, more flourish, more fun?
Some say technology - both the sudden facility to build more complex shapes than the mind can imagine and the extraordinarily abstruse software needed to do it - is changing everything. The built world of the future, they say, will not only outstrip our wildest dreams but will respond to, interrogate and shape us in ways we cannot foresee, much less control.
Others are more phlegmatic. For them, the core issues of human life are essentially unchanged. Our needs for shelter and delight are little different now from prehistory, they say; the human condition is as precarious and thrilling now as ever. Plus ca change.
Yet the Darling Harbour scheme seems strangely caught between. Lots of peculiar angles, but no disguising the big-box syndrome. No real place to be, no real flair.
It has its share of rock stars, if by rock star we mean the self-indulgent, self-absorbed and obsessively self-promotional.
OMA, which designed the cactus-like hotel, is the firm of Rem Koolhaas (pronounced Coolhouse). Koolhaas came to fame through the funky graphic design and catchy phraseology of books he wrote (about himself). The buildings never did live up to expectation and, even so, it seems he sent us the B-team.
But to judge whether the Darling Harbour proposal is any good, we need some collective idea of what we really want from our buildings and cities. What makes them good, for us?
Do we ask nothing more of a building than whatever it takes to make the front cover of Time or Blueprint? The Bilbao effect? Is that the grail?
Frank Gehry's whoops-a-daisy 8 Spruce Street tower in New York looks like it was put in the freezer before the jelly set, then whacked with an arctic hurricane. The interiors are bland and awkward, the ground level humdrum, yet this month, the building won this year's Emporis Skyscraper Award for world's best tower. Sculpture is sculpture.
But is it really enough? I'm surprised to be asking this, since it has been architecture's central question as long as I can recall.
Sure, the technology is amazing. Gehry has his own software company, to facilitate his rock-star creativity. Small firms are locked out. Only the rich can buy into this stuff.
But can technology really lead us anywhere useful? Do we make caesar salad because someone invented the egg slicer?
Certainly, from Brunelleschi to the Opera House, architecture always stretches technology's limits. But the best architecture is still idea-led, not technology-led. And the idea must be about being there - Heidegger's dasein - not just form.
When Paul Goldberger, architecture's king of critics, left The New Yorker in April, several sub-critics took it as the end of techno-formalism. Goldberger had symbolised ego-object architecture. Now (they gushed) that was over. Architecture was henceforth collaborative, socially-conscious and altruistic. Mindful. Architecture for the new age.
Evidence? It's all in the name, breathed the Huffington Post. Instead of dull old proper nouns - Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; Grounds, Romberg and Boyd; Harry Seidler - ''nowadays cutting-edge firms have names like MOS, WORK Ac, SHoP, suggesting the mission is more important than the egos''.
Well, blow me down, I thought. And here's me taking the acronym fad (of which local examples are DRAW, EAT, 1:1, PHOOEY, BKK and 2SF) as a way of getting to stand out on the page.
Here's me reading the acronym's implied anonymity as a mix of Gen-Y responsibility-ducking and traditional architectural wankfest, When actually it's spiritual, the loss of the architectural ego. Bow and scrape, withdraw 'n' apologise.
One blogger even worried ''the pendulum will swing too far … Frank Gehry will be dismissed as nothing but an ego and a large number of funny-looking buildings without any social purpose''.
I'm waiting. But honestly? I don't see socially-concerned eco-tects grabbing all the jobs. I don't see dead and dying egos clogging the gutters. Not at all.
Last week's Sydney visit from Bjarke Ingels, aka BIG, was a case in point. A Danish New Yorker here for the Barangaroo Central shortlist chats, the 38-year-old (ex-OMA) makes architecture go weak at the knees.
He is unquestionably talented. Already he has a string of successful projects - 10-storey buildings you can cycle across, super-connected loop cities, hedonistic sustainability. A tad diagrammatic, yes, but interesting. Fresh. He has visiting professorships at Harvard and Yale. He was The Wall Street Journal's innovator of the year 2011.
But ego-less? Hardly.
Ingels does nothing without a retinue of ''people'' fixing the words ''rock star'' and ''starchitect'' to his every move like baubles to a tree. And he has the web address to suit: big.dk. Bg.dk/#projects.
Sydney architecture has always been big-man culture. Silverback rules; one per generation. Just who can be read from the density of their works. In the '60s and '70s it was Seidler: from some spots you can see four or five of his buildings at once. Then it was Cox. Now, it is clearly Richard Francis Jones (FJMT), of USyd Law School, St Barneys church, Surry Hills Library, Darling Harbour CommBank and the lovely, soaring Auckland gallery, Toi O Tamaki: 60 international awards between them, this year alone.
Francis Jones's proposals, often distinguished by bold flourishes and asymmetrical plumes, have long been more flamboyant than his buildings. The recently released Barangaroo ''cloud'', with its misaligned silver discs, is his most sinuous built-form to date.
But he never loses the central spatial idea, or the pleasure of being there. This is architecture's core business. Maybe the new Darling Harbour could co-opt him, in the new spirit of collaboration, to inject both more wild flourish and more deep delight.
Not neither, damn it. Both.