Wednesday, April 12, 2006

John Sinclair: Put galleries amid city action

The enthusiasm in the press for building a new art gallery on Wynyard Pt concerns me. Debate on how our city grows is a good thing (if nothing else, it shows that people are interested in the outcomes), but media commentators have a considerable influence on public opinion.

Because of this they have to demonstrate an informed and responsible position.

Typically, when public groups are asked to comment on land development, they promote either parks or "iconic" buildings.

The Western Reclamation is no exception. Groups appear to be competing as to who can offer the biggest park or the most spectacular building on the point.

Fair enough. But when columnists start promoting a concept - which, if it gains any public traction will be picked up by politicians - we should expect an informed point of view.

Promoting an art gallery or opera house on Wynyard Pt does not, in my view, demonstrate this. Sure, the Sydney Opera House is a spectacular building. So much so that it has, along with the harbour bridge, become a symbol of Sydney.

But the Sydney Events Centre or the many theatres, libraries and art galleries in Sydney do not occupy such spectacular positions. Come to think of it, there are few if any such buildings that do occupy a site that can be compared with Benelong Pt.

The main contribution these civic use buildings make to cities is to activate and give life and purpose to parts of the city - usually a square or public space.

Theatres, art galleries and concert halls are essential elements in the fabric of a city - not only for the physical presence the scale of such buildings brings, but also the life and action people using it contribute.

In this regard Sydney Opera House is an interesting example. For years the spaces around it did not work as people spaces.

Except for Sunday afternoons, the forecourt was a busy bus and taxi drop-off. People visiting the halls use either the front foyers which have limited views, or the harbourside ones that have spectacular views over the harbour - as long as it is daytime and there is something going on.

Neither areas contribute to the daily life of the city streets and public spaces.

While the architectural quality of the Aotea Centre may be a disappointment, at least you can see the life and action in the foyers.

And when patrons spill out into the square after shows, the space comes alive. It's like the Opera House and Symphony Hall in San Francisco; Covent Garden or The National Gallery in London, or La Scala in Milan.

We have our icons - Rangitoto, the harbour bridge, the Sky Tower - but we lack civic buildings and the spaces their uses give life to.

These need to be where the people are, not on extremities because we want to create more visual icons.

Of course they can and should be uplifting and superb architecture - their uses and people's expectations demand it.

However, keep the debate rolling as it provides valuable inputs to the design process.

And the design process will and must be professional, employing the best architects and urban designers available - who will be informed by the debate.

They will never satisfy everyone but the outcomes are too important, and the opportunities too great, not to get the best.

* John Sinclair is past president of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

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