The rivalry between Sydney, the nation's oldest and most flamboyant city, and Melbourne, its most sophisticated, has been burbling along since the 1880s. But something has changed. These days, Sydneysiders openly proclaim their affection for Melbourne and its vibrant street life - its cafes, small bars and design culture. Far from demeaning the city's not infrequent blasts of Antarctic weather, Sydney folk with more than a dash of style envy them, for only in crisp Melbourne does the wardrobe get a full workout.
Sydney's metamorphosis from emerald city beguiled by its waterways to design city bedazzled by the built environment is underway. "The city has been largely defined by two landmarks - the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge - as well as competing interests and a short-term vision," observes Graham Jahn, City of Sydney's director of planning and development. "It's been a pragmatic city. But it's now under transformation. A game-changer for many people is going to be the pedestrianisation of George Street, the removal of buses that define the street at the moment, and their replacement by light rail."
The wall of towers at Barangaroo, on the city's western edge, might grab the headlines, along with the re-redevelopment of Darling Harbour, but they relate less than half the tale of Sydney's architectural revolution. Circular Quay and Martin Place - the former the city's international face and the latter its civic hub - are both in the process of reinvention. By Jahn's reckoning, about 70 per cent of two city blocks at Circular Quay bordered by Phillip and Loftus streets - more than half the quay's length - will be developed by AMP into "a 21st century workplace environment that could be judged on a global level, and a loose, funky meeting place mixing heritage buildings, apartments, entertainment and creative arts space".
Jahn is keen to stress the overall quality of new projects and their respect for the city fabric. "Developers have realised that design sells, that design differentiates their product, and frankly that's part of the key to long-term tenancy. If you get the design right it improves the commercial dimension - people want to stay around, linger, spend money." Jahn's model CBD development du jour is Liberty Place, in midtown between Castlereagh and Pitt streets and incorporating the ANZ Tower, which opened for business late last year. "People want to enjoy the space night and day," he says. "Buildings like that create a competitive environment. Other developers come to look and say, 'We have to do better.' "
Time was when Melbourne, partly in response to its climate, laid claim to being the king of the cool urban interior. Now Sydney is launching a serious challenge. James Grose, director of Australian architectural practice BVN Donovan Hill, trumpets a "revolution in Sydney's interior design in the past five years. Every bar, club or restaurant that you go into has to have character, and good design is the common currency of the new bar culture. From clothing and technology to architecture, good design is becoming more prominent in Sydney."
Melbourne, from the early 1980s under the Labor Government of John Cain, enjoyed a muscular building boom that remade the city core - there were 57 cranes on the CBD skyline when Cain was in his pomp - and re-established the city's reputation, first forged in the heyday of "Marvellous Melbourne" and the gold rush, as an architectural excitement machine.
Next came the making of "cool" Melbourne. In 1985, Melbourne announced its intention to become a "24-hour city", and as the property boom stalled after the stock market crash of 1987 attention shifted to the quality of street life. The city council devised ways to rejuvenate the central business district - an ordered grid compared to Sydney's crazy harlequin - by turning uninhabited offices into apartments.
This strategy and others related to it were developed throughout the Kennett years by City of Melbourne's design supremo Rob Adams. And on the advice of consultant Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and advocate for public urban space, Adams began implementing a strategy from the early 1990s to return the city's lanes and streets to its people.
Inner Sydney is a Game of Thrones-style patchwork of power zones. City of Sydney shares control with the state government, which maintains its say through the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. According to Jahn, the city's power elites - the council, state government and developers - have of late shelved many of their differences to join "the same conversation" about the city's future. An example of co-operation is the light rail project for George Street, which is jointly funded by the state and municipal authorities.
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore is candid about her debt to Rob Adams. "When I became mayor in 2004 I was inspired by his approach and I wanted to develop a long-term vision for Sydney," she says. In 2008, this took the form of a policy document called Sydney 2030, an echo of Melbourne's earlier 2030 urban plan. But it is only in the past few years that Moore's blueprint has looked like becoming a tangible, physical, built reality.
It took Melbourne more than three decades to build itself up with a forest of impressive towers, build itself out with urban renewal projects such as the Docklands redevelopment, then build itself down to address the life of the street. But Sydney is trying to do all this - the tall towers, the big urban renewal projects hewn from abandoned industrial sites, and the "fine grain" civic texture created by beautified laneways and the proliferation of small bars and cafes - at once.
In search of architectural distinction, Sydney has turned to international talent. The most distinctive office towers of recent years are Renzo Piano's terracotta-and-glass-clad cornetto at Aurora Place, Sir Norman Foster's and Hassell's aggressively stepped Deutsche Bank Place at 126 Phillip Street, and the elliptical 1 Bligh Street, designed by Germany's Ingenhoven Architects and local practice Architectus (the latter was lauded last year as the world's best commercial building). And, of course, the most talked-about building of the moment, James Packer's Crown tower at Barangaroo, has gone to British architects Wilkinson Eyre. Another measure of Sydney's internationalisation is the new precinct around the University of Technology, Sydney, where buildings by Canadian-American Frank Gehry, Briton Sir Norman Foster, and Frenchman Jean Nouvel are up and away, combined with landscaping by Dane Jeppe Aagard Andersen in collaboration with local company Turf Design.
The international flavour of contemporary Sydney architecture may not please everyone - particularly local practices hungry for work. It is of apiece, though, with the city's international presence and its design traditions: neither Jørn Utzon nor Harry Seidler was a home-grown visionary.
"Embracing the international presence has been a great fillip for Sydney and it has made other international architects want to come here," says Michael Cook, group executive of the commercial portfolio for property group Investa. "It's also given Sydney architects the opportunity to work with the internationals and it's given them the impetus to compete with the best in the world, to want to be better."
Cook, who has a privileged view of the commercial sector, believes that Melbourne since the 1990s has favoured "quirky" development out of sheer financial necessity. "At the Docklands, for example, they just throw in a lot of colour. There's nothing very spectacular; nothing like the roofline of Sydney's Chifley Tower or Deutsche Bank. In Melbourne, where they need to do more with less, you see a lot of flourishes. Melbourne as a result is more fashionable and its buildings might go in and out of style, whereas a Chifley or a Deutsche Bank are very classical and might still be relevant in 50 years time."
Alec Tzannes, an architect and dean of built environment at the University of NSW, takes this observation further. He argues that the emergence of a distinctive Sydney "way of doing things" can be traced back to the influence of Utzon and Seidler. "I would say Seidler was ruthlessly pragmatic and came through with forms that were brilliant and emotionally evocative but in a tradition that was connected with world trends, influenced by Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer and Marcel Breuer. And then you have this accident of the Opera House, a piece of quintessential Sydney conceived by a Dane, engineered by a Dane and a Brit, and built by immigrants." In Tzannes's view, the work of these very different architects fuse into an outward- looking Sydney internationalist tradition.
Sydney has not only been channelling the great muses of international architecture. It's also been listening to Jan Gehl, and the city's new-found obsession with "fine urban grain" - small shops and bars, public art works and well-designed outdoor furnishing, trees to break up Sydney's great ribbons of pavement, pedestrian boulevards and the return of trams - suggests that Gehl's message has caught on. It's an acknowledgement that while thrusting commercial towers adorn a skyline, the people who visit, live and work in cities don't experience them from an eagle's perspective. The urban experience is felt at street level.
Bridget Smyth, design director at the City of Sydney and a self-confessed "Melbourne girl", sees the big projects such as light rail, Barangaroo and the Darling Harbour redevelopment working in tandem with transformations at eye level designed to make the city centre "more vibrant, lively and liveable". Though some of these changes, such as a suite of new public furniture (seats, pedestrian lights, bollards and water bubblers) from Tzannes Associates, might seem like trifles, collectively they introduce a coherent visual language to the streets.
The City of Sydney has also focused attention on the recovery of disused laneways and their development into open-air art galleries. Angel Place, beside the City Recital Hall, is a bower of bird cages; Kimber Lane, in Chinatown, is a tableau of murals and neon figures.
It's the rejuvenation of Sydney's old laneways that Turf Design Studio architect Mike Horne sees as the touchstone "for a broader sense of caring about the texture, the everyday and the public life of the city, just as it was a touchstone for Melbourne. Sydney's had laneways from the very beginning, although it's a very different laneway system - more medieval. We've learnt from Melbourne. In the process, the idea of Sydney as a speculator's city is changing."
Horne, along with architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, is working on a new laneway development feeding into the Central Park "village" on Broadway. Kensington Street, crowned by two art deco pubs and lined with some of the city's oldest terraces and warehouses, will be closed to traffic and the work will be a mixture of preservation and evolution; Horne describes the end result as a likely mix of noodle joints, jazz bars, boutique hotels and restaurants for people on different income levels. "It should have the coolest laneway vibe," he says. "It's all about taking this little street, loving and caring for it. And it will end up as Singapore meets Shanghai meets Sydney meets Melbourne."
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