Darling Harbour: the place to go in Sydney when you want to buy a pair of Ugg boots, a souvenir didgeridoo and an I ♥ Australia T-shirt.
You can catch the monorail, swing by the award-winning Convention and Exhibition Centre that was built as a Bicentennial project, visit the IMAX cinema or catch a concert at the Sydney Entertainment Centre.
Well, that was Darling Harbour five years ago.
Gradually – in one of the biggest urban redevelopments Sydney has seen – the 22 hectare precinct has been transformed.
Just about everything from the 30-year-old Bicentennial project south of Cockle Bay has gone, including the monorail, the Convention, Exhibition and Entertainment centres and IMAX theatre.
And the first section of the redevelopment to be completed at a cost of $3.4 billion won the prestigious Walter Burley Griffin Award for urban design at the Australian Institute of Architects Awards late last year.
Design firm Hassell and architectural designer Populous were recognised for how they re-imagined the precinct including the International Convention Centre, ICC Theatre, Sofitel hotel, a boulevard surrounded by artworks and water features and an upgraded version of Tumbalong Park.
It’s a new Darling Harbour that has parents joining their kids in wading pools and playgrounds on sunny afternoons, bustling restaurants in the new Steam Mill Lane in the evening and street dancers practising in front of their reflections outside the ICC Theatre.
But this new Darling Harbour is not emerging without controversy.
While the ageing Harbourside shopping centre is still the place for a burger at the Hard Rock Cafe, a kangaroo skin belt and a ferris wheel ride, there has been a backlash to a plan to demolish it for a new office tower with a retail centre underneath that is before NSW Department of Planning and Environment.
On Cockle Bay Wharf on the other side of the bay, there is another controversial plan for a new 40-plus storey office tower, shops and a park.
And while there has been no shortage of critics of Darling Harbour as an entertainment and tourist precinct over the years, celebrated architect Philip Cox is upset about how an area he walks through daily from his home at King Street Wharf has been transformed.
Cox’s Sulman Medal-winning Exhibition Centre was demolished in the redevelopment – just as his Sydney Football Stadium is scheduled to be soon – but his criticism is wider.
“It’s gone backwards,” he says. “Darling Harbour following the Bicentenary in ’88 was a unique and world relevant urban space that had been developed which was very much Sydney and had a uniqueness about it and a freshness and a great contribution to the city. I can’t say the present Darling Harbour does.”
A lively history
The area has had a lively history.
The boundary between the Wangal and Gadigal clans for 7000 years became a place where convicts and settlers collected shellfish then a site for shipyards and industry.
Its area was a railway goods yard with an old iceworks and a former hydraulic pumping station for the city’s lifts when the Wran government announced it would be redeveloped at a cost of more than $1 billion in 1984.
The huge project included Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, the Australian National Maritime Museum, the old Convention and Exhibition centre, the Chinese Garden of Friendship, an “international village” of restaurants and shops, a motel, an international hotel and the conversion of Pyrmont Bridge into a pedestrian and cycle path with supposedly a restaurant in the middle – all linked by a monorail.
What was flagged as a major rival to the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge as a landmark international tourist attraction lasted less than 30 years.
Some things have stayed, including the much-loved spiral fountain, the Novotel hotel, Pumphouse bar and the Chinese Garden, recently heritage listed, with plans to extend the forecourt for markets and festivals.
The old Sega World site had already been redeveloped as Darling Quarter seven years ago – a $500 million project that included two nine-storey office buildings with shops, cafes, a theatre and one of the city’s best playgrounds.
But look at all the other changes …
The new International Convention Centre, Exhibition Centre and ICC Theatre have been open for two years. These three vast glass-walled buildings have 3.5 hectares of exhibition space, a rooftop event deck, theatres with 8000, 2500 and 1000 seats and a ballroom that can fit more than 2000 people.
Tumbalong Park has been given new walkways and an improved stage so it can host a year-round program of events for up to 11,000 people.
The 590-room Sofitel hotel, a 35-storey building on the site of an old taxi rank, has been open for just over a year.
Catering for the fast-growing market for international student accommodation, two Urbanest buildings house up to 1300 students.
And under construction on the IMAX theatre site is the 20-storey Ribbon building for a new W hotel and IMAX theatre.
But the biggest change is on the site of the old Entertainment Centre and the car park next door. A new neighbourhood called Darling Square with 1500 apartments is being built opposite new offices already occupied, like so much around Darling Harbour, by the Commonwealth Bank.
In three apartment buildings – the tallest 41 storeys – there are expected to be 4200 residents who will join 2500 office workers and 80-odd shops and restaurants. When you add students and hotel visitors, Darling Harbour will soon have the population of a small town every night.
The rise of the ‘urban neighbourhood’
Lendlease project director for urban regeneration Neil Arckless says they are aiming to create an “urban neighbourhood” with a new square as its heart. One with “an essence of permanence but the flexibility to adapt to how the world” is changing,” he says.
The town square will have a grove of trees and tables for board games.
Taking shape next door is the celebrated Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s The Exchange, a striking round building with a swirling wooden facade that will have a street-level food market, Sydney City Council’s new library, a childcare centre, restaurants and rooftop bar.
“What I’m particularly excited about is this building will be coming to life at different times of the day for different reasons,” Arckless says. The market hall will open in the morning, children will be dropped off and picked up during the day, the library will attract patrons from noon into the evening and the restaurants and bars will carry on into the night.
“Our hope is you get a real sense of community in a major city all coming together through a building,” he says.
Lendlease executive project director Rob Deck says 580 apartments had been finished by late last year with the rest due for completion in mid to late this year. “It’s surprising how many families are occupying those apartments,” he says.
Hassell principal Ken Maher says urban planning has changed since Darling Harbour was designed first time around. “Back at that time, everybody thought ‘put the big object in, it’ll attract people’,” he says. “Now it’s just the general quality of the landscape and the public spaces and the accessibility and the activation that actually attracts people.”
The redevelopment includes a 20-metre wide boulevard that runs all the way from Cockle Bay to Chinatown. It will eventually be part of a one-kilometre walkway to Central Station.
While not immediately obvious, the boulevard and everything that surrounds it are intended to subtly create the sense of being in a river valley.
As Maher explains it, the buildings are like an escarpment – with native vegetation running up the side of the sloping Exhibition building. As well as the boulevard, the “valley floor” has pools designed for wading, daybeds for resting, native grasses, three species of eucalyptus trees and artworks that reflect both the original landscape and the Indigenous history.
Maher says the inspiration was Sydney Harbour’s bays: “We were interested in its genesis as a bay and the native landscape and the idea of escarpments that ran up from the bay.”
Hassell’s head of landscape architecture, Angus Bruce, says the redesign reflects more recent history as well: “The memory of the rail lines and the old ice-making [factory] are all embedded in the ground in storylines and text.”
They wanted Darling Harbour to be much more “walkable”, which meant opening up corridors to the city on one side and the light rail and Ultimo/Pyrmont on the other. Parallel to the boulevard – six metres up – is a walkway through the convention, exhibition and theatre buildings.
“You don’t have to come down to the public space to go back up again,” Bruce says.
The plan was to make the three buildings as transparent as possible, so those outside could see what’s happening inside and those inside can look across at the city. “We wanted this to be a particularly Sydney experience,” Maher says.
There are McDonald’s at both Darling Quarter and Harbourside but after what Maher calls “lots of healthy discussion”, the rest of the redevelopment has avoided both fast-food chains and commercial advertising signs.
Instead, there are such artworks as Danie Mellor’s native valley inspired patterns embedded into the concrete, Janet Laurence’s soundscape of native bird songs and Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s sandstone and onyx sculptures inspired by native seeds and weeds.
Maher says the fact the Convention and Exhibition centres had to be demolished does not suggest they were designed badly.
“The whole way in which exhibitions and convention centres operate has changed,” he says. “They used to be big one-offs. Now they’re trying to inter-relate conventions and exhibitions and they’re catering for a whole range of scales … They also wanted a major ballroom venue, which we didn’t have before, and a lot more small meeting rooms.”
In the planning, considerable time was spent thinking about how people would use the new Darling Harbour, whether they were hotel guests, convention visitors, office workers or residents who consider it their local park.
“We were always testing,” Bruce says. “What is it doing at 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning? How do you go and have a coffee and read the paper? And take your small dog and your kids if you’ve got apartment living?
“Where do you go that is not in conflict with a major event or a sponsored activity? What’s doing at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night? Are you safe getting home to your apartment? How is it lit? Do you have clear sightlines to where you’re going?”
Bruce thinks Sydney residents will gradually discover the new Darling Harbour when they go to an event or meet for dinner and says other cities have already noticed how well it’s been done.
“I’ve got clients in four cities around the world all asking, in essence, can I have a Darling Harbour please?,” he says.
‘Ruthless’: It’s a real estate move
Cox does not accept the redevelopment is an improvement.
“I’m concerned about the replacement of the Exhibition building which was very much designed as a low-scale building which related to the existing wool warehouses that were very much a historic part of the Pyrmont area,” he says. “A building that had world significance was ruthlessly torn down for absolutely no good reason in order to have commercial exploitation of the Haymarket area by moving the Entertainment Centre onto the site of the Exhibition building.
“It was a blatant real estate political move that I think was to the detriment of Darling Harbour and all of the fine qualities of defining the space of Tumbalong Park. The actual definition of that part of Darling Harbour has been quite destroyed.”
Cox sees the demolition of both his building and planned replacement of Sydney Football Stadium as reflecting “a certain philistantism particularly in NSW to what are cultural values we have” and thinks the “human scale and environment” of Darling Harbour has been diminished.
“It’s become a less enjoyable space,” he says. “I think the previous architecture was superior to what it’s been replaced by.”
Cox is also concerned by the proposed developments at Harbourside and Cockle Bay Wharf and what could happen to the nearby site when the Powerhouse Museum moves to Parramatta. “Instead of being a cultural, people place down there, it’s going to become a very different place where exploitation of the real estate values, I believe, will reduce the urban amenity for Sydney,” he says.
How well the new precinct gels – for residents, office workers, convention and exhibition visitors, students and anyone heading to a theatre, bar, restaurant or playground – will take time to assess. “One thing we do know is this thing will evolve, what we don’t know is how,” Arckless says. “We’ll need to judge success in five years time.”
So will great swathes of this Darling Harbour need to be demolished in another 30 years?
“I don’t know,” Deck says. “You’d like to think no but maybe that will be necessary. Who knows what will be happening with conventions and exhibitions in another 30 years?”
The dancers who descend on Darling Harbour
In the late afternoon, they arrive from Chatswood, Yagoona, Hurstville and other suburbs in all directions.
Young street dancers descend on Darling Harbour – a long laneway between the ICC Theatre and the Exhibition Centre – to practise. Some watch their reflections in the windows as they move; others set up a speaker and dance in ones, twos or threes.
A tradition that started at the old Entertainment Centre – popular around Asia – has shifted venues with the transformation of Darling Harbour. And even though there are fewer windows in the theatre, anything to up to a hundred dancers can turn up when there is a big battle – or competition – coming up.
On a Friday afternoon, Mavis Wong, a 19-year-old visual communications student at UTS, is practising in front of a window with Max Nguyen, a 19-year-old dentistry student at “USyd”.
Their dance style is waacking, which grew out of the gay clubs of Los Angeles in the 1970s, and they are preparing for a battle at Club 80 Proof in the city. They dance in the laneway three or four times a week, often in the evenings, catching the train from home.
Other dancers prefer hip-hop, breaking, popping, locking or vogue.
They say part of the attraction is the laneway is a free open space that attracts a community, sometimes members of such dance clubs as the University of Sydney’s Soulxpress.
“This is a really big common space where a lot of people mix and make connections,” Wong says.
“There’s lots of good mirrors and reflections. You can train for your dance but, without mirrors, it’s really hard to see your form, whether it’s correct.”
Annie Tsang, a 20-year-old biotechnology student at UTS, is practising beneath Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda’s striking electronic artwork data.scape.
She dances at Darling Harbour a couple of days a week, either by herself or with friends. Today she is preparing for a battle at the Fast and Furious style car show Hot Import Nights at Sydney Olympic Park.
“Most people here are uni students, from uni dance societies,” Tsang says. “Pretty much there’s people here every day.”
Ready for a name change
There are a lot of Darlings in Darling Harbour: Darling Park, Darling Quarter, Darling Square, Darling Drive and, not far away, Darling Island.
That’s without all the other places around the state named after a former NSW governor including Darling Point, Darlinghurst, Darling Street in Balmain, Darling River and the Central Darling Shire.
Confusion about what’s where in the redeveloped precinct – and exactly what Darling Harbour covers – leaves the area ready for a name change.
Sydney Business Chamber is part of a push to have the shoreline from Barangaroo to the planned new Sydney Fish Markets rebranded “The Edge” to appeal to both tourists and locals. But Darling Harbour needs a new identity of its own.
There is a name already established that would both define the new precinct and complement the Indigenous naming of Barangaroo and Bennelong Point: Tumbalong, a Dharug word meaning “place where seafood is found”.
Already recognised from the park at the heart of the revitalisation, changing the name from Darling Harbour to Tumbalong would acknowledge the area’s history and rebrand it as a new city destination.
Darling Harbour: a timeline
1984: Wran government announces the redevelopment of Darling Harbour as a Bicentennial project.
1988: An old railway goods yard becomes the site for a new convention and exhibition centre in a project that also includes Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, Australian National Maritime Museum, Tumbalong Park and the Chinese Garden of Friendship.
Early 2000s: While it hosted five sports during the Olympics, Darling Harbour south of Pyrmont Bridge is in decline as a tourist and entertainment precinct.
2011: Darling Quarter, two nine-storey buildings with offices, shops, restaurants, a theatre and a park out front, opens.
2012: Developer Lendlease’s Destination Sydney team wins a bid to redevelop the precinct.
2014: Work begins on the $3.4 billion redevelopment that includes replacing the convention and exhibition centre, Entertainment Centre, improving the appeal of Darling Harbour and building new apartments, offices, shops and restaurants at Darling Square near Chinatown.
2018: Hassell and Populous win urban design awards at both the NSW Architecture Awards and National Architecture Awards.
Third quarter 2019: New Darling Square neighbourhood expected to be completed.