It’s not beautiful


There are two aerial photographs of the Sydney CBD in the AFR today that (quite unintentionally) bring out the problem with developing the Western harbourside of the CBD.  The photos are on pages 47 and 50 of Thursday’s AFR.  The first looks north from a height of about 600 metres above Sydney University.  It shows the harbour bridge and the massive road that comes South from the harbour bridge which is called the Western distributor.  The second looks South along the Western shoreline of the Sydney CBD, which was until recently a working port.

The first shows the bridge and its southern exit road in a harsh but revealing light.  The bridge is an unappealing and massive  industrial structure; no more attractive than the now abandoned container wharfs on the western edge of the CBD,  and the road cuts off the city completely from its western shoreline.

Many beautiful harbour cities around the world have been grotesquely disfigured by massive roadworks.  This is especially true in the US where Boston, New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans come immediately to mind.  The great road building programs of the New Deal and the Interstate program gave little consideration to aesthetics or the livability of cities.  They just blasted those roads through the poorest neighbourhoods and along the water’s edge.  In many cases cutting off access to the harbour and ocean.

A similar thing happened to Sydney with the construction of the harbour bridge.  Old maps of Sydney show clearly why the city was located on Sydney cove.  It was the easiest point to the harbour.  But just as importantly the shoreline to the shoreline to the west of the city gave extensive access to the harbour.  It was always intended in the early days of Sydney that the CBD would access the harbour principally on its west.  The building of the bridge and its connecting roadworks changed that.

American cities recognise the damage done by the reckless building of interstates.  Boston has spent $12 billion of mostly Federal money to reconnect itself to its water’s edge by burying roads.  Sydney should also face up to the damage done in the building of the bridge and its feeder roads.  The city should plan to bury the western distributor and replace the bridge with a tunnel.  The harbour bridge is not beautiful.  It is iconic, but not beautiful.  I personally think it is clunky, overwrought, dull and ugly.  That may be an extreme view, but who can honestly say that it is beautiful.  It is a structure that only its creators could love.

Removing the bridge would restore the widest vista of the harbour.   Burying the western distributor would make the plans for Barangaroo workable.  And the city could grow down to a beautiful western shore.  It would take a lot of money but it would be well worth it in the long run.

11 Responses to "It’s not beautiful"
  1. Brisbane has the same problem with its bridges – dividing the city with impenetrable roadways and rendering the potentially beautiful riverside quite inaccessible.
    While I admire the engineering feat that is our (and your) iconic bridge, visual splendour from a distance, in my opinion this does not outweigh the up close harshness of the roadways required to service them.




  2. I  think you are misjudging the geography – have you followed the harbour edge from King St Wharf through Barangaroo to Walsh Bay?
    Millers Point & Observatory Hill lie between you and  the Western Distributor and obscure it much of it.  Nor does the Western Distributor cut Millers Point & Observatory Hill completely off from The Rocks – there are several roads & pedestrian accesses underneath.
    Its at Darling Harbour that the Western Distributor has most impact because its at ground level &  adjoining the harbour.

  3. There is already a tunnel across Sydney Harbour. It opened in 1992 with a construction cost of $554 million and has four lanes, two in each direction.
    The bridge has 8 lanes operating with tidal flow, plus one pair of train tracks.
    Thus three tunnels (two road and one rail) would be required to replace the bridge. In addition the bridge apparently has the structural strength to support a second pair of train tracks at minimal incremental cost. Transport analysts estimate that either these or a train tunnel will be needed within the next 30 years.
    In total, replacing the bridge by tunnels looks like a $2 billion job or thereabouts. If it were to be done we might as well add in the sinking of the elevated train tracks at Circular Quay that tend to cut off the north end of the CBD from the harbour and are a bigger eye-sore than the bridge. Say, another $250 million. (Self-styled architect Paul Keating has several times called for the elevated tracks to be demolished; I don’t believe he has ever called for demolition of the bridge.)
    Replacing the bridge by tunnels still leaves the problem of approach roads on both sides of the harbour.
    Now, how does spending $2+ billion on that stack up with spending that amount of money in other ways to improve the aesthetics/liveability of the city? I’m sure there are better candidates than the bridge. And, by the way, given the parlous state of NSW finances, the $2 billion does not actually exist.
    As a final observation, I suspect that any proposal to demolish the bridge would create as much of a popular uproar as a proposal to demolish the Sydney Opera House.

  4. No need to pull it down – maybe just beautify it – brighter colour scheme – hanging plants etc

  5. I agree that the Harbour Bridge is hardly the Golden Gate Bridge, but of course pulling it down is unthinkable.  (I like Iron Lover’s idea, how about painting it a nice purple 😉 ).
    Burying the Western Distributor should be part of the Barangaroo project.  That and burying the Circular Quay elevated tracks will get far more bang for your buck than eliminating the bridge.
    I agree about Boston’s “Big Dig” project.  It completely transformed the city, and undid years of disastrous planning.  But with interest, it was estimated to have cost $22 billion, and I believe it took about 20 years to complete.  We are so far away from having that sort of political courage and foresight, that I would rather consider proposals which have at least a 0.1% chance of happening.

  6. My 1 vote to this, its a radical idea for general population, but is something worth investigating. I’m sure people from historical and archeological taste will say – Finance people don’t get this 🙂

  7. I agree with Sam, the bridge is ugly. But in today’s world Ugly * Scale = Awing / Iconic. Pity i couldn’t use the same equation on my ex girlfriends

  8. I agree that the Western distributor has created serious problems for inner Sydney liveability (apart from being spectacuarly and gratuitously ugly –  a little thought in design would have saved a lot of optical offensiveness).  If anything, though, the Cahill expressway (built on top of those elevated train tracks in the 1960s is worse and really does cut the city off from the sea.

    But fixing it now would be hideously expensive.  It’s to do with the grades – you’d need a lot of *long* tunnels, and you’d have to very seriously rejig sydney’s underground rail loop.  Given the desperate need for other infrastructure investments in Sydney I can’t see it happening anytime soon.

    One thing that can be done cheaply and would make a big difference is to shift the Navy from Garden Island to Jervis Bay.  That’s actually a good move on military grounds anyway, and it lets you fix up the eastern side of the city properly.  But don’t do it while the Sussex St boys are in government – they’d give the lot to Meriton in a flash.

  9. Sam in these days of stimulus packages I think we should turn the bridge upside down so that the cars can drive on the underside of the bridge which would then be at water level. This would also mean that cargo going up the river (is there any) would have to be unloaded on one side and reloaded on the other – supposedly Huey Long had a bridge built too low over the Mississippi during the Depression to create jobs in just this kind of way.

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