First published in SMH in 2002
The rise of bunker-like housing is destroying the city’s soul, despite the stainless steel kitchens, writes Julie Ihle.
September 19 2002
There is something sick in the state of Sydney architecture these days. There are beige boxes doubling as houses sprouting up on every spare bit of land.
These beige boxes look like a kind of ammunition warehouse on the outside – all pared down and oddly shaped. And on the inside they look as though they’ve been designed by Rose Hancock, completely over the top and with no function whatsoever. These new houses have about three spa baths, marble everywhere, dressing rooms the size of a small offshore island and huge living areas for the approximately 1.87 people who, according to the latest census, actually live there.
The garden, if you can call it that, usually has a couple of slabs of thick ultra-green grass that looks as though it’s been newly delivered.
There is a letterbox the size of a small kennel, and around the back there’s a small concrete courtyard and a plug-in Zen fountain that the developers bought in bulk from an Indonesian electronics firm.
This type of housing is appearing all over Sydney. It seems developers seize upon every spare piece of land, no matter how unsuitable it is for building.
Even if the house is at the junction of three freeways, or situated under the flight path on a former toxic waste dump, developers leap in and build a mini-city of beige boxes or grey rectangles. They give it a name like “The Cotswolds”, stick some stainless steel appliances in the kitchen and sell it at a profit.
But that’s not all. Any house in a sought-after suburb, built before 1985 and containing fewer than four bedrooms and 25 built-ins is on the developers’ hit lists for demolition. Lovely prewar Californian bungalows or good solid 1950s brick houses, part of this city’s heritage, are being knocked down to make way for these architectural polyps.
There are also entire walled suburbs of these houses. Often with names that appear to have been made up by the scriptwriters of Neighbours, such as Chesterton Gardens and Gardenia Court, they come with clubhouse, barbecue, tennis court, billiard table, swimming pool and their very own border protection agent, whose job it is to monitor barbecue use and keep everyone else out.
The truly sad thing about these “home spaces”, the architectural equivalent of rice crisps, is that they are selling. And because this is Sydney, they are selling for a lot of money.
People are so desperate to get a little slice of Sydney real estate, especially one that comes with a gourmet kitchen and too much parking, that they’ll buy anything.
However, because everyone’s so desperate to get some sort of real estate, or make some money on their current house that only has one bathroom, no-one seems to be asking the question: do we really want to live in a city of these things?
Do we really want to destroy what’s left of our history just to build a box, and do we really want to create a generation of Chesterton Courts?
They may seduce us with their Himalayan granite benchtops, Euro appliances, underfloor heating and one-touch cooling, but in 10 years, when the gloss has worn off, they will just be empty concrete boxes with clip-on balconies.
We all know that Sydney’s architecture has always had its bad moments – think about Blues Point Tower, Circular Quay station and just about every shopping centre across Sydney.
We have always had the knack of building something completely inappropriate and styleless on a perfectly good piece of land. But the current phase of boxdom is so widespread that it has gone beyond a phase and is now a whole architectural movement.
If we are not careful we will end up with soulless walled suburbs and a sea of beige and grey, punctuated by the odd bit of luminous green artificial turf.
And although in this city it’s easy to become complacent when you’ve got the world’s best harbour and the world’s best climate, the lifeblood of any city is its people.
And there’s only so much life force that can happen in a beige box.