Two sparkling, squat office towers glistening in the Queensland sun and a stupa descending towards a chamfered boardwalk abutting the Brisbane River – this was the image that Brisbanites woke up to on 29 May, 2012, when The Courier-Mail carried the announcement of a $6.4 billion plan for the CBD precinct between William, George and Anne streets by state premier Campbell Newman.
The premier’s plan is to revitalize the parliamentary precinct by creating a new pedestrian plaza in front of Parliament House and a cultural hub under the South East Freeway. Newman, who has been in office for less than three months, stated at a press conference on 29 May that this scheme was a fresh idea. “It was not considered before the election [on March 24],” said Newman. “The idea first came to me the day after I entered office.” He went on to state that this is the start of a five-year process and that details were still to come.
The sharp render on the front of The Courier-Mail seems to have come from a study drawn up by Cox Rayner that was presented to the former Labor state government. When a member of the media stated that “Cox Rayner have some very detailed plans,” Newman responded with “I haven’t seen them.” This is a strange amnesia considering these images were circulated by the Queensland media all morning. When pressed, Newman commented, “I wasn’t in the previous government. I don’t know because I haven’t had a good look at the Cox Rayner stuff.” This is surprising, since Newman was Lord Mayor of Brisbane for the past decade, and it leaves us wondering how come Cox Rayner came up with a plan that the premier managed not to see.
Amnesia is an acute problem in the three-year political cycles across Australia. A new premier has to make their mark, and this is often done through the erasure of any tangible work undertaken by the previous government. This erasure can be seen in the current federal political sphere with the government removing a number of tax breaks that were offered by the former government.
Architecture is one of the political tools leveraged by the powerful. Architecture is physical; you cannot miss it. It is right there in front of you. When a politician commissions a building, he or she can stand in front of it and say, “I did that. That is my legacy.”
Newman’s use of architecture as symbol parallels the actions of his Victorian counterpart Ted Baillieu, who launched the Flinders Street Station Design Competition with great fanfare in November 2011, a year after his election victory. However, Ballieu’s proposal is an ideas competition open to everyone (once the competition officially opens). Newman’s plan is for expressions of interest from private developers, and this quick process seems madly rash. Expressions of interest will be open very soon for a new office building of up to sixty thousand square metres at 1 William Street, which is currently a car park. The Newman government is also asking private developers to respond to the entire precinct; this includes looking at reducing 420,000 square metres of government office space by a hundred thousand metres – either by selling off the stock or demolishing existing buildings altogether – along with the insertion of retail, entertainment and cultural programs. By selling off government buildings to the private sector, the government may lease them back. “Everyone comes out a winner,” Newman said.
This seems like a solid economic investment with a reported $60 million per year being saved by the government, but there are many unanswered questions. What vision overarches this new precinct proposal? How will a quality public domain be delivered? Will the state government engage with the State Government Architect’s office during this process? Will this deliver value beyond economic gain? And what is most frustrating is that not only has the Cox Rayner scheme been unacknowledged, but so too has the pointed criticism within the Queensland architecture community that accompanied it. The plethora of questions is exacerbated by the amnesia of the Queensland Government, which not only ignores that there was an original architect for a masterplan for the area being looked at, but that this architect had a vision (whether one agrees with it or not).
The Queensland Government seems intent on reiterating the point that this new development will “deliver jobs, revitalize the precinct, provide good quality office accommodation [and] rationalize holdings of leasings in property.” It was also pointed out that the project would invigorate the construction industry. The Minister for Housing and Public Works, Bruce Flegg, stood behind Newman at the press conference and supported his colleague, saying it is “about public servants and saving money.”
During the press conference there was no discussion of the value this precinct would add to the Queensland community, only of the value it would offer to government and the construction industry.
The announcement of the masterplan may be the action of a can-do government, but it might also be a “Can-don’t!” if the plan is rushed through with this sense of amnesia about the previous studies and public debates that have already taken place. This includes the danger that the public domain can be easily excised to private interests.
At the press conference, Newman reiterated that this is an important plan for Brisbane and the entire state of Queensland. It is. And it is therefore a shame he hasn’t really said what this plan is doing, or at least acknowledged the real architects, who actually did create a vision.
Words: Timothy Moore