Friday, December 7, 2007

Urban visual pollution

What is there in common between an Australian railway-worker turned politician named Joseph Cahill [1891-1959] and a French banker turned politician named Georges Pompidou [1911-1974]? Answer: They both succeeded in disfiguring for decades (forever?) two of the most magnificent natural sites in the world.

— Joe Cahill gave the go-ahead for a particularly ugly elevated motorway and train line along the Sydney waterfront that pollute, visually, the glorious bay known as Circular Quay: the port for harbor ferries, just alongside Sydney's fabulous Opera. To be perfectly honest, I should add that Joe also supported the latter project. So, we might hope retrospectively that he has been lodged in Purgatory rather than in the environmental equivalent of Hell (which is no doubt crisscrossed by motorways and railways).

— Georges Pompidou decided to transform the quiet banks of the Seine into a 13-kilometer motorway that crosses Paris in a west/east direction. For visitors who wish to have a rapid taxi-trip encounter with the glorious City of Light, Pompidou's road is a blessing. But it remains a monument to the short-sightedness of Pompidolean people [note that lovely French adjective, whose Anglicized version might not be spelt here in an academic fashion] who worshiped the goddess Automobile.

In Sydney, which I tend to think of as my native city (although I wasn't born there, and didn't know the place until I was a teenager), I'm thrilled to learn that the Cahill Expressway would appear to be [I must be cautious in my language] a candidate for forthcoming demolition. I well remember the epoch of its construction, in the late '50s.

As a young man, I was alarmed to see all this steel and concrete invading the quiet bay named Sydney Cove: the sacred site of the founding of the colony of New South Wales by Arthur Phillip on 26 January 1788. Indeed, there's no more effective way of introducing a stark element of desolation into a magnificent landscape than by slashing through it with an elevated motorway, a railway line and a tunnel... as revealed in this lugubrious painting of the Cahill Expressway by Jeffrey Smart:

When you look at Circular Quay from some distance away [from the city end of the bridge, say], the offending structures appear as horizontal bars separating the water from the base of the buildings.

As you get closer, or when you're actually strolling along the edge of the water [at the place where the harbor ferry wharves are located], the Cahill stuff starts to form an ugly backdrop. It hinders passengers arriving on boats from visualizing the waterfront onto which they are about to set foot, and it prevents people on land, at the foot of the buildings, from seeing the boats.

If the Cahill Expressway were to be demolished, then the entire zone between the base of the buildings and the ferry wharves [including the latter, which are antiquated] should be redesigned and transformed into an automobile-free garden plaza.

Throughout the world, busy waterfronts graced by a harmonious and authentic land/water symbiosis are rare and precious. One of the most pleasant places of this kind I've seen [although it's not perfect] is Marseille. I'm convinced that it wouldn't take an enormous amount of imagination and effort to make this a reality in Sydney.

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