The Sale of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum: Does it Spark the End of Public Spaces?

March 23rd, 2015

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Philip Thalis, Architecture Faculty Industry Advisory Group member at University of Newcastle and co-author of Public Sydney: Drawing the City, has a message for the New South Wales government. That message is “Back off our public spaces, before Sydney becomes a dumb, disposable city for the rich!”.

As reported in The Conversation, the New South Wales government has announced plans to sell of the Ultimo site of the Powerhouse Museum to help fund a new museum in Western Sydney. Great for Western Sydney, but what about Ultimo?

The Powerhouse Museum, part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, is currently located in the old Ultimo Power Station building adjacent to Darling Harbour. It’s a building of grandeur, and its unique and diverse collections make it a real asset to the CBD. To see it sold off to developers for an estimated $200 million and turned into apartments would be at the expense of future generations.

As Thalis pointed out, cities can “take decades and centuries to evolve”. While the Powerhouse Museum may appear slightly out of the way right now, it’s positioning is the ideal site for a major museum or other cultural institution.

Access to Harris Street is rapidly improving, and there is a great synergy of important institutions within metres of each other. Harris Street is home to not just the Powerhouse Museum, but to the ABC, the University of Technology Sydney, and the Sydney TAFE. Fantastic connections are yet to be made between the institutions but, once they are, this grouping would make for an incredible science, design, media, and education precinct.

This is not to say we don’t support the idea of more money being allocated to Western Sydney. The heavily populated western areas of Sydney, such as Parramatta, have been grossly underinvested in, and the call for major cultural institutions is most certainly there. But why at the expense of the CBD? To lose such a public asset as the Powerhouse Museum would continue and indeed be enhanced by other recent public losses, such as Barangaroo.

On 22 hectares of public land stretching along 1.2 kilometres of Sydney’s pristine waterfront, the developers at Barangaroo have been gifted seemingly unrestricted rights to build whatever they like. The heart of it (Jame’s Packer’s proposed tower) will dominate the space, and you can’t help but feel saddened that some of the city’s most picturesque parkland will now be home to a hotel, casino, and real estate that will be unaffordable to the average Australian.

Promoting balance

Many real estate spruikers will have you believe that development drives all. That in order to have a successful city, development must be the number one goal. But it’s the people that make a city.

In order to have a city that people enjoy, there must be a balance between public and private spaces. The sterile concept of a CBD is appealing to noone, while a city rich in public parkland, accessible activities, good public transport, and a social heart will promote public investment.

Developers reap the benefits from areas teeming with life and enriched by all public aspects, from transport and institutions to parkland and natural beauty. It’s public investment that underpins private investment, and to sell all of these public spaces off will not be in the long-term interest of the city.

As for the Powerhouse’s Ultimo site, one solution could be to split the museum over two sites – one in the current location in the CBD and another in Western Sydney? The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection has well over 500,000 objects, so there’s plenty to display in two genuine bases.