Sydney and Paris trained Philip Thalis is a founding principal of Sydney’s Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects, a councillor of the City of Sydney, and a professor of architectural practice at the University of New South Wales. 

As well as winning numerous awards, he led the group that won the original design competition for Sydney’s vacated cityside container wharf area – now dubbed Barangaroo – only to have the design junked by the NSW Government and find himself the target of attacks by former prime minister Paul Keating. 

A&D: How do you juggle your various roles?

Philip Thallis: For me architecture and the city have always been more than a ‘job’ – I have long juggled practice with university teaching, research, publication and public comment. And our practice has always been known for its independent standpoint, involved as we have been in so many highly-charged projects. So I guess that’s why the lord mayor asked me to join the progressive independents on the City of Sydney.

It’s certainly a demanding combination of activities – yes it’s hard to juggle at times, but also very stimulating due to the significant overlap, and the contrasts, between practice, politics and university. Certainly I don’t have time or reason to be bored!

A&D: You recently warned that Sydney risked becoming ‘a throwaway city of junk buildings’ to be knocked down every 30 years. So are we just a jerry-built city where nothing of lasting value is being built?

PT: This seems to be quite an acute problem currently. You must keep in mind that buildings are one of the main consumers of energy. So having buildings that are disposable is the least sustainable thing you can do. You need to make buildings that will last for at least 50 if not 100 years. Many buildings last way longer than that. Even the humble terrace house – many of those are now 150 years old.

You need to build for the long term. What’s particularly concerning with the examples that I cited: the demolition of Darling Harbour, the football stadium (SFS), the Parramatta stadium, The Powerhouse Museum, Sirius – major pieces of construction that lasted only 30 years. What it also shows is a government – and these are all government projects – seemingly hell-bent on shiny new things, rather than saying that Sydney needs to be a city that matures over time, that we build with a sense of permanence, that we build for the public good.

A&D: But is it actually the government, the public sector that is building, owning and running these places?

PT: What’s clear at Darling Harbour is that – and that was my first job after university in the mid-80s – for all its faults, and I’m one of the fiercest critics of the original scheme at Darling Harbour, it was actually a public project. It was designed and built by the NSW Government. It had the National Maritime Museum, the aquarium, the exhibition centre, the convention centre, a Chinese garden, the Entertainment Centre next to The Powerhouse and the parkland in the middle, and it retained Pyrmont Bridge. All of these things were public goods.

What’s happened now is that the bottom part of the area has been liquidated and passed to the developer to profit from, in order for them to build and run some reworked facilities over a 30-year period. What we are seeing is the privatisation of the city, privatisation by stealth. But these sort of projects and practices have many problematic dimensions. Our city parades as a global city but operates more like a provincial company town, a city fashioned by deals. Instead of building genuine public buildings that are in the public interest, it’s as if some buildings are simply to subsidise commercial operations.

The Sydney Football Stadium – much the same thing: A 45,000-seat stadium swapped for a 45,000-seat stadium. Nobody thought the old stadium was bad, except that it needed more toilets and bigger bars. That would have been a routine renovation; not a complete knockdown and rebuild.  One of the things shrouded with the new stadium is how much of the public seating is being given over to expanded corporate boxes and sponsors’ whims? Is the SFS deal the public subsidisation of a cartel of private interests? Is this how the NSW Government sees its role? If so, what a societal loss. There are ways you can do this for much less than the $735 million demolition of the football stadium. And that’s only part of the number, because they are knocking down a lot of the buildings around the football stadium.

What we’re finding again is subsidisation of Big Sport. There’s money for the Swans, there’s the move of things into the old showground halls, they’re building a new cricket ‘Centre of Excellence’ at Sydney Olympic Park because they’re knocking down the nets at the SCG – that’s maybe $100 million on top of the $735 million for the new stadium.

A&D: While we’re in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, what about the new light rail? Does it add much to the transport capacity of the area? Does it pre-empt a longer term transport solution, like a metro under Anzac Parade out  to Maroubra and beyond?

PT: Has Sydney ever made a worse decision than scrapping its tram system in 1961? Sydney had one of the biggest tram systems in the world, much bigger than Melbourne. This decision was an economic, environmental and transport disaster but typical of the city’s planning mistakes in the latter parts of the 20th century. It’s great that trams and light rail are being reintroduced, but there are major questions about the Eastern Suburbs light rail, the regrettable way it’s been delivered, the questionable contracts, the disappointing urban design, the physical degradation.

Compare that with some of the new systems installed in Europe – which create the most pedestrian-friendly, beautiful public domain. Even compared to the Canberra light rail and the Newcastle light rail, the way it’s been implemented has been substandard, which reflects poorly on the State Government’s management. Also the length of the trams, at 67 metres, some of the longest in the world; only a few other cities such as Marrakesh and Jerusalem run trams of that length, and that’s because it’s their primary transport mode. More Metros is clearly what we need, and the biggest risk with this light rail line is that it may not cope as transport.

There is no question that the Anzac Parade corridor needs a Metro, which could then be supplemented by light rail as an auxiliary mode of transport with more stops, different route, etc. That’s the sort of long-term planning that we need to get right in Sydney. There is hope that the new Metro being planned from Parramatta could extend via Zetland to UNSW and Little Bay, perhaps to Cronulla as well. That would be a great project for Sydney. 

A&D: You’ve also criticised the sale of the Sydney GPO building and the distinctive sandstone state government buildings.  What would be the alternative?

PT: I co-authored the award-winning book Public Sydney; Drawing the City (with Peter John Cantrill), so such issues are very close  to my heart. The great sandstone buildings of Sydney often occupy sites that have been used for public purposes since 1788 – perhaps longer if you account for the indigenous occupation of the land. Over time these sites were rebuilt, with the great sandstone public buildings dating from 1850 – 1915. Since then they’ve been repurposed, modernised, swapped governmental use, added civic uses.

As the need arose over the years, a succession of NSW Governments have exercised what I call ‘public imagination’ to adapt and renew such sites and buildings in the public interest. Whereas this government, in the middle of an unparalleled property boom, with money coming from every corner through development, stamp duty and the like, sees fit to rupture the practice of 230 years of government, which held a longer term or enlightened view of what the public interest might be, and the value of keeping such treasured public assets in public ownership. Privatisation at any cost seems to have been their mantra.

This based on a bias that the corporatised world is the only thing of value and that public services and servants don’t deserve such fine buildings (as said quite explicitly at the time of sale). But this also displays an economic fallacy, seemingly perpetrated by Treasury. Businesses change offices or move to new buildings every 10 or 15 years because they get tax breaks and deals for office fit-outs, which also are available to the developers who erected the building.

But government doesn’t receive such tax incentives. So what’s the reason for government to shuffle around leasing lesser commercial buildings, which are then an ongoing public debt when they could have first-class public buildings held for the longer-term? Regardless of all the other substantial arguments, why even from an economic standpoint don’t Treasury and government appreciate the true value of public assets? 

A&D: Turning to ‘disposable’ buildings, even buildings that are landmark award-winning designs are frequently subject to alteration.  It must be heart-wrenching for an architect  to see their prize creations altered.

PT: It depends whether the alteration is intelligent and sympathetic, or whether it’s simply vandalism. As ‘Public Sydney’ shows, virtually every public building in the city has been extended or changed use (the Department of Lands is one of the few that hasn’t). The 1815 military hospital on Observatory Hill became a model school and then it became the National Trust headquarters. Walsh Bay’s wharves have become the city’s most magical theatre venue. On the edge of the Botanic Gardens, the Macquarie-era government stables have been turned into the Conservatorium of Music. If we look at the wonderful public group on Macquarie Street, almost all of them have changed dramatically.

I don’t think those involve loss. Nor is it primarily a question of authorship. It’s about how their public purpose has been renewed, their history respected and their design qualities being brought up to a new consciousness and relevance. That can be done in all those examples that I’ve cited, incredibly sympathetically and well.

A&D: Your architectural practice Hill Thalis has long worked on the design of apartment buildings. What’s your thinking about that?

PT: One of the important obligations for architects is to improve the quality of housing, and that’s nowhere more important than in the design of apartments. Unlike many architects of my generation, I grew up in three-storey walk-up flats, three boys in 100sqm. And even as a child I thought we could do better, yet that wasn’t a major area of work I thought would be possible when I graduated. But it’s become a major theme for our architectural practice.

As I learnt working in Paris while undertaking my masters, the design of urban housing is critically important. Good housing is so important in creating the city’s fabric, in creating fine streets, in giving people a dignified place to live. Such buildings should have a considered environmental sensibility as, like all good housing, they’re designed with excellent natural light, cross ventilation, appropriate landscape and a sense of sociability about them. Urban housing is a very tough area to work in, both in terms of development and planning pressures, and to achieve construction quality. But we love the challenge, for as architects there’s a real sense of achievement when you can get all  these things to align through good design.

A&D: What about the suburban and regional housing on the traditional block? The bungalows knocked up by local builders 100 years ago now stand out for high ceilings and nice windows and doors. What gets built today has often got little of this charm.

PT: There’s a touch of romanticism in that. Australian suburbia right back to the mid 1800s has been spec-built standard housing. Housing in Sydney in the 19th century consisted of a mix of freestanding houses, semis, or terraces, with some used as boarding houses. Few at the time thought terraces were anything other than the most basic speculative housing. Fundamental to mass housing is economy of land and construction, so you are going to have whatever the standard of the time replicated.

What’s different over recent decades is the growing size of the individual house and the decreasing number of people in each house. Once there were five people per house; now the occupancy rate is only 2.7, yet the houses are double or quadruple in size. Previously you had suburbs structured around the train line, the tram line or the ferry; but since WW2 we’ve seen poor suburban plans based on the car. So our cities have sprawled across ever greater areas, without the sense of physical or social structure characteristic of the more walkable suburbs based on public transport.

Surely there’s no reason to subdivide another centimetre of fringe farmland, flood plain or environmentally sensitive land? For we are the most profligate wasters of urban land in the world. As we have shown in our urban projects over decades, informed urban design can produce more memorable and efficient plans than the standard suburban layouts.