When Gladys Berejiklian took over from Mike Baird as NSW Premier in 2017, she unaccountably adopted many of his terrible policies.
Baird had become unpopular with his hard-right agenda that included Council amalgamations, banning greyhounds, lockout laws, demolishing stadia and relocating the Powerhouse Museum.
All could be seen as an attack on workers and the Labor party, but many on the right also saw the futility of these ideological positions.
Not only did Berejiklian not take the opportunity to put some distance between her and the hard-right God-bothering banker, she set about making it worse.
Baird’s cabinet had two excellent ministers, Adrian Piccoli, a Liberal education minister with, remarkably, the support of the teachers’ union, and Rob Stokes, a planning minister with a degree in planning and progressive ideas.
Berejiklian, showing the tin ear she is renowned for, moved both of them on. So, Piccoli left government for lobbying; and planning stood still for two years until Stokes regained the helm after the 2019 election.
The disasters of NSW planning and the Powerhouse move are for another time; for now, it’s the SFS.
Amongst Baird’s bad ideas (the big list) was a decision to demolish and rebuild the Olympic Stadium and the Sydney Football Stadium (SFS).
Both were driven by Baird’s love of corporates – notably he returned to one of the disgraced banks only a month after leaving politics. Why Berejiklian, who was elected to steer the party back to the middle or at least the less right, decided to plough on with these unpopular and money losing propositions remains a mystery.
The Sydney Football Stadium was a rectangular stadium seating 45,000 used by Soccer (Football), Rugby League and Rugby Union, as well as concerts. Designed by Cox Richardson and Taylor, together with engineers Arup, it was a 1988 bicentennial project of the Wran/Unsworth Labor party.
On a difficult, cramped site they produced a spectacular sweeping fabric tensegrity roof (thanks Arup) over clearly organised open raked seating in a concrete base. In keeping with the clients and times, it was a ‘democratic’ stadium, where every seat was the same and had an equitable view of the pitch.
This suited the soccer-football crowd - a people’s game where the elites play little part. But not the tweed jacket and leather patch elites in rugby union and rugby league crowd awash with corporate sponsorship dollars.
The criticisms levelled by Baird followed the latter codes: there were safety issues (debatable), the food and beverage provision were below par, the toilets inadequate and crucially, insufficient corporate boxes.
The former could be easily fixed, but the last is an insidious disease in sport architecture: the legendary Bay 13 at the MCG, home of the bogan barracker, now has fancy umbrellas, both on the terraces and in the drinks. Baird wanted more corporate boxes.
Notable voices were raised in opposition, including former Wallaby, now columnist, Peter FitzSimons, who raised a petition with 220,000 signatures, but to no avail. The then Labor leader, Michael Daley vowed to stop the project if elected and appealed the demolition application.
But Berejiklian pressed on to let a $730m contract with Lendlease for demolition and replacement (including top tier corporate boxes). A report suggesting the defects could be fixed for $18m surfaced late in the March 19 election, but by that stage the bulldozers were in.
Berejiklian won the election, mostly because the Labor opposition had weak and compromised leaders and a recent past is so riddled with corruption and incompetence that they had no currency.
They will likely be out of power for a generation giving the Liberals a clear run. Inter alia the Olympic stadium was saved, but the SFS has gone, not yet replaced.
We lost a democratic stadium for an elitist one.
The sad irony is that the new stadium is designed by Cox, the firm, not Philip. It is a tragedy that some of Philip Cox's greatest works, the Darling Harbour Exhibition Centre and the SFS have been demolished, whilst some lesser buildings, such as the Canberra Stadium and Star Casino, live on.
Both the Exhibition Centre and the football stadium were muscular Australian buildings with lightweight floating roofs, like poled tents, providing shade or enclosure over spaces that were, it can hardly be repeated too many times, also democratic.
We now see the results of the hasty decision to have demolition commence before the election. Lendlease, having demolished the bulk of the building, announced that it was unable to complete the new building for the amount suggested by the government and withdrew.
A new tender was negotiated, which John Holland won at a higher price, representing a $100m increase in the total cost.
The government spin bizarrely claims that this increase in costs is somehow a saving. Fake news in the finest Trumpian tradition.
Even if correct it would do nothing to assuage the disappointment that a perfectly good stadium was demolished out of hubris, and the new one will house less than the old, but the elites will be accommodated, and the poor be damned. A lasting legacy of Gladys Berejiklian's incompetence.
That may seem harsh so I will fess up to some prejudice. Some will know of my work on the Wayside Chapel and Sydney’s MSIC.
This brought me into the orbit of those who work tirelessly on drug harm minimisation. I’ve learnt how hundreds of lives are saved by their work.
But this uncaring Premier continually refuses to even consider a trial of pill-testing at music festivals, which is essential harm minimisation.
That intransigence will leave a worse legacy than a wasteful stadium.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected].