BY ALEC SMART
Sydney is renowned for many things, including home to two of the world’s most enthralling pieces of modern engineering: the Opera House and a giant coat hanger bridge that crosses its picturesque harbour.
However, one thing for which it has never been known is the manufacture of elastic.
In the past week City of Sydney residents were informed that their council has decided, after two year’s delay and more than triple the original estimated cost, to impose a sculpture upon the city centre that resembles a giant piece of white elastic.
An enormous garter.
Known as the Cloud Arch, this lasso-like structure will soar 58 metres above George Street in a pedestrianized zone, ‘framing’ Sydney Town Hall, providing a wonderful spot for our avian companions to perch and poop on the new light rail trams that will pass through below.
Sure, there’ll be debate over its symbolism.
Some will claim it looks more like a white ribbon than a garter.
Others will insist it is closer to a shoelace, or an electrician’s cable tie.
“It will be the most significant artwork built in Australia in decades,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore gushed last Friday, apparently unaware of the annual Sculptures By The Sea Festivals in Perth and Sydney, the latter of which attracts around 500,000 spectators to the Eastern Suburbs every year, or renowned sculptor Sir Antony Gormley’s Inside Australia statues on Lake Ballard.
“It will become an icon synonymous with Sydney and help raise our city’s profile on the world stage.”
One thing it won’t be is cheap.
Designed by Japanese architectural artist Junya Ishigami, the Cloud Arch, initially more of a wonky peanut shape than an arch – was first revealed in July 2014 as one of a group of three public works intended for Sydney, at a combined cost of $9 million.
Since then the garter/arch has almost doubled in size – from an original 28.5 metres high to a massive 58m, requiring 140 tonnes of steel.
Unfortunately, with a 43% increase in the price of global steel since December 2015, the overall price tag has also soared, to $11.3 million for the arch alone, without the other two public works.
Clover Moore defended the cost increase on the grounds that the “additional investment will be repaid many times over through the hundreds of thousands of visitors who will visit Sydney to view the artwork.”
Due for completion in March 2019, to coincide with the opening of the NSW Government’s CBD and South East Light Rail, the primary reason the Cloud Arch was enlarged and converted from a peanut shape to an arch was to allow trams to pass beneath it.
City of Sydney Councillor Christine Forster was scathing in her criticism of the project. Drawing a comparison to other giant tourist attractions around Australia, such as an apple, banana, merino ram and lobster, she christened the Cloud Arch ‘The Big Tapeworm.’
“I’m not convinced Sydney’s big tapeworm is going to drive quite the same visitation that Goulburn and Coffs Harbour have achieved with their investments,” she said.
Councillor Angela Vithoulkas was also highly critical.
“I don’t think any of them [business owners and ratepayers] will be walking past this project and looking up in awe,” she said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian also weighed in on the discussion stating that it was “not something I would choose.”
“I don’t find it appealing. That’s my personal opinion,” she added.
Councillor Linda Scott was initially critical of the cost of the Cloud Arch.
“The $8 million cost blow-out by Lord Mayor Clover Moore for this project is significant, and will inevitably mean cuts in residents’ services, less new green spaces, fewer affordable housing places or delays in new City infrastructure planned for the future.”
However, on August 29 she suddenly back-flipped and announced her endorsement in a Council vote that went 6-4 in favour of the arch. “I voted to support the City of Sydney going ahead with building our CBD public artwork Cloud Arch.”
The Cloud Arch has its admirers, including architect Penelope Seidler, wife and professional partner of the late Harry Seidler, responsible for Australia Square as well as Blues Point Tower. The latter regularly tops critics’ list of Australia’s ugliest buildings.
“Cloud Arch will be the most exciting design to emerge on the Sydney scene since the Opera House,” she stated. “I know it will become a Sydney icon… it is puzzling and beautiful as well as an engineering masterpiece, I hope they construct it with haste.”
“This sculpture will be a major talking point and will enhance the city’s pulling power,” said Patricia Forsythe, Chief Executive of Sydney Business Chamber.
Dr. Michael Brand, Art Gallery of NSW Director, weighed in with his considered opinion: “I am delighted to support this dynamic and inspiring project and look forward to seeing the centre of Sydney further enlivened by this elegant and technically brilliant public sculpture.”
“Our residents and businesses have consistently told us they want more public artwork,” Clover Moore announced last Friday. “Cloud Arch is our gift to the people of Sydney – a stunning marker of the day the city is finally handed back to its people.”
Yet when City Hub showed some Sydney residents an artist’s impression of the arch, we received a mixed and often comical response.
“I like it,” declared Jake. “We’ll call it the Runaway Dunny Roll!”
“Looks like a big rubber band,” said Christian. “$11 million? What’s it made of, kryptonite?”
“I like the kind of Hot Wheels track look about this,” said Ken.
“If only it was a roller-coaster,” said Mark.
“Or another monorail!” joked Rob. “A giant wishbone would be better,” he continued. “Some people will consider it lucky, others will just think ‘pull the other one!’”
“That doesn’t look like a cloud,” said Martin.
“Looks more like a portal!” added Dean.
“Why not spend the 11.3 million on entertainment and artistic grants?” asked Dion. “Folks will just walk past this giant ribbon without blinking after 3 weeks.”
Considering the recent eviction of homeless tents in Martin Place, many critics of the arch insisted dealing with public housing was more important than funding public art.
“They could build a homeless shelter for that money,” suggested Myriam, “or is that actually the homeless shelter?”
The other two sculptures in the original package of three public works were similarly controversial: a 13.7m high ‘whimsical’ blue milk crate and 30 bronze birds, the milk crate now deferred, the birds postponed.
The latter was designed by Tracey Emin, she of the infamous Close Up Of My Bed piece exhibited at London’s Tate Gallery in 1998, which featured used condoms, cigarette butts and her menstrual-stained underwear discarded around an unmade double bed.
City Hub wonders why our home-grown artists weren’t considered. Many talented and deserving Australian sculptors would relish the chance to enhance our public places.
A giant shopping trolley might be a wittier substitute to a milk crate, saluting the commonest item abandoned in our waterways.
And instead of 30 bronze birds, a flock of swooping seagulls snatching chips from tourists, or a large white ibis – ‘bin chicken’ – scavenging rubbish.
As for an arch to replace the garter, the City Hub proposes an indigenous-themed piece that would acknowledge cultural history whilst paying respect to Sydney’s original custodians.
It’s so obvious, combining practical and aesthetics; one wonders why the design committee foisting Cloud Arch upon us never considered it.
An enormous boomerang.