Utopia Forgot, Learning From the Megastructure

By Daniel Spence

Kyoto Station Complex, Hiroshe Hara, 1997

This project proposes to reopen a conversation that was seemingly dismissed in the early 1970’s: that of the megastructure as a radical form of urbanism catalyzed by mobility and transportation, and its implications for Sydney in light of a number of recent urban proposals.

In June 2013 the Sydney Morning Herald  unveiled the Aspire Sydney consortium’s plans for a massive urban reconfigurement of Sydney (Swap you: Chinese skyscrapers for a Sydney motorway, SMH, June 30). The seemingly outlandish $100 bn proposal involved building the M4 East motorway in exchange for the rights to develop a large tract of land along the rail corridor from Central to Strathfield. The project, including the construction of up to 150 residential and commercial skyscrapers, would be realised by using prefabricated components manufactured in China and constructed largely by a Chinese labour workforce. It would involve prefabricated ‘infrastructure tubes’ and multi-storey building components, building a ‘superpit’ structure to support the new towers, and a close integration of transport systems with the functions of the city. Here then was a megastructure in our own backyard, a ‘building at the scale of a city’ with many of the defining characteristics (extendability, flexibility, prefabrication) of the utopic vision of the 60’s. And yet this was a typology that had effectively been consigned to the scrapheap of history when Reyner Banham famously labelled the megastructure the “dinosaur of the Modern movement”. I found the idea that Banham may have been premature in his dismissal of the urban potential of the megastructure to be a fascinating one.

It seems to me that we live at a time when the issue that megastructure had pre-empted, that of radical population growth and urban expansion and the transport infrastructures needed to support it, is at the forefront of architectural debate in Sydney today. The city needs 80,000 new apartments but is faced with a chronic lack of space to build them, not to mention the various infrastructural requirements that would accompany them. Recent proposals like the Aspire consortium’s are looking to use Sydney’s brownfield sites to build high density multi-programmatic developments integrally linked with the transport networks around them.

And yet despite the fact that the megastructure seems both a relevant and buildable proposition, it is still generally scorned as either science fiction or the product of a bygone era. It is this duality that I find intriguing, the idea that an investigation into megastructure in the 21st Century might act both as a cautionary tale and a typology that Sydney can learn from as it enters a period of intense growth.