The APEC summit is in town, and Sydney is on full-alert. At least as much as Sydney is ever going to be. The leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum have more or less brought downtown to a standstill. Drawn from nations representing over 60% of the global GDP, featuring the premiers of the USA, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Australia and many others, it's the most powerful international assembly ever in Australia. To some APEC appears to be little more than a talking shop, and others have grumbled about the upheaval the event is causing. But former Australian PM, the brilliantly outspoken Paul Keating, who provided much of the impetus for APEC in its early days, essentially says that the city should be proud APEC is here, and deal with it. (I agree with him, for what it's worth, and despite what I write below.) Keating intriguingly goes on to suggest that "one of the greatest pieces of software that Australia developed in the 1980s and mid-1990s was foreign policy", describing APEC as an artifact of that, and suggesting what the forum should really be about, particularly for Australia.
Meanwhile Sydney is just agog that Vladimir Putin is here, Shinzo Abe is here, Hu Jintao is here. George Bush "arrived by water" - I love that phrase, as if he splashed up a beach in the dead of night, face blacked up, knife clenched between his teeth - a couple of days ago, and the local media are twittering about everything from his surf'n'turf'n'no-veg diet to his understanding on Iraq with current Australian PM John Howard. For Howard it may be one of the last things he does in office, but for Sydney it's a chance to play host at a glittering ball, and it's laid on its jewel, the Sydney Opera House, as the venue. Playing host these days, however, means less a spirit of welcoming, open embrace, than a total lockdown of the urban environment.
First up, read fellow Sydney-resident Marcus Trimble's excellent piece on what this has meant for the city's urban form, describing the extraordinary 5km fence that's been built around the Opera House area in the CBD, Sydney's new temporary (non-autonomous) zoning, and the informational security measures in place.
Yet not everyone finds it as interesting. The New South Wales Transport Minister John Watkins said of the traffic restrictions and the fencing off of Sydney's centre:
"The message is very clear - there is nothing to see so please stay away."
Actually, it is of course fascinating: I overhear people talking of going to actually see The Fence, as if it were a new temporary attraction, and when I visited on Wednesday, many Sydneysiders were just hanging out in the "sniper-ridden ring of steel", watching the whole circus. News sites are full of it, and Sydney has been radically altered for a few days. There is plenty to see.
The city's lampposts are festooned with APEC banners, creating orange gates - a Christo fan somewhere? - and the place is largely devoid of traffic.
In addition to the slightly desperate plea of Watkins above, today was declared a public holiday and the official literature actually suggested people leave the city for the weekend - and a somewhat inadvertent drive towards walking the city and taking public transport.
In the Sydney Morning Herald's special APEC section, John Huxley writes of prison language - 'lockdown' - and the Dead City that's left behind. I find the peculiar atmosphere a little reminiscent of the accidental pedestrianisation of London after the 7/7 bombings, though here cultivated through the power of nightmares rather than actual terror.
"The fence is ugly but is there to keep delegates and people of Sydney safe from public order problems and the threat of terrorism. These are the ugly realities of our world."
His ugly realities perhaps. But from an architecture or urbanism perspective, it's ugly and interesting.
In the spirit of Cedric Price or Archigram, you could see the entire fenced structure as one transient building - a kind of tentacular walking city, with its own streets and arteries, overlaid temporarily over the concrete city beneath, as if it's squatting on the CBD, attempting to suffocate or strangle, perhaps. I'd like to see a photograph or plan of The Fence from above, and then extrude its form from the streets (sketch below).
Of course, it's the antithesis of what Price and Archigram attempted with their visionary work - a kind of Anti-Fun Palace, in which possibilities are diminished and the only course of action is to be shepherded out to the perimeter of the city. From an urban planning perspective, it's the opposite of creating a contemporary open space. You could see the whole thing as a design problem - perhaps run as an avant-garde exercise in a crazed design school somewhere: how to tighten the grip a very public space, centred around one of the country's principle attractions? Again, you begin to look at The Fence as a temporary architectural incursion in the city, a reversal of the usual - or at least more written about - architectural and urban design work. You half wonder where The Fence is heading next.
As Marcus points out, this design work now also include a tightening of the informational grip on the city, by deliberately eroding data services over strategic locations. He describes as a "lo-fi-ing of Sydney, resolution as security measure", in which Google Earth/Maps high-resolution imagery of the Sydney CBD is subtracted, such that it becomes temporarily blurred over the Opera House and other related places. One speculates as to how that happened. (Of course, Google wouldn't want to be held responsible if anything terrible did happen, as will no doubt have been pointed out to them. Though it's a little ludicrous to suggest that their service offers the potential plotter anything over the many readily accessible, detailed paper maps of Sydney apparently still in existence.) It's also strange to note just how overly precise the blurring is. In this image below, of Google Maps on my phone taken on Wednesday, note how the edge of the Opera House (left) is the exact point at which the blurring/sharpening occurs. A curiously limited definition of the danger zone.
Shifting the map inland to the Royal Botanic Gardens, we see the same sharp:blurred boundaries, creating odd hybrid buildings with one wing in focus (lower-half), the other dark and blurred (top-half), perhaps like Diller+Scofidio's blur building. Presumably this link to that exact spot will improve in resolution after APEC, so writing about this transient architecture necessitates a screengrab:
It's an oddly crude tactic, and in terms of an analogue to the physical Fence, it's far less effective. The Fence covers a huge area, across 5km, whereas this strategic blurring seems a little tokenistic. However, note also that this informational space extends to the media too, with ABC's satirical TV show The Chaser being warned off "trying anything" in the area. Of course, that didn't work [video]. So, seeing its media as a part the city's digital fabric, APEC's security measures attempt to restrict that too.
As a precursor of things to come, it's instructive to see all this as the kind holistic informational urban planning - blurring physical and digital cities - that the academy has been rattling on for years. Here it is, folks.
It's also going to be instructive to think how these powers might extend, just as the Declared Area has extended police powers in the streets - to a carefully orchestrated temporary enfeebling of the informational city. I wonder which city is the more resilient in the face of these strategies - physical or digital?
Wandering around on Wednesday, I manage to take several photos of The Fence - despite claims that people would be stopped doing so - as police close off streets, occasionally check IDs, and generally funnel people away from what are usually Sydney's busiest streets.
The Fence is very configurable, allowing different streets to be closed at different times. Indeed, the police occasionally seem unsure which streets to shut off, when.
The transport services have been reconfigured too, with bus stops shifting location for APEC and indicating just how malleable the city can be.
The casual militarisation of the space is clear - again recall how Archigram, Price et al were influenced by the temporary, configurable or prefabricated architecture of WWII; pillboxes, sea-forts, funnies &c. - but I also begin to see that the whole thing is working a little like a reverse of la tonnara, the traditional Italian fishing net structure, which can be seen as a kind of transient, underwater building. With la tonnara, tuna were ushered through a series of netted chambers, ultimately towards entrapment. With The Fence, people are ushered through a series of steel fenced chambers, out of the city and away from APEC.
It's eerily quiet, save for the constant drone of helicopters patrolling overhead. I feel a little cheated, as we were promised Black Hawks, which are an entirely beautiful if malevolent machine. Instead we get bulbous police helicopters, sprouting with antennae. Yet their ambient drone adds a new note of threat to the city, in streets otherwise bereft of their usual soundtrack.
The atmosphere is a little tense - with that many armed police around, and people being corralled through metal fencing, how could it not be? - but I suspect it's far less tense that it would be in other countries.
Back in sleepy Vaucluse, at the mouth of Sydney's wondrous harbour, I spot a small, grey Australian navy patrol boat, bobbing up and down in the whitecaps off the South Head. Helicopters buzz the cliffs a little more persistently than usual. Yet this seems like an empty show of force. I wander past an old disused gun emplacement - looks circa WWII - with the rusted mount for an anti-aircraft gun, angled towards some imagined enemy approaching from the ocean. Any threat to Sydney now is apparently in the opposite direction, within the harbour, around the Circular Quay where modern Sydney was founded. The defences the city mounts are now internalised, covert, temporary digital or light steel structures. In a week or so, there'll be no trace of them, quite unlike the crumbling chunks of concrete, as if a child's discarded toys, quietly sitting up here on the raw bluff headland.
For more architectural perspective on walls and fences of all descriptions, check Bryan Finoki's excellent blog Subtopia.