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Garden Design

Sydney’s Domain – a new ‘terra nullius’

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

November 29, 2017

The stoush between the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust (RBGDT) and the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) over the Gallery’s significant 28,468 square metre expansion into what is now predominantly Domain territory is a titanic struggle between lovers of art and lovers of green space.

Sydney Modern gallery – extent of project


There are meritorious arguments on both sides. Sydney is clearly lacking in quality display space for modern art, sandwiched as it is style-wise between the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay and the more traditional gallery offerings generally on view at the heritage-listed Art Gallery that sits in the eastern precinct of Sydney’s Domain.

But a recent comment by the NSW Minister for Environment and also for Heritage, Gabrielle Upton, caught my attention and raised my hackles. In typical Upton style she demonstrated her ignorance about the basic tenets of her ministerial portfolios and pejoratively described the area of the Domain where the new Sydney Modern gallery wing will be sited as “under-utilised”, as if this then should obviously decide the matter in the Gallery’s favour.

In fact, that phrase ‘under-utilised’ pops up again and again in the pro Sydney Modern publicity (my bolding added).

There’s this from the AGNSW’s own website:

“Where will the new building be?

The Sydney Modern Project will enhance the underutilised site to the north of the existing Gallery, comprising two grassed concrete platforms – one being the land bridge over the Eastern Distributor and the other being the roof of disused naval oil tanks.”

(Conveniently, no mention at all that it’s mostly RBGDT land)

And this from GML Heritage in its heritage consultant’s report:

“The proposal will result in direct improvements to an underutilised area within the Domain through the activation of spaces using high quality sculptural and landscape elements, the reintroduction of historic planting schemes and the diversification of recreation opportunities within the landscape.”


Under-utilised“? “Activation of spaces“? Why should an open green space be subject to a utility test and need activating? Whatever that means.

It reminds me of two large-scale historical examples of this attitude. Although the comparison may seem hyperbolic, I think they are underpinned by the same assumptions.

First, I thought about Australia in the late 18th century, when the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ was used to justify British settlers confiscation of land from its Aboriginal inhabitants. Being nomadic and showing no sense of either ownership or use of the land according to British sensibilities, Australia’s indigenous inhabitants and their relationship with the land they’d occupied for over 50,000 years were dismissed, and the land deemed to be unoccupied and therefore fair game for colonial taking.

Terra Nullius in Australian History

More presentations from Stentor Danielson


Secondly I thought of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian crisis, created when Palestine was given by the British and French to Jewish Zionists as a homeland. Back in 2002 I was on a tour of Morocco and two of the people on the tour turned out to be (somewhat surprisingly to me) Mexican Jews. Talking to them one day about the issues surrounding Israel, one of them said:

“it was right for the Jews to take that land as the Palestinians were doing nothing with it”.

Without getting into the rights and wrongs of this incredibly complex political situation and its associated human tragedy, her opinion struck me then and still resonates today – that someone has to be ‘doing something’ with land for their continued ownership to be justified.

Fortunately, the Mabo decision of 1992 overturned terra nullius in Australia and locked in indigenous native title rights. Although mining companies still continue to see any open land sitting above desirable minerals as a sort of terra nullius and ripe for exploitation.

Even the commonly used terms ‘undeveloped’ or ‘underdeveloped’ when applied to open land hints at our acceptance that development is the rightful norm and that wilderness, open green space or whatever we could call it instead is just a temporary state awaiting our more positive intervention.

Or even worse, there’s that landscape architecture term ‘negative space’. I know negative is being used like the photography sense but there’s a strong connotation that somehow it’s a bad thing.

I have pondered this disconnect between people and open space. Does it make us uncomfortable? Is it a weird work ethic thing that says everything should have utility, that it’s not enough for it to just ‘be’?

I’ve often seen this reaction play out in the garden, where a landscape designer has intentionally created a beautifully-shaped open area, which we tend to call a ‘void’. It’s very likely that within a year or two, that open space will have a sculpture or a water feature plonked fair in the middle of it. You can try and persuade the garden owner that the space was left there intentionally as a place for them to be in the garden, but it’s usually no use. We have an absolute compulsion to fill anything that looks empty with stuff.

So this open patch of grass with scattered trees and a lovely view of Woolloomooloo Bay that forms part of the Domain and nearby Botanic Gardens is therefore fair game, as Minister Upton sees it. And therefore it’s appropriate for the Art Gallery of NSW and its SSDA (State Significant Development Application) for the Sydney Modern to save this land from its undeveloped, under-utilised state by turning its negative space into a ‘positive’ which can be achieved by siting a building on it. While the architectural drawings of the new gallery show it to be an elegant building, that’s not the point.

Site of the new Sydney Modern building from Art Gallery Road


I’ve read through the landscape plan prepared by McGregor Coxall for the Sydney Modern Project. Although the proposed landscapes surrounding the new building are aesthetically pleasing enough in that typical around-a-large-public-building sort of style, I find it extraordinary that this proposal states that:

“The proposed expansion is consistent with the objects of the RBG Trust under the RBG Act. This is achieved through:
– Maintaining and improving Trust lands and collections of living plant life which will enhance public use and enjoyment of these spaces by:
• The creation of a variety of publicly accessible garden

How can you say that you’re “improving Trust lands” when you’re actually putting a very large building on top of them?

Sydney Modern (Appendix C architectural plans 2017 1 of 3).
The extent of the AGNSW precinct is in red and the new building is outlined in blue.


And this from the Environmental Impact Statement by architectus:

“The reduction in public open space is compensated for qualitatively through improving the biodiversity of the site, improving pedestrian access, and significantly improving quality of landscape spaces and embellishments (e.g. soft landscaping, art commissions and provision of amenities such as seating) within this area and more broadly within and outside of the site.”

The assumptions and the message are clear – if what I want to make is prettier and more ‘done’ looking than what you have now, then I should be allowed to do it.

AGNSW Sydney Modern – an artist’s impression of the ‘activated’ landscaping.


And nowhere in the report’s site analysis (2.3, pp 46-47) does it address the simple open space qualities of the site. We’ve got a list that includes exisiting trees, topography, aspect, views, exisiting footpaths and through-site links, surrounding residential and existing roads and transport but not one mention of just ‘open space’ as an important thing in itself.

Sydney Modern aerial view (Appendix C architectural plans 2017, 1 of 3)


As we know, money speaks in the Emerald City. And the Art Gallery of NSW has many very, very wealthy supporters who have already donated a stupendous amount of money to get this new modern art wing built, including one extraordinary individual donation of $20 million. And the NSW Government has not been backwards either, already guaranteeing $244 million for the Sydney Modern build.

Fortunately the Garden’s Foundation and Friends is no slouch at fundraising either, but I doubt it’s any match for the Gallery. And the Gardens has long been offered up as a sacrificial lamb when it comes to really important things for the city, like buildings and roads. Just look at the horrible scar that was slashed through it by the Eastern Distributor during the late 1950s, forever separating the Domain from the Garden and putting the roar of traffic deep into what was the quietest place in Sydney’s CBD. Part of that was returned to the Domain with a land bridge constructed over the ED in the late 1990s – which the AGNSW now wants to take.

Site of the Sydney Modern that’s now RBGDT open space, created by the land bridge built over the Eastern Distributor


If there were a current Master Plan for the Botanic Gardens and Domain which stated clearly the value of all its open spaces then perhaps it would be better prepared to fend off a land grab like this. But the only ‘current’ plan is one from the 1990s, after a recent draft plan was quietly dropped in response to a public outcry, cheer-led by Paul Keating who seems to think he always knows what’s best for Sydney. (Keating at first opposed the AGNSW expansion but now supports it.) There were several things about that Master Plan with which I didn’t agree but, without it, the Gardens and Domain are left very vulnerable to this form of compulsory land acquisition by its better-funded cultural rival.

Clive Austin, head of the Garden’s Foundation and Friends (F&F) is fighting a good public fight, quite rightly pointing out that every last bit of the Domain is an essential part of Sydney’s green lungs. But we also need to challenge the notion pushed by Minister Upton and the NSW government that open space that’s not used for playing sport or designated activities of any kind is a terra nullius that’s sitting there waiting for an important building to give it a sense of purpose.

But while the F&F fights on, what of the Gardens’ Executive Director Kim Ellis, and the Trust Board? Despite an online search I was unable to find any statement from Ellis defending the Domain from this land acquisition. Or expressing any opinion about it at all. How extraordinary I thought…why is the ED of the Botanic Gardens completely silent on such an important issue for the Gardens and Domain?

On asking Ellis by email for a comment, he replied that Trust Chairman Ken Boundy was the Trust spokesperson on the matter and suggested I might publish this exisiting public statement:

Royal Botanic Garden & Domain Trust Chair Ken Boundy said:

“We will continue to work closely with the NSW Government, the Gallery and other stakeholders to ensure that we achieve the best outcome for the Royal Botanic Garden and Domain.”

Gosh that’s really taking it to the AGNSW! Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud of it. Why is the person in charge of our Gardens not out there in public defending every last square millimetre of them? Isn’t that what you would expect an ED to do?


To my mind, the best defence of this land was summed up beautifully by the CEO of the Foundation and Friends of the RBG, Debbie Mills, who says:

“Just because it isn’t being used doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable”


If you care about Sydney’s Domain and its open space, please make a submission about the Sydney Modern before FRIDAY 15 DECEMBER 2017.

The Foundation and Friends of the SBG advises:

When making a submission we suggest that you simply list your key concerns in the box provided on the electronic form and tick the box that says, ‘object to the proposal’. Our understanding is that we need 25 or more strong objections to the SSDA and the Minister for Planning will then have to consider all the submissions and make a recommendation. Your action will make a difference. Please act now.


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Stephen Read
Stephen Read
6 years ago

Is it an Australian thing to clutter open space? I have found in Europe they go out of their way to maintain open space and where possible reclaim it by removing built clutter.
In Melbourne I still shake my head in dismay at the decision to ‘infill’ the void under the yellow office pods at Southern Cross Station. They were designed to float above the pedestrians and looked wonderfully elegant when that was the case. Now the beautiful void has been cluttered with fast food outlets and a pub.
South Bank is another case in point in Melbourne. It was designed as a wide European style boulevard, now it is cluttered with municipal style pots and planters. Why is open space seen as something uncomfortable where clutter seems to bring us a sence of poupose?

By the way I may be a little bit of a fence sitter on this one, I see the need for both art space and open space. If the development goes ahead at least it won’t be for office buildings or ugly residential developments. I do get your point regarding the lack of respect for open space, however I think on this occasion the use of the term ‘underdeveloped’ is used for similar political reasons as ‘Terra Nullius’. Deep down they know the land use as open space is valuable (just like the English knew Australian was inhabited) it just suits their agenda to say it isn’t.

Katherine Longhurst
Katherine Longhurst
6 years ago

A slightly philosophical thought.
I think there are two fundamentally opposed world views about the natural environment.
One is that the natural environment is a resource to be exploited by humans. The other that it is a habitat and requires conservation.
The AGNSW proposal appears to be an example of the former.

Karen Wilson
6 years ago

The concept of ‘open space’ includes (or should include) views across a landscape. In this case, the proposed building on the land-bridge (which belongs to the RMS, incidentally, not the RBG) would block the beautiful views down Woolloomooloo Bay to the harbour and across to Potts Point that everyone walking across the land-bridge currently enjoy. If the AG plan goes ahead, only those going into that proposed building would get to enjoy the views. Another loss for both locals and tourists.

Susana Devechio
Susana Devechio
6 years ago

Uhhhh! That landscaping pic though!
Why are we STILL being condemned to “ornamental grasses” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one; nothing ornamental about tufts of sun-starved, browning and irregular ‘grasses’ which would look more at home in a pile of hay). Please liberate us from the banal plantings of grasses and grey, silver messes whose only reason for being subjected on to an indifferent public is the fact that they are ‘native’ (as if that is some sort of attribute!).