Sydney’s Urban Islands

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For many Sydney siders, Cockatoo Island is something of an enigma. It sits at the edge of the city, a relic of our industrial and colonial past, though many of us have never had a reason to go there. However, in recent years, renewed as a venue for art exhibitions and music festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties, Cockatoo Island has gradually worked its way back into the collective consciousness. Part of this program of renewal has been Urban Islands, a two week intensive studio for architecture students across Sydney’s major universities, as well as interstate and a few international participants, now in its third consecutive year. The aim of the studio is to consider a new way of thinking about the urban condition, notions of density and what it means to be a city dweller in the context of Sydney and the microcosm of Cockatoo Island.

Having never been to the island, I was surprised by what we discovered there. Desolate and windswept, and with a population of rather malignant seagulls, the island is a wonderland of cavernous turbine halls and slowly corroding machinery which has lain dormant for decades. Karin and Mette, our tutors from CITA in Copenhagen, presented us with a somewhat perplexing brief – if the city is about the exterior, what is the interior of the urban condition? How do we perceive interiority? From this basis, we were to work with textile logic to create automated spatial artworks to be installed on the island.

As we explored the island in search of a site, my group, comprising two students from UNSW, one from Sydney University and one from UTS, was particularly intrigued by the details of industrial decay. These once functional, hard working buildings, some of them dating from convict days, are now fragile, laced with rust and spider webs. They no longer define the exterior in the same way, and no longer protected the interior. The conditions we usually associate with the interior, fragility, protection and temporarily, now belong to the exterior. A concept was born. Through the use of stepper motors, we would create a delicate web of self-destructing fabric, a life-size incarnation of decay and the fragile nature of the interior.

Our installation was constructed of two layers of silk organza, laser cut to create an organic web-like structure, to which we attached fishing line ‘tendons’ which would connect to the motors and gradually pull itself apart. To add a further level of complexity, the webs were sewn through with conductive thread, so that as the two webs of fabric broke apart and touched one another, they would trigger the motors to move faster, speeding up the process of decay.

This was all very well in theory, but after two weeks of 14 hour days of pattern-making, prototyping, laser cutting and intensive sewing, I was beginning to feel like a sweatshop worker. Our trips to Cockatoo Island for testing were equally arduous, with driving wind, ice cold hours in the convict hall, and evil seagulls that screeched and waddled through the doors at nightfall, glaring at us like something devised by Alfred Hitchcock. However, as we suspended the delicate webs in the old industrial hall, the installation began to take on a life of its own – a creature inhabiting a long abandoned space, that lived and breathed within the convict built walls of the Island. As we connected the motors and watched the webs stretch and expand, I felt a tug of fondness for our creature, but just as it had for Cockatoo Island, it was time to let nature take its course.

As the various tutors, students, critics and spectators filed into the convict hall, I was pleasantly surprised by the response. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath, and each snap of the fabric elicited a few gasps. People were approaching the installation, walking underneath, one child reaching out to touch it quickly before running away. It seemed as though our fragile, ethereal creature was captivating the crowd in its fleeting moment of life, much like the Island itself. But, despite the industrial decay and the passing of ship building into history, the renewal of Cockatoo Island is creating new links with the city, a reminder of the past which is slowly reintegrating itself into the urban reality of the future.