In Synecdoche, New York, Caden Cotard, a playwright, builds a 1:1 model of New York inside a warehouse, populates it, and tries to simultaneously portray and preempt reality. From the water-coated glass ceiling’s perennial suggestion of rainy weather to the interior foliage undulating in a non-existent breeze, Central Park is Sydney’s answer to this: a microcosmic and fictionalised vision of Sydney within four walls and a roof.
Externally, the building is innocuous: right angles, solar panels, and creeping greenery all having become baseline expectations of contemporary building developments. Like a geode or Kinder Surprise egg, it is in the interior — demarcated into levels like those of a video game — where things get interesting.
Levels ground and one are unremarkable, excepting the former’s bemusing literal interpretation of the word “pedestrian” in clustering shoe stores by the street level entrance. The food courts on lower ground and level two respectively are bizarre in their diametric opposition; the former Dining District suggesting a Sydney in which children are regularly sent to fight to the death in a state-sanctioned arena event.
The latter Central Kitchen is also oddly named; a domestic pastiche of the dining rooms of Sydney’s nonchalantly trendy, an exercise in copying and pasting wire legged barstools, timber tabletops, and coloured pendant lamps ad nauseam.
Level three — rather, l3. Central — is where the building most valiantly attempts and fails to accord some degree of authenticity to its self-conscious alternative reality.
On chalkboards, visitors follow mundane directives like “My favourite word” or “My life in four frames” (alongside the curiously existential “Who am I fighting?”). The result, predictably, is some bastardisation of a Basquiat, where trite Facebook status fodder like “Live your dreams and don’t dream your life” floats in a sea of phalluses and block print expletives.
There is nothing to suggest the Sydney that the building’s designers have attempted to capture: like the exterior, the level could be replicated elsewhere and blend right in, for all its lack of distinctive character.
This amorphousness is reflected in the building’s many mirrors, ostensibly installed to give the illusion of scale but to questionable success: in a space as streamlined and sanitised as Central Park, what is gained by reflecting emptiness, beyond more emptiness and the reflection of a solo shopper?
As a piece of design this is telling: the measure of contemporary architecture is how well it photographs, or how good one may imagine themselves to look within it.
While Caden’s New York idealised the real city in existence beyond its walls, Central Park is a sharp-edged utopic dream vision of Sydney, which like contemporary architecture is a sleek, green, and eminently photographable departure from reality.
From whose dream does this emerge? Who dreams in fragmented, half-loaded video game levels, in reflections and fake plants and infinite emptiness? Whose dream is this, and how do we wake?