Cloud Arch - Junya Ishigami’s towering sculpture selected by the City of Sydney for George St

There’s a lot to like about Cloud Arch, the giant Junya Ishigami sculpture selected by the City of Sydney to tower over the new pedestrian plaza in George St.

Soaring up to 75 metres, it’s got the scale that’s probably needed if it’s going to deliver on Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s claim that it will change the face of the city centre and shine the international spotlight on Sydney. She says it’s awe-inspiring.

Despite its size, it’s relatively light and graceful. I expect its appearance will change with different viewpoints and in different lighting conditions, both natural and artificial.

I like its simplicity too, which readily lends itself to interpretation; my immediate reaction from the rendering was Casper the friendly ghost or Jessica Rabbitt but there’re many other possibilities, although none of them are especially profound.

Many are worried about the cost (it’s one of three works with a combined cost of circa $9 million). I predict Cloud Arch will end up costing considerably more to construct than the quoted $3.5 million but, given the location, the scale, and the Lord Mayor’s ambition for this work, the capital cost seems a minor concern.

The serious costs and benefits of this work aren’t financial. It has its critics (see here and here) and, while I like the look of it, I have some serious misgivings too.

I worry it will be expensive to keep clean, resulting in the ethereal quality conveyed in the renderings going missing most of the time. I also wonder if it’ll be too thick and over-bearing near ground level. It might need much bigger supports to resist wind loads than the renderings indicate.

A bigger concern, though, is that it doesn’t say or mean much beyond the light-hearted similies currently doing the rounds. After the first one or two sightings, I don’t think it will engage with viewers at an intellectual or emotional level.

It doesn’t address the idea of ‘Sydney’ either. It says nothing substantial about the city’s history, its residents, its character, or its future. There’s no sense of place; it could be anywhere in the world.

While it might be light on its feet for its size, there’s no getting away from the fact that Cloud Arch is big. It will be keeping company with the Opera House and the bridge, two world famous icons, so it needs to be extraordinarily good and it needs to be well-received by Sydneysiders.

While there’s clearly some intention there, the Artist’s Statement reinforces my sense that this work is short on real meaning or significance. He says:

The Cloud evokes comfort, openness and freedom. Through freedom, it is connected to cloud computing which, in turn, links to the quality of ‘Connected City’ so important to Sydney.

The advantage of abstraction and simplicity is it lends itself to the construction of whatever meaning the viewer can construct, or is prompted, to fit. But I seriously doubt that many observers have independently arrived, apriori, at the view Cloud Arch evokes ‘comfort’, ‘openness’ and ‘freedom’.

This is public art and 4.5 million people live in metropolitan Sydney. I expect a very large proportion of them feel the city centre is part of their personal ‘Sydney’. So there needs to be a broadly shared understanding of what any major public work means, as well as a shared acceptance that it’s consequently worth putting such a large structure in such a prominent public place.

And cloud computing? That at least rules out the nephological narrative (which never made a lot of sense). But it’s a pretty lacklustre idea.

Cloud computing is just another incremental technological development, like Twitter or hard disk drives in their day. It’s not so significant or so cool it warrants being celebrated and interpreted in a gigantic, permanent sculpture in the centre of Sydney.

The prominence of Cloud Arch is consistent with the Lord Mayor’s desire to create an international landmark, but does Sydney really need another icon? It’s hardly short on the sort of international landmarks that “shine the international spotlight on Sydney”. It’s already famous for its harbour, Bondi Beach, the Opera House and the Bridge.

And anyway, the odds of a deliberately contrived structure achieving iconic status are extraordinarily slim; just ask Melbourne and a host of other cities around the world that hunger for icons. They’re almost always an unforeseen side-effect of building something with a specific functional purpose.

If the justification for Cloud Arch is to bring art out of the galleries and take it to the masses then it’s already failed (unless Council thinks the unwashed need some “tough love”?). The Sydney Morning Herald’s online poll records just 43% out of 8,662 voters like it (“Yes, it’s beautiful”), while 42% say they don’t (“No, it’s an eyesore”).

If that’s what the Fairfax demographic thinks, I doubt most Sydneysiders are likely to embrace it.

The ultimate question I’d pose is this: why is Cloud Arch even necessary? George St is already a pretty interesting place; it doesn’t need to be “beautified” or “artified”.  It’s got a huge array of buildings of varying sizes and styles; there’re shops and cafes to generate life on the streets; and there’re already lots of people milling and moving about.

It’s about to get a lot better with the removal of buses, the introduction of light rail and the construction of the new pedestrian section. There are many ways urban designers create visually interesting and exciting places using just the functional elements that make up the street.

There’s plenty of scope for whimsy and imagination in the design of components like street furniture, lighting, signs, shelters, landscaping and, from time to time, new or renovated buildings.

Personally, I like the look of Cloud Arch and it could be worse (1). But when it’s all boiled down it’s just a bit of cack-handed marketing that symbolises…well, nothing much really. Sydney is Australia’s premier city and in my opinion should aspire to something more authentic than a giant logo.


  1. It could be a lot worse; for example like the egregious milk crate proposed by Council for Belmore Park. That’s what solidified trite looks like.