Barangaroo: A Reflective Journey Through Nigel Dawe's Legacy

Exploring the visionary behind the name and the evolution of a precinct

Author: Nigel Dawe 

Whilst it’s been 18-years since I won the competition to name East Darling Harbour – Barangaroo, the thrill of getting such an inspiring figure honoured in such a way, is as much a delight and a personal highlight for me today, as it was back then. And to see how impressive the site has become, thanks to the focus and sensitivity of stakeholders like International Towers, who lead the world, not just within the local landscape, but on so many fronts in terms of what you do (like being fully carbon neutral), is just the realisation of a vision I had for this precinct so many years ago, before there was anything here at all, is something so special for me, it is beyond words. The entire site feels in many ways like a child I’ve given up for adoption, that has eventually gone on to win a Nobel Prize, after walking on the moon!
The fact that the historical Barangaroo challenged both gender and racial stereotypes before there was even a remote notion or understanding of such things, is what I find so impressive and extraordinary about this woman. That she wore a bone through her nose (which was a male custom) and once struck a British soldier with a stick, who was whipping a convict; not to mention she also vehemently refused to wear western clothes (even whilst dining at Government House), or assimilate in any way, is testament that she was someone out of the ordinary in every sense. Barangaroo was clearly someone that was never afraid to rock a boat, or tread on toes if she sensed that such a course of ‘action’ was required.
And the fact she was little known or uncelebrated prior to having the site named in her honour in 2006, is something hard to comprehend. I remember thinking back then, that if someone like her could be lost within the twists and turns of history, then what hope do the rest of us have in being remembered in any way?  I now love the fact there are so many industry-leading firms and ‘disruptors’ in International Towers, that it must surely put a smirk on Barangaroo’s heavenly face, when she looks down on what has become of the section of Sydney Harbour that will forever be known in her honour. She’d be approving, I think, of ‘tenants’ that dared to push barriers, lead the way, and just do what they believed in doing, with clear passion, purpose and conviction.
So, to play even just a small part in resurrecting her memory and example, life and legacy is very dear to me (and she more than deserves a screenplay or some type of life story celebration in film). I often joke that I’m little more than a footnote to her and the overall precinct now, but that is totally fine, because it has never been about me in the slightest, it is all about a figure that deserves eternal recognition, for who she was, what she stood for, and most importantly – what she represents for countless generations to come. That she will forever be a celebrated part of the very fabric of Sydney harbour, is a fitting tribute to such a remarkable woman. I mentioned in my original submission that ‘her proud, restless, selfless spirit still wanders the site.” And this is a sentiment I still hold dear, and even reflected upon recently when I walked the entire length of the development with my daughter Alina (for the first time, because I now live in Grafton) but you sense, or hope, in some way that Barangaroo would be pleased by the course and form the rejuvenation of the entire site has taken, a site she knew intimately over the course of her own life as a fisherwoman and resident of Sydney Harbour. She also very admirably looked after children of parents who had died of smallpox, before passing away herself, as a
result of complications of childbirth.
Throughout my beautiful walk with my daughter, who I hope will one day look back upon it as a very intimate moment that we shared, I kept reflecting on a comment by the American Indian, Chief Seattle, who once said, “Take only memories, leave only footprints.” And of course, needless to say – each of us are only here for such a fleetingly short while, and how place and the places we find ourselves in, so utterly embrace, embellish and provide each one of us the ultimate stage and backdrop to live our lives. I also thought how wonderful it was to be able to actually name a section of my country’s biggest city, in this day and age, when just about every square metre of the world has been mapped, measured and recorded…it just wouldn’t, or couldn’t happen you’d imagine, in a Paris, a New York or Rome.
One of my dominant and fondest recollections of the whole experience of naming the site (that came full circle recently) was sitting at Circular Quay the night before the announcement back in 2006. I was out the front of the MCA for at least an hour reflecting and projecting my thoughts to Barangaroo’s spirit via the sails of the Opera House. More or less trying to make peace with her and somehow seek her forgiveness should my goal of naming the site in her honour, not come to fruition.  So, to see her image emblazoned on the Opera House a few weeks ago for Australia Day was something so special and personal for me, and one that reiterates the fact that there is no linear or predictable sequence as to how genuine regard for someone or something, can utterly manifest or convert itself from an idea or a simple vision, into a tangible reality.
Also, each time I venture to Sydney now, which isn’t all that often these days, I make a point of factoring in a visit, albeit a pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Church in the Rocks. Where there is a wonderful bronze statue of Barangaroo in the forecourt, which I always spend some quiet time reflecting and ‘checking in’ with her, and to express my gratitude for the connection between us, and how our paths so improbably crossed, in such a meaningful and intangible way (factoring in the two centuries between us). 
Never far from my mind is also a quote by the Belgian theorist, Georges Poulet (which I referenced and referred to very often during the early stages of the actual naming competition, keeping in mind it was one of 1,600 overall suggestions, that got shortlisted to a final six) he once said, “Without places beings would be merely abstractions, it is places that make their image precise.” And I think this is so apt when it comes to Barangaroo, and how the precinct-jewel in Sydney Harbour’s crown is now fittingly named in her honour. I’m always quite moved when I hear people say they can’t imagine the site being called anything else.
I now happily reside in Grafton in far north NSW as an AFL Development Officer, Swim teacher, as well as write a weekly column for my regional newspaper, The Northern Rivers Times, which I’ve been doing for the last three years, concentrating on topics related to mental health, the arts and culture, community development and social wellbeing.
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