In Style + Design

Inside Sydney’s Most Distinctive Architectural Sites

Dr Caroline Butler-Bowden of Sydney Living Museums analyses the buildings that make Sydney unique.

What is it that makes Sydney, well, Sydney? We are not a classical city like Paris or Rome. Not quite a sleek financial hub like Hong Kong. We don’t have the ancient treasures of the middle east, or the canal-lined streets of Europe. But we are a distinctive cosmopolitan city with a lifestyle coveted across the globe.

Peel back the layers of history, and you’ll get a sense of who we are. Thousands of years of Aboriginal stewardship mark our land. An early British settlement, giving way to some of the most important civic institutions that stand today, and a post World War II construction boom that lifted the colonial outpost to the international city we know today.

Dr Caroline Butler-Bowden of Sydney Living Museums says “people want to live and work in a layered city”.

A city that cherishes its history, continues to evolve and is quick to adapt and reimagine buildings that no longer stand the test of time. In a recent Culture Urban Futures Summary, the Director-General of UNESCO wrote that tangible and intangible heritage are integral part of a city’s identify, creating a sense of belonging and cohesion.

Butler-Bowden says, “The specific identity of a city, its sense of character and place stems from its heritage – places, buildings, whole streets and quarters of the city that embody past eras and encourages people to consider their place in time.”

Sydney is a diverse, multicultural city – and this year Sydney Living Museum’s Sydney Open will allow residents and visitors to delve into a few of the buildings that mark our cosmopolitan identity.

Tank Stream

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Sydney’s Tank Stream. Photo: Sydney Living Museums/Facebook

A fresh water stream that flowed from today’s Hyde Park into the harbour had long been a source of fresh water, food and resources for the Gadigal people. When Governor Philip sought a place to make his settlement, he noticed the wide-mouth stream, with its waterfalls on what is now Bridge street and decided on Sydney Cove.

Until 1826 the stream became the lifeblood of his colony, until disease and local waste made the water no longer potable. As part of Sydney Open, visitors – by ballot only, the tickets are few – the underground Tank Stream will be on show. Visitors will plumb the underground tunnels to discover the geographical marker of class system in the colonial era. The stream divided the aristocratic side of the city – Macquarie Street, Pitt Street and Government House from the working class areas of the Rocks and Millers Point.

St James’ Church

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St James church, Sydney Image: Wikimedia

St James’ Church on that aristocratic side is known as the City of Sydney’s oldest church. (That is, unless you consider St Philip’s Church York Street, which was twice burnt down before 1848 today’s still-standing structure was built.) St James’s Church, along with Hyde Park Barracks and the General (Rum) Hospital were designed by convict architect Francis Greenway.

The man who descended from a line of architects and builders had been sent to Sydney on account of a forgery, but in 1816 became the city’s first civic architect. Together with Governor Macquarie, he made plans to turn the penal colony into a significant town with public buildings and town squares that would rival London.

Having been appointed as the city’s first architect in 1816, together with Macquarie, he made his plans to turn the penal colony into a significant town with public buildings that would rival London’s. Butler-Bowden explains that these heritage-listed buildings on Macquarie Street give Sydney its distinctive feel.

“They each remain in public ownership, which is extraordinary after 200 years,” she says.

Initially designed as a courthouse, St James’ Church was altered at the last minute – and Greenway added a steeple. The Church’s Bell Tower, which won a National Heritage Trust and the Greenway Award for Heritage architecture when the new peal of eight bells were added to the tower, is on show as part of Sydney Open. As is the church’s crypt, which houses the Children’s Chapel with its low barrel-vaulted ceiling.

Central Station

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Sydney’s Central Station in 1958. Photo: State Archives NSW/Flickr CC

Flash forward a couple of decades, and Sydney’s great timepiece is unveiled. The year was 1921 and public architect Walter Liberty Vernon had just added a 85-metre high clock tower to his 15-platform steel-framed concrete terminus, known as Central Station.

“These clocks matter,” Butler-Bowden says, “they are the time pieces of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

But Central Station existed years earlier. In 1866, the first railway line operated between Sydney’s Cleveland Paddock (between Devonshire and Cleveland Streets) and Parramatta. In 1906, the train’s terminus was moved to the site it now sites on. Entrances and platforms were added from 1926 to 1932, including the 1979 Eastern Suburbs line.

Perhaps unknown to Sydneysiders is the story of platforms 26 and 27 and its adjoining staircases and stationmaster’s office. Built in the 1970s, but never brought into operation, the eerie spaces remain in tact. They are accessible, strictly as part of Sydney Open. Rumour has it voices have been heard at what have been dubbed Sydney’s ‘ghost platforms’.

Australia Square

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Australia Square, Sydney. Photo: WikiMedia

Bauhaus-trained Austrian-born Australian architect Harry Seidler broke architectural ground with Australia Square. The 50-story high round building (contrary to its title) was completed 50 years ago and for nine years stood as Sydney’s highest building.

“I think it radically changed our image of ourselves,” Butler-Bowden says. “It was one of the first really international buildings… It signalled that Sydney had arrived, that Sydney was becoming a global city.”

Seidler brought in international talent for the task, including world-renowned engineer Pier Luigi Nervi who helped him with reinforced concrete structure that – amazingly – only took up 25 per cent of the building’s site. He also brought in artworks by Le Corbusier and Victor Vasarely, placing them in the open transparent lobby until they were replaced with a work by New York artist Sol Le Witt in 2003.

EY Building

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Ground floor exterior of the EY Building Photo: James Horan

While Australia Square’s office blocks were distinctive in its day, Butler-Bowden explains how the buildings in the top end of town are helpful indicators as to who we are now and where we are going. The EY Centre designed by Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp at 200 George Street is a prime example of how work-spaces are changing.

With two overlapping round tower reaching 37 floors, the urban structure has a different feel to those surrounding it – and mostly because of its warm palette. Incorporating timber and stand stone, its golden hues are inviting.

“Where lots of [top-end] buildings are handsome and cool,” says Butler-Bowden. “This one’s warm and inviting.”

(Lead image: USydAbercrombie Building Photo: Brett Boardman Photography, and Sydney’s Tank Stream. Photo: Sydney Living Museums/Facebook (horizontal). 

Published 03 November, 2017