23  April 2013 —Following are selected extracts from a new book, Public Sydney: drawing the city,  by Philip Thalis and Peter John Cantrill

Sydney has its own touch, feel and distinctive patina, the dialogue between material, wear and time. The early town was marked by a paucity of architecture. Twenty-five years elapsed between the town’s founding and the unanticipated appearance of the first architect of any substance, the transported convict Francis Greenway. Until then the few prominent buildings and places, predominantly utilitarian in character, had been built by an assortment of brickmakers, surveyors or military officers, or as adaptations out of architectural pattern books brought from England.

Sydney up until that time had been made of wattle and daub, sandstock and mud brick, crushed-shell mortars and lime wash recycled from middens, thatch and shingles, the travails of various timbers too hard or too soft. From the outset, fragile materials abounded, including the canvas walls of the first governor’s prefabricated house. Shelter was the driving need, imperfectly achieved. The ground plane, mainly beaten earth which turned to mud in the rain, was given a semblance of definition and durability by stone details at edges and watercourses.

Early construction was strictly constrained by the materials and lack of available skilled labour. Not until Governor Macquarie arrived in 1810 did such impermanence begin to give way to greater ambition, as materials were sourced and detailed for their durability and architectural qualities.

Public elements need robustness, to be capable of resisting frequent, sometimes hostile and unintended use. Materials need to maintain their integrity over time, and this influences substance, scale, detail and construction techniques. Such factors distinguish public buildings from the more prevalent residential and commercial buildings, which tend to be less subject to prolonged intensity of use. Cities become particularly associated with certain distinctive materials: for instance, Paris with limestone, New York with brick and brownstone, Venice with stucco and Istrian limestone, or Jaipur with pink sandstone and render.

Engine St, Haymarket

Sydney’s foremost material for public works has been the very fabric of the site itself – golden sandstone. Its bedrock has been cut, blasted, drilled, bored and figured. Sandstone was extracted first from The Rocks, Bennelong Point, the slopes of Observatory Hill and Walsh Bay, later from quarries at Pyrmont (the glorious yellowblock ) and suburban quarries at places such as Bondi, Woollahra and Maroubra (whiter stone). Today it is garnered from further afield. This signature material was employed for architectural facades, walls, kerbs and monuments, and sometimes left exposed as brute cuts in the bedrock, for example in Pottinger Street and Hickson Road in Walsh Bay. While its use was somewhat marginalised during the middle decades of the 20th century, its pre-eminence was reinstated in the 1980s when the Public Works Department began its sandstone restoration program, and given further impetus in the 1990s when Richard Johnson and DCM designed the majestic facade of the Museum of Sydney.

Many other types of stone have also been sourced, including various granites and marbles. Trachyte, brown-grey and very hard, was widely used for kerbstones and the bases of buildings. Versatile slate provided many a hard-wearing threshold or roof. The speckled whitish Moruya granite distinguishes the Martin Place Cenotaph and Harbour Bridge pylons. Other types of masonry were employed, exuding a quiet monumentality – the unadorned and unpainted render of the Harbour Bridge’s approaches, and in situ concrete in the vaults of the bridge and City Circle railway. Precast concrete was prevalent in the decades after 1960 as a contemporary refrain and complement to sandstone. Reconstituted stones adorn the Anzac Memorial, while terracotta was used in glazed tiles at Wynyard’s Railway House and in natural tone at the original New Belmore Markets, recycled in the Capitol Theatre.

Red brick was used extensively around Macquarie’s time, alongside and in place of rendered and whitewashed walls. Early clay deposits were extracted from the area known as Brickfield Hill, on the slopes around Liverpool Street. Surprisingly, in later periods face brickwork was limited to more utilitarian public structures – markets and the shore sheds of wharves – despite its being the pre-eminent material across other building types. The engineering brickwork in Central’s railway yards and retaining walls is particularly precise and robust.

Unique Australian timbers were also widely employed, including turpentine, tallowwood, grey ironbark, red gum, blue gum, red cedar and mahogany. The great wharves and jetties that projected around the city’s foreshores were built of native hardwoods. Woolloomooloo Wharf, perhaps the greatest timber structure ever erected, was the work of the Sydney Harbour Trust’s chief engineer Henry Deane Walsh.

Circular Quay

As Walsh explained: “This preference for timber construction becomes evident as soon as the excellence of the material and the prime cost of construction are considered. In no other part of the world is to be found so plentiful a supply of good and suitable hardwood as in the forests of Australia … as long as the timber supply is available, wharf construction is more rapid, cheaper and more adaptable than under any other system”. In the streets carrying the most traffic, miles of woodblock paving guaranteed a stable, hard-wearing and dust-free base for decades at a time. Sydney’s first train line was initially specified with timber rails, and many a tram track was seated on hardwood sleepers. The architectural use of timber found strong expression in ecclesiastical ceilings. Even the ordinary weatherboard made a surprise appearance as the cladding for the Parliamentary Chambers. Contemporary instances include The Mint’s adjustable timber louvre blades and the recycled-timber screen in the foyer of the Sydney Theatre.1

Metals, including iron (the facade of Parliament) and steel and stainless steel (the Museum of Sydney and Commonwealth Courts), were used for structural spans, framing, canopies, windows and doors. Copper sheathed the domed wonders of the Lands Department building and the roofs of the QVB. Lead and zinc formed overflashings and bronze graced the doors of the Mitchell Library and Opera House.

Glass, now usually associated with light and views, was often used for colour and expression. Stained glass adorns the interior dome of the QVB and fine windows of St Mary’s, while dichroic glass illuminates the Australian Museum’s latest facade. Some buildings are predominantly glass, such as the various greenhouses in the Royal Botanic Garden.

Sumptuous floors of terrazzo and inlaid marble adorn the Mitchell Library’s foyer and St Mary’s crypt, and the distinctive Borenore marble lines the internal walls of Central Station. However, many public interiors use materials common to all building types, such as render, plaster, paint, metal sheets, wood panelling and joinery, fiberglass and plastics.

New technologies have constantly been introduced: prefabricated iron buildings imported in the 1840s for the Parliament House wing and the coining factory at the Mint; the lifts for horses and carts at the QVB; the glass lifts at Customs House, which show not only their own workings but also reveal the layers of the building’s history; the swinging turntable of Pyrmont Bridge; the heroic arch of the Harbour Bridge; and the vaults of the Opera House.

King Street

The ground plane, beyond today’s ubiquitous asphalts and concrete slabs, also has an assortment of trachyte, sandstone, bluestone, occasional granite for street kerbs, and surviving griddles of refracting pavement lights. The new footpath currency of bluestone, Austral black and Austral verde granite was introduced during the 1990s in the lead-up to the Olympic Games to bring quality and cohesiveness. Other distinctive paving includes the precast granite slabs of the Opera House boardwalks, the granite sets and slabs of its forecourt, and the pink-pigmented promenades of Hyde Park. Industrial brick paving endures at Sydney Hospital, while Macquarie Street and parts of Circular Quay were given Bowral Blue brick footpaths for the Bicentenary. Grass, gravels, groundcovers and beds of flowers surface the parks. Water sheets the floor of the Pool of Remembrance at Hyde Park and the terrace of Cook and Phillip Park, or issues in delicate spiralling swirls, trickles and sprays from Robert Woodward’s fountains.

Sydney’s signature trees include the dominant figs: the endemic Port Jackson, the sprawling Moreton Bay and the mutated Ficus hillii. Araucaria and kauri pines, brushbox, paperbarks, jacarandas, eucalypts, various slender-silhouetted palms, and remnant angophoras such as those along the Tarpeian Way, sway towards the Opera House in the nor’easter. Deciduous species including plane trees and poplars, introduced as street trees since the 1970s, are the result of a concerted initiative to green the city.

Reacting to time and the elements, materials speak to all the senses, as discussed by Juhani Pallasmaa in Encounters. De Solà-Morales considers the tactile qualities of materials to be particularly present: “The urban nature of urban materials also lies in the sense of touch. Even more than in sight, perhaps. In public space, personal experience, the route and comfort are fundamental. Walking on a hard or soft surface, stone or sand, on corrugated or slippery ground brings about different sorts of contact between body and brain … If by means of sight we understand shaping, size and setting, by touch we experience identity, treatment and character.”2

Firm physical being is overlaid by the ephemeral play of the elements. The sharp slice of sunlight, shade, shadow and wind animate the city afresh each day. The glow and pulses of night lights bring their own ethereal qualities.

Yet the city’s character is not simply defined as an inventory of typical materials. The telling questions are how they are used, what scale they give, what character they proclaim, what patina they attract, their ubiquity or exceptional qualities. The craft in the assembling of materials durably is intrinsic to architecture, engineering and landscape.3 Making involving technical skill, or with innovative technological means, creates an authenticity emblematic of its period.

In its making and conception the Opera House is supreme. Utzon introduced a whole order of construction and a unique palette of forms, materials and colours. Rising from its massive masonry podium, its glazed ceramic tiled shells, placed on concrete ribs both precast and poured in situ, are unsurpassed in their qualities.

Revival, conservation or disposal

Sussex Street at market

In the late 20th century the monumental sandstone public buildings designed as the administrative offices of the former century also became underused and, as bureaucracies moved into the new towers, leased modern private buildings or decentralised to suburban centres, some were privatised. The Treasury, its physical fabric largely conserved, was leased to an international hotel chain and its partial courtyard was finally completed as an enclosed and heavily decorated atrium bar. The GPO was also disposed of to become a hotel and underwent a similar fate. Expert conservation works included making a giant indoor public room with hotel functions.

Disguising changed function and ownership by conserving an apparent consistency of style, conventional conservation practice blurred the distinction between public and private. Former public buildings, with their emphasis on permanence, now housed ephemeral functions. This produced a jarring effect and public disquiet.

In opposition to this, the council’s Living City policy encouraged the creation of new public places within private projects. The exemplary City Recital Hall at Angel Place, designed by Andrew Andersons of PTW, opened in 1999.

Public ownership of other public buildings was maintained, while some of their internal spaces were made more accessible with a range of new public uses and others were rented to public and private institutions. One such conversion is Customs House, with its public library and exhibition and function areas, its character re-formed by elements of transparency, openness and accessibility. The conversion of the Chief Secretary’s Building for the Industrial Commission by the Government Architect removed meanly partitioned offices from its original grand rooms to re-establish their presence and make them more publicly accessible as courts and hearing rooms.4

As public cultural collections and demand to see them grew, other public buildings were often painstakingly conserved to remove inappropriate accretions and reconstruct damaged parts. Sympathetic additions and changes of use have extended the life of many of Sydney’s public buildings.

The Historic Houses Trust operates the Museum of Sydney on the site of first Government House, providing a new square on to Bridge Street complete with a public sculpture to celebrate the occupation of the area by the original inhabitants. The Trust inherited control of the Hyde Park Barracks from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and converted it into a museum of its own history. Accretions were removed and the reconstruction and interpretation of the original building continues. In 2012 the timber-clad domes of the guardhouses at the entry were reconstructed. Nearby, at the former south wing of the General Hospital, which became the Sydney Branch of the Royal Mint and is now the Trust’s headquarters, conservation work was accompanied by the contemporary additions, designed by FJMT, of a small public room, courtyard and foyer to replace the earlier lost project, with unashamedly new geometry, materials and character. The Justice and Police Museum, and Government House, both largely intact and carefully conserved with little intervention by the Government Architect’s Branch in the 1980s, are also managed by the Historic Houses Trust.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Australian Museum have had a series of additions that have realised and extended the initial ambition for these buildings, and they will undoubtedly continue to expand in the future. The Art Gallery’s relatively unconstrained site allowed an undisciplined expansion that resulted in an agglomeration of differing characters and materials behind the earlier unified front. On a more confined site, the Australian Museum has now fulfilled Barnet’s ambition. However, the absence of generous courtyards and consequent lack of natural light have made the interior dull and disorienting.

The city and state continue to maintain most of Sydney’s public buildings. Conservation plans are made, their fabric is conserved and new fabric added sympathetically to distinguish the old from the new. Closely following original architect William Wardell’s plans of 1865, the Government Architect’s Office in the year 2000 added new ornamental sandstone spires to St Mary’s Cathedral. In 2011 architects Design 5 reclad the spire of St James’ Church in copper, with minor variation from the previous rendition to improve water shedding. In a thorough and exacting process the Sydney Town Hall has also been conserved.5 Elsewhere additions are made with a more strongly differentiated modernising character. The Art Gallery and the east wing of the Australian Museum have new additions by architects JPW, both with thin, shiny glass and metal to contrast with the massive light-absorbing sandstone.

These choices between old and new, between conservation and renewal, are always contested. Each building’s history shows that such choices are best made with a deep consideration of the circumstances, rather than in ignorance of the building’s past or too strictly in accordance with independently predetermined methodologies. Neither nostalgia for the past nor a romantic desire for the future should determine how public buildings should be made or remade.

View to Harbour Bridge

The face of the city

In the 20th century the city built two unsurpassed monuments – the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge – that live in the collective memories of its residents, visitors and virtual observers. The Sydney Opera House, Sydney’s pre-eminent public building, redefined the city’s relationship to the water. Australia’s best known public work, it is a major project of world-acclaimed Danish architect Jørn Utzon, whose design won an international competition. It is the only public building in Sydney consistently found in the annals of world architecture. Also on a world scale, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a major work of early-20th-century engineering. Like a modern-day Colossus it straddles Sydney Harbour and unites its northern and southern shores.

Whenever one conjures an image of Sydney, it is the vast and picturesque harbour with its bays and tributaries glistening in the sunlight that first comes to mind. However, not only its geography and climate but also its public buildings and works are unique and character defining.

The forms of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge are geometric and their construction enduring. The bridge, a massive arch of steel that sits on giant pin-joints, framed by stone-clad towers and emphatic abutments on the harbour headlands, was for many years the tallest construction in the city and remains its largest made object, an engineering triumph. The subtle counter tangent curves at each end transform the singular arc into part of a seemingly infinite curve that is live, with the horizon as its asymptote. The Opera House, a unique composition of geometric form beyond anything previously proposed, has a masonry base that is seemingly an extension of the adjacent cut-sandstone headland. It is topped by tiled segments of a spherical surface, like pairs of rotated pointed arches, gathered in overlapping lines. These shelter vast interiors.

The surfaces of these structures catch the light with brilliance. The bridge’s muted grey paint is flecked with micaceous oxide paint that sparkles silver in the light at the beginning and end of the day. From the heads of the harbour at dawn, the white ceramic tiles of the Opera House – in two glazes, one reflective, one dull – shimmer in the sunrise. At dusk they glow golden, clearly visible from the Blue Mountains to the west, and to those approaching by plane over the national parks to the city’s north and south. At this time of day the skeletal shadow of the bridge is cast cold blue on the warm range of the shells.

This pair of monuments has come to represent not only the city but also, more abstractly, the practical sciences and intangible arts, a dialectic common in modern society. These structures are the settings for some of the city’s most important political and social events – the visit of Nelson Mandela, the Walk for Reconciliation, the Bicentennial celebrations, outdoor concerts, marathons and triathlons. As part of New Year’s Eve celebrations, fireworks burst above the foreshore to the south, north, east and west, transforming the waters of the harbour into a stage, its backdrop the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, each supporting displays of light and fire. The two structures have given new form to Sydney Cove, Sydney’s origin, exploding its locus across the harbour to the northern shore.

Association with these special events, and the intensity of everyday use – as thousands visit the Opera House for a performance, a drink or a stroll, or cross the bridge, travelling to and from work or for recreation – render the beauty of the Opera House and bridge beyond the visual. Together they are Sydney.

Into the future

In the first half of the 21st century many projects are under consideration to further elaborate the public space of the city. As always, some have been halted temporarily, others are considered too ambitious and a few are proceeding with enthusiasm. Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s City of Sydney policy Sydney 2030 proposes that streets be returned to pedestrians, cyclists and trams (light rail) and that local energy production be reintroduced. The City Council continues to propose the remaking of Circular Quay and the surrounds of Central Railway Station, while advancing its decades-long project to create a new square opposite the Town Hall on George Street. Implementing this policy will require cooperation between local, state and federal governments. The state government continues a program of leasing and selling large areas of public land to promote new private development. Inevitably it will need to extend the underground railway. An ever-expanding number of annual events, such as the Festival of Sydney, Vivid Sydney and the New Year’s Eve celebrations, continue to increase in popularity and occupy the city’s public spaces to capacity.

As society’s diversity and complexity grow, public institutions will continue to require new spaces. While some institutions may decline or become obsolete, new ones will be created and need to be housed. More public space will be required as patronage of public transport rises and employment and residential populations grow, demanding further accommodation. The pressure of private space will continue to exert itself on the public, claiming privilege and seeking to alienate, taking advantage of any public waste or misuse, perceived or real.

The making and remaking of public space is a valued and contested task. Solutions are not to be found in history. Yet the placement and purpose of public projects are prefigured by history, a history that gives an appreciation of the struggles to claim, make and maintain public works and provides a sense of purpose in approaching the future, not with a naive fascination for the new or the old but with an ever deeper appreciation of the possibilities of the present. Forming public Sydney is an elaborate work that must continue with fresh optimism.

Extracts taken from Public Sydney: drawing the city, written by Philip Thalis and Peter John Cantrill and co-published by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW and Content, the journal of the Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales. It is sponsored by the City of Sydney and the Historic Houses Trust Members, with input and support from the Government Architect’s Office New South Wales.

1 For the use of red cedar, see J McPhee (ed), Red cedar in Australia, Historic Houses Trust, Sydney, 2004. Woolloomooloo Wharf has a composite hardwood structure, with steel beams and connectors; much of the wharf’s fabric was sacrificed in the 1990s commercially driven adaptation, see H D Walsh, ‘Notes on wharf construction, Sydney Harbour’, paper delivered to the Engineering Section of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 18 July 1906, Journal and proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, for 1906, vol 40. For woodblock paving, see D Fraser (ed), Sydney: from settlement to city, Engineers Australia, Sydney, 1989, pp48–51; Fraser estimated that about 30 miles (50 km) of the city’s streets were paved in woodblocks, comprising approximately one million blocks.

2 See J Pallasmaa, ‘Encounters: architectural essays’, in P MacKeith (ed), Archipelago: essays in architecture, Rakennusieto Oy, Helsinki, 2005. De Solà-Morales, in M Anglès, In favour of public space: ten years of the European Prize for Urban Public Space, Actar, Barcelona, 2010.

3 See K Frampton, Studies in tectonic culture, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995.

4 The conversion was carried out by the Government Architect Heritage Group under Bruce Pettman.

5 The Sydney Town Hall was given a new roof covering of solar panels by Tanner Associates and its antique Council Chamber was supplied with new furniture and electronic communication systems by Tzannes Associates.

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  1. This is a beautiful book – definitely the thinking person’s guide to Sydney. To understand the dynamics of a city is to understand the politics, and by understanding – participate.
    Well done all involved in its making and distribution.