2013

A rich culture that comes alive in public spaces

Robin McHugh 

A long awaited book looks behind surfaces of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, from the tops of their arcs to their underground footings which cut through colonial and Indigenous sites. The book, Public Sydney: Drawing the City, goes on to explore around 100 other Sydney places in depth.

Award-winning local architects Philip Thalis and Peter John Cantrill put together the art and history book after leaving academic careers.

“It was a mammoth effort from a lot of hands,” said Alec Tzannes, Dean of the Faculty of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales, whose journal Content co-published Public Sydney: Drawing the City.

He says the book is a resource for everybody who is interested in Sydney, from practising designers to city administrators, students and culture vultures. Public places are the theme – parks, roads, art galleries and concert halls, train stations and courthouses.

Ten years worth of measured drawings by Mr Thalis’ and Mr Cantrill’s students from University of Technology Sydney and other institutions formed the book’s starting point, although the authors didn’t realise it at the time. Peter Mould, former NSW Government Architect, prompted the authors to use the storehouse of knowledge, and they spent three years shaping it.

 An early view of the market building in the Haymarket precinct (above).

An early view of the market building in the Haymarket precinct (above).

The Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, now called Sydney Living Museums, jointly published the book. Assistant Director Caroline Butler-Bowdon describes Public Sydney: Drawing the City as “an ambitious project”. “Really important projects like this come along once in a great while,” she says.

Fifty architects redrew the pictures, all on the same scale so readers can compare like with like. Maps are oriented to the same direction, and colour photographs were assembled. Mr Thalis says their undertaking was “somewhat obsessive.”

A series of drawings shows places like Customs House whose facade and site plan changed over time. The authors outline how architects and engineers added layers, wings, and stories on top of stories.

Praise is given where the authors feel it is due, and they name some mistakes made by past officials and individuals. They talk about colonial architects James Barnet and Walter Liberty Vernon, who lived in the 1800s, with warmth and familiarity as if they were old friends.

Ten writers including landscape experts, historians, and Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, contributed to the book.

“There are lots of heroes and villains in the story of Sydney’s development. Sandstone is one of the heroes of the story – it’s the city’s signature material,” Mr Thalis says.

Along the harbour, sea walls were built from sandstone blocks stacked in the water. Lawrence Nield, Chair of the Heritage Council, wrote a chapter called ‘The Squaring of Circular Quay’. Lisa Murray, the City of Sydney historian, wrote a chapter about the City Architect, whose offices produced gems like the Queen Victoria Building.

All the fine detail of the Queen Victoria Building, a late nineteenth-century building designed by the architect George McRae, is revealed in this photograph (top).

All the fine detail of the Queen Victoria Building, a late nineteenth-century building designed by the architect George McRae, is revealed in this photograph (top).

But Mr Cantrill and Mr Thalis are adamant that Public Sydney: Drawing the City is not a conservationist’s bible.  They say the drawings in the book do not glorify the past or present, so viewers can bring their own interpretations. The striking black and white drawings are included in ‘plan’ view (like a map), ‘elevation’ or façade view, and ‘section’, showing cross-sections of interiors.

Drawings of places that are no longer there involved an “immense research effort”, he says. Archives at the City of Sydney, and the State Library, and NSW State Records, and individual architect’s files were consulted.

The drawings may be non-judgemental but the authors have some favourite places. Mr Thalis said Barnet’s Lands Department building on Bridge Street is “perhaps the finest 19th century building in Sydney, skilfully adapted to the sloped ground and skewed streets”.

The authors show the evolution of Martin Place. It started small, then some buildings were demolished. People called on governments to extend the public space, and block by block the place morphed into a square where former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations was watched by a large gathering of people.

They want people to be inspired by Joern Utzon’s “gift to the city”, the Sydney Opera House. They give unfavourite examples too. “The Australian Museum has the most miserable entry of any public building in Sydney,” Mr Thalis says.

The acclaimed photographer Max Dupain documented the construction of the Sydney Opera House. The beauty of its internal structure is shown in this Dupain image.

The acclaimed photographer Max Dupain documented the construction of the Sydney Opera House. The beauty of its internal structure is shown in this Dupain image.

Archaeologists, museum curators and historians have unearthed details of Sydney’s origins in recent decades and Public Sydney distils this knowledge.  Private properties are not included, and the authors restricted their study to the geographical area delineated by Governor Philip in the 1700s, which followed ridges, creeks, coves and points in what is today central Sydney.

Mr Cantrill, of Tzannes Associates Architects, and Mr Thalis, of Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects, have won a cache of awards and professional competitions, separately and together. As designers they are oriented toward the future. Mr Cantrill says the book is “anti-nostalgia” and shows that change is constant. “Change is usually for the better,” he says.

Dr Butler-Bowdon says, “The book makes an argument that Sydney has a rich culture that comes alive in our public spaces and meeting places. That’s what we try to bring to life in the exhibition at Museum of Sydney which runs parallel to the book.”

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