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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Sydney Since World War I

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A building that can't make up it's mind: this is the Astor, built 1922-23 and facing the botanical garden. Graham Jahn in Sydney Architecture calls it the "grande dame of elegant highrise apartment living in Sydney." He must be thinking about how the building was equipped from the get-go with a convenience store, a patisserie, a liquor store, florist, hairdresser, and (how glamorous!) a basement restaurant. And "can't make up its mind"? Well, the lines are generally sleek, but then there's the cornice and columns up top, not to mention the floating pediments on the fifth floor. The architect just wasn't ready to cut the neoclassical cord--or somebody told him not to.

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Out at Potts Point, the suburb just to the east, architects and clients were more daring. The proof is here in Kingclere, built a decade before the Astor. Jahn calls it the local "matriarch" and Sydney's first "Manhattan style" apartment block. That may not be a compliment, and it's true that there's far less lightness here than in the Astor. Still, the ornament so dear to the Victorians and Edwardians has been stripped off completely. A cost-saving measure? Not a prayer: the apartments each had four bedrooms and measured about 1,650 square feet--big for the time. That's not all. The building was the work of Sir Alexis Albert, a mover and shaker in the Australian music business, and the building was full of musical celebrities. Anything old fashioned about the place? Well, for one thing, there's no garage. For another, the apartments were rented until the 1990s, when they finally got with the program and were sold off individually--Manhattan condo style.

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Side view of Kingclere: the double-hung windows may be boring, but at least they open. Count your blessings.

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This is Cahors, also from just before the war and also at Potts Point. The chevrons up top, like the curved, blue-tile entrance, raise a question about whether Art Deco looked forward or--in its fascination with ornament--back.

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Here's a more subdued Deco. It's the Macleay-Regis, according to Jahn the "last great apartment building completed before World War II." Yes, indeed, those are private garages.

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Office buildings were equally quick to bid adieu to the 19th century. This is the Wyoming Building, opened in 1911 close to the Astor apartment block, but the Wyoming was not apartments: it was doctor's offices.

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Eek! Meet the Grace Building of 1930, echoing the famous Chicago Tribune Tower of a few years earlier. The name Grace comes from the department-store chain of that name. The company operated a store on the ground floor but from the beginning planned to lease the upper floors to whomever paid the rent. Exotic tenants eventually came, especially when the building was requisitioned as General MacArthur's Pacific headquarters. Since 1997 the upper floors have been a hotel, the Grace Sydney, owned by the Low Yat Group, from Malaysia.

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Skyscraper Gothic, it's been called. This was the home of the Sun, an afternoon paper that survived until the 1980s. Presumably the globe on the roof symbolized the paper's claim to report news of the world. The building is now the GIO Building, named for the Australian insurer of that name, originally the Government Insurance Office; it also houses law offices.

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Away with perpendicular Gothic! Here's the former City Mutual Life, built in 1934-6 not only with fins up top but with windows arrayed in Art Deco chevrons--in this case functional, allowing better views and control of sunlight. This was Sydney's first office building to be fully air-conditioned. The Kyko group refurbished the building in 2006, then subdivided and sold it floor by floor for offices.

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The entrance relief recalls the insurance company and seems appropriate for a company in the business of providing cover.

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The Bank of New South Wales, 1938-40, later Delfin House and AFT House. The original name survives in its fine font.

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Transport House, formerly Railway House, 1934-6. Jahn says it was "lauded as Sydney's most up-to-date and prestigious office building, all glass and tile, and all air-conditioned." Stylistically, he points out, it combines vertical Deco with horizontal Moderne. Functionally, it sits atop Wynyard Station, an important junction on the city's underground railroad network. Then there are those faience tiles. Not what you'd expect from a bunch of engineers. Like it? It won the RIBA bronze medal in 1939.

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More space was needed and so this lovely extension was added.

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Deco dragged on. This building, now the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia but originally the Maritime Services Board, was planned in 1939 but not completed until 1952. By then, Jahn writes, it was seen as a "dinosaur."

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Moderne had already come and gone, in this case with the modest Civic Hotel, built in 1940 for a brewer and pub operator, Tooth and Co. Long decrepit, the hotel was renovated in 1998 by IPOH, the Malaysian company. More than renovated: framed by an Ibis Hotel on the left and the pedestal-mounted Masonic Center on the right, the Civic sprouted its own 17-story tower between them. The architect was the Malaysian-born Australian Kooi-Ying Mah.

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More Moderne curves, this time back in Potts Point.

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Just off William Street, there's this ex-Packard dealership, later Mario's Restaurant and more.

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Rear view.

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On the other side of William, this is the Hastings-Deering Motor company, later City Ford.

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None of Deco's sharp points and skyward fins.

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Originally this was ACI Australian Consolidated. Surprise! The company made glass.

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For a time, Moderne was the order of the day, as here in the building of the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board, built in the late 1930s and now (2015) getting spruced up.

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Not shown to advantage here (but try as a passerby to get something better!), this is the back of the flat-roofed, concrete, Wyldefel Gardens. They're at Potts Point and when built in 1936 were "the most modern and striking example of residential architecture in Australia" (Jahn). The complex had two wings sloping down to the water and separated by stepped gardens. The developer was William Crowle, who was also the city's Buick and Citroen agent and a leading art collector. His own house, older and traditional, lay at the top of the U. Online, the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales has a fine postcard from about 1936 showing the apartments in their prime. When was that? It was before World War II, when the Navy built the huge Captain Cook Graving Dock at the water's edge. Wyldefel suddenly was no longer on the waterfront.

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To get a view from Potts Point after the war, you had to go up. Here are the nearby and romantically named 510 Apartments, built 1948-51 and still, at the upper levels at least, with a glimpse of the water. Nobody would call the building elegant, but it probably qualifies as modern at last--no stuffy ornaments, no Deco chevrons, no Moderne curves.

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Perhaps this qualifies as elegant. It's certainly a double-curved curtain wall. It's from 1955-57 and was built as the world headquarters for what was then Qantas Empire Airways. The airline used the whole building for 25 years, but you have to remember that Qantas in those days actually flew places. Nobody had even heard of Emirates.

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So Qantas is a shadow of its former self, but its old building survives, and so does this, the opera house that (in the words of Fromonot and Thompson, p. 83) "provided Sydney with the lasting international reputation it had long been seeking."

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The design was the outcome of a blind competition won in 1957 by an unknown Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, who quit the project in disgust in 1966 and was not so much as invited to its grand opening in 1973.

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Oops! A cruise ship blocks the dawn view.

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The shells, originally conceived as elliptical sections, presented such technical difficulties that they were redesigned as spherical sections: if taken apart by a giant, the 14 shells could be reassembled to form a single complete sphere.

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The tiles were made on site and mounted on concrete segments pieced together to form each shell.

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The opera house overshadows everything in sight, even perhaps the once-iconic Harbor Bridge, completed in 1932.

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As photogenic as the Golden Gate?

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The story of the bridge is one of heroic engineering but also of hundreds of homeowners who lost their homes without compensation.

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Some of the foundations of those houses are now on display.

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The top of the pylons is merely decorative. Jahn recalls a mocking editorial in the British journal Engineering. Writing even before construction began, the editorial called the pylons "meaningless masses of masonry." They aren't even that: they're actually concrete, faced with granite.

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It's hard to catch the scale of the thing, though maybe the coils of razor wire help.

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Here's the view backed up a bit. The span is 1,650 feet. Grand as it may be, the bridge eventually proved unequal to traffic demand. A tunnel opened in 1992.

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To bring bridge traffic across the city to the eastern suburbs, an elevated freeway was built on the waterfront. It opened in 1958, a year before San Francisco opened its analogous Embarcadero Freeway. San Francisco was lucky enough to get an earthquake in 1989. The Embarcadero Freeway was weakened and torn down. Sydney is still waiting.

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So here's the Circular Quay, busy in this case with passengers making their way to their cruise ship. Ferries dock here, too. Can you see the city? Not a prayer. Francesca Morrison writes that "there have been calls for many years for the Cahill Expressway... to be pulled down; no doubt it will eventually go." She was writing 20 years ago (Sydney, 1997, p. 30).

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Not that this part of the city is very people-friendly. Sure there's a walkway, but the landscape is all about buildings puffing out their chests. It all goes back to 1957, when the city raised its height limit to a then impressive 150 feet. Seems quaint now.

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So Harry Triguboss comes along, reputed to be Australia's richest man (but not richest person!). He builds apartment houses under the Meriton name. This is one of them, the self-effacing World Tower. Give Triguboss this much: he lives in the thing.

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Then and now. On the left is the Lands Department Building, of the local Hawkesbury sandstone. Soaring overhead is the Governor Phillip Tower and (Morrison's words) its "squat little brother," the Governor Macquarie Tower. Can you walk by? Not really. You have to scuttle, scurry, or slink--or whatever mice do.

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Here on George Street there's a juxtaposition of old and new. The old survives mostly as part of The Rocks, a tourist center, but it says something that people like walking around neighborhoods of two-story buildings. They can breathe. Even laugh. Echoing Victoria, the skyscrapers are not amused.

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They do like to take charge.


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