Blog from the MonorailPosted: June 25, 2013
Of all the criticisms of the soon to be decommissioned monorail, one of the most commonly put forward is that it is ugly. No one could argue that the monorail tracks and their thick, metal supports are a beautiful addition to Sydney’s streets, but to single it out as ugly seems almost unfair; Sydney’s CBD is full of ugly buildings and vistas. This doesn’t make Sydney an unusual city, quite the opposite. There’s probably no city in the world that doesn’t include a quotient of ugliness. Cities are defined by a certain measure of chaos and a big part of this is a jumble of layers of past eras. In Sydney this could be a 19th century sandstone building with a 90s shopping arcade on one side, a recent building on the other and a concrete 70s office block towering above. All of them, ugly in their own way.
One of the flaws of condemning something as ugly is that notions of beauty change over time. Past condemnations of ugliness can be surprising to contemporary eyes.
Unlike the Queen Victoria Building, the monorail is and always was a kind of novelty, an anomaly. It’s not likely that, in fifty or even five years time, people will be mourning its loss. But it’s worth thinking about how it came to be, and the effect of its presence over the last twenty five years, before its traces are erased.
From the perspective of the streets below, the monorail’s appearance is forever unexpected. Its soft whining whirr gathers in intensity until it passes by overhead. At this moment some curse the monorail for any or all of the usual reasons: ugly, useless, only used by tourists, expensive, ridiculous. Those more sympathetic enjoy the sight of it gliding along its track, a reminder to look up, and of a future-that-never-came-to-be version of Sydney dreamed up in the 1980s.
The monorail was launched in 1988, the year of the Bicentennial celebrations – and protests, although these were something that I only became aware of later. As a child in primary school I was caught up in the fervour of celebrating Australia’s “200th birthday”. All school children in Australia were given a golden commemorative coin, in a cardboard folder, including a page for autographs that my friends scribbled their fledgling signatures on.
There was a lot going on in Sydney in 1988: tall ships, the opening of Darling Harbour, fireworks, the monorail. Sydney was reduced to two points in time: the First Fleet sailing into the harbour and the present day, with its new developments heralding a future of ease and pleasure. Both of these moments celebrated one of Sydney’s strongest traits, erasure. Sydney is a city of continual new starts, knocking things down and starting again.
In 1988, a child’s first ride on the monorail was perhaps akin to the children of 1959’s first ride on the Domain Express Footway: it was a taste of the future we would grow to inherit. On my first monorail ride I imagined that by the time I was an adult the rest of the city would have caught up with this futuristic mode of transport, though how exactly this would come to be I was not sure. In the late 80s the city was pockmarked with holes from stalled developments, and for all the bright, new elements of the city, grime and decay was equally as present. I looked avidly out from the monorail into offices, or down into the big construction sites, enjoying the feeling of hovering above the city. It was a peaceful up there, sealed off from the busy streets below, and made me view the city from a different perspective. There’s a whole other world that exists up above the awnings.
In 1988 I had my first monorail ride, and now in 2013 I am travelling to the city for my last. The following story is my blog from the monorail, written on Monday, 24th June, as I travelled 5 loops around the city.
A psychogeographic technique for exploring the city is to put a glass down on a map, thus creating a circular path which you can then follow around, recording the experience as you go. If there is a real world manifestation of this it must be the monorail, which traces a loose square around the south western section of Sydney. It travels anticlockwise, surely for technical reasons, although it fits with the monorail’s general presence, turning time backwards to the late 1980s.
I board the monorail at World Square, a station which, in 1988, ran alongside a construction site that covered the entire block. The Anthony Horden department store once stood here, a vast Victorian department store of equal or more, some believe, significance as the Queen Victoria Building. It was demolished in 1986 and remained a hole in the ground for almost twenty years. Now the monorail station is at the edge of the World Square shopping centre, with its warren of restaurants and incongruous statue of a giant brass bull, a shock to me whenever I come across it.
There is one other person waiting at the station, a woman in a shapeless black coat and stylish round glasses with milky white frames, clutching a folder to her chest. Both of us stand peering down the track, waiting for the monorail to appear. Soon it does – lights on and windscreen wiper sweeping the rain from the glass of the driver’s compartment.
I look along the carriages and choose the last one, as it has the least people in it. Monorail carriages are intimate in a way that trains or buses are not – there’s enough room for 8 people to sit in each carriage with a few more standing. At every station the people waiting assess the carriages and choose their pick of them. In my carriage is a Japanese family with a baby in a stroller, and a girl holding a map of Sydney in one hand and a packet of biscuits in the other. Despite Sydney residents’ objections to the monorail, it has always been popular with tourists.
The monorail turns off Liverpool street and travels up Pitt Street, past the lime green Kiwi International Airlines building and the old advertisement for Bristol & Co. Real estate with its illustration of a crisp new fibro cottage. The green building stands out among the predominately grey streetscape, but there’s not much time to linger on it. With the monorail in motion, the view is glimpse after glimpse of the above-street world. An office with people busy at their desks, plants and figurines lined up on the windowsill, a kitchen with big tins of instant coffee and Milo. An empty meeting room with a bowl full of mints in the centre of the table. A class having a lesson. All these images pass by one after the other, and it’s hard to think about any one of them for too long, as soon another takes its place.
Two young guys in suits play ping pong in a Pitt Street office building. A few doors away is Druid’s House… what on earth is Druid’s House? Out the other side is the gloomy building on the corner of Pitt and Bathurst Streets, with no windows to peek into. Then a gym: a woman reads a thick paperback as she pedals on an exercise bike.
The Galeries Victoria stop has a row of people standing on the platform, phones at the ready, waiting for their final photo of the monorail. One girl holds her iPad aloft and after taking the photo an expression of resigned sadness flashes across her face, then she shrugs and turns to go. The Japanese family leave the carriage and are replaced by a few solo travellers who I suspect are, like me, saying goodbye to the monorail with a final ride. A man wearing shorts despite the cold weather sits and looks contemplatively around the carriage as it takes off again. The track turns from Pitt to Market Street, passing between the State Theatre and Myer. Both buildings have decorated facades, the State Theatre with lions and men in armour, the Myer building with scrolls and men with curly horns. These flash by, then George Street, the Queen Victoria Building and a glimpse of the town hall at the end of York Street.
The next section of the track curves across Market Street, past the winter-time plane trees still with a few leaves clinging on to their branches, and down towards Darling Harbour, past carparks and the Shelbourne Hotel, “established 1902”, the only old building in sight. It looks out of place here, fussy by comparison to the utilitarian architecture which surrounds it. Beyond it are the many lanes of highway curving towards and away from the bridge and the city.
At the next stop, Darling Park, a woman gets on with her son. Besides tourists, the most common monorail travellers are parents taking their kids for monorail rides: this tradition hasn’t ceased since I was a child in the 80s. She explains to her son that the monorail is being shut down in a few days, and his face falls, though he looks happy again when she tells him that they can go around as many times as he wants to.
The monorail advances over the water, across Pyrmont Bridge, once a busy thoroughfare in a very different version of Sydney.
As the monorail approaches Darling Harbour, we can suddenly look back on the city, which on this overcast day looks like a wall of bland grey office buildings with Sydney Tower like an olive on a toothpick rising above them all. Ahead is the conglomeration of buildings and kitsch that is Darling Harbour: floating restaurants, the Maritime Museum with its attendant submarine, warship, lighthouse and tall ship, and the Harbourside shopping centre. As I look across the expansive tin roof of the shopping centre, punctuated by a glass atrium in its centre, I realise something.
Harbourside is Sydney’s Crystal Palace.
As the monorail travels along behind the shopping centre and the convention centre, with its loading docks and bus parking zones, I get to thinking about my discovery. The Crystal Palace, originally constructed in London’s Hyde Park, held the Great Exhibition of 1851, the most popular event that had ever been held in Britain up until that time. It was then moved to Sydenham in London’s south, where it became less popular and the venue for more and more tawdry amusements, until it eventually burnt down in 1936. I don’t wish a fiery end to Harbourside but, beyond its physical similarities to the Crystal Palace, it shares something of the same trajectory, even down to its use of weekly fireworks displays to lure people into visiting.
There are more people in the carriage now after the Darling Harbour stops. A man with a bushy white beard shocks a young male tourist holding a pungent Subway sandwich with the news that this is the monorail’s last week. Soon the entire carriage is talking about it. “You’ll never get to do this again,” another man says to his son, who has been in a kind of Thomas the Tank Engine trance about the joys of monorail travel. His son is appeased with the promise of a farewell monorail coin to keep as a souvenir.
The monorail passes the Ibis and the Novotel hotels, and then the monorail control centre, with sidings where a couple of monorail trains rest, one covered over in a white shroud, the other stripped of its advertising. The fate of the monorail is a popular conversation topic: has it been sold for use somewhere else? Stories range from it being sold to Tasmania, UNSW, to Asia, or just being sold for scrap. The official word is that it will be “recycled”, but no one in the carriage conversation about its fate mentions this: people like the idea of it being transplanted elsewhere.
After stopping at Paddy’s Markets, the track passes the Entertainment Centre, another soon-to-be casualty of the plans to redevelop the Darling Harbour convention centre precinct. Flags advertising the upcoming Fleetwood Mac concert flap in the wind as the monorail glides over the square between the Entertainment Centre and the Market City. On weekends the square is busy, but it’s deserted on this rainy weekday afternoon.
The monorail glides through Chinatown station without stopping. The station is closed, with no one in the ticket booth and signs announcing that it is closed. It’s the monorail version of a geisterbahnhof, but we’re soon through it, and have a view up Goulburn street to one of my favourite old Sydney signs.
Most of my traveling companions are looking out the other side of the carriage though, at another 1988 project, the Chinese Gardens. Then the monorail turns up Liverpool Street. This is one of my favourite sections of the route for the glimpse into the upper stories of Kent House, with its dusty windows and long drainpipes, and the surprise appearance of faded superheroes in the windows of Comic Kingdom, then a row of straggly geraniums growing in window boxes.
The track crosses George Street again, and before returning to my starting point at World Square I get a glimpse into one of the upper rooms of the John Hardie building, which has a wall decorated with taxidermy deer heads.
I’m now back where I started, at World Square station, but I don’t move to relinquish my spot by the window. This is the last time I’ll get to view the city this way, and there’s still so much more to see. I’m going to stay on and go round one more time.