Mirror Sydney, the book

I’ve dropped a few hints here and there, but with its release date coming soon, it’s time to announce that Mirror Sydney will be released as a book in October! Published by Giramondo, it’s an unconventional city atlas: a collection of essays and hand-drawn maps, based on this blog, telling some of the stories of Sydney’s lesser-known, hidden, secret and strange places and histories, charting the city’s atsmospheres, and celebrating its recent past.

There will be a launch in October, as well as some tours and other fun things, which I’ll announce as the time draws near. For now, I’ll run through some of the cover stars.

  1. Hotel Westend

The mustard expanse of the Hotel Westend’s side wall, with its promise of 100 suites, is like a sunrise amid the surrounding towers. The tall, skinny building with the tall skinny wild-west-style sign seems a portal into a past era of city hotels, the kind that have steak houses on the premises and  boast wall-to-wall carpet as a special feature.

The Westend is currently a backpackers, but not for much longer: it was recently sold and is destined for refurbishment, including unfortunately “replacing the letters on the sign to reflect the new name”. This new name seems to be “Ibis Budget Sydney Central“. If the Westend sign must go, I can only hope for its replacement to be an animated neon sign of an ibis dipping its long beak into a rubbish bin.

2. Kenilworth Witches’ House

On the high ridge at the end of Johnston Street are the witches’ houses, the row of Victorian-era mansions that were built in the 1880s, designed by architect John Young. Kenilworth is the tallest and most immediately striking of the houses for its tall, central spire (like a witches’ hat – hence the name) and imperious position. It once had a twin, an identical house next door, that was demolished in 1967 and replaced by a block of red-brick flats. But Kenilworth still has two other companions: to the other side are twin houses with spires on the side, built for John Young’s daughters.

Kenilworth is a fantasy house with its tower and gargoyles, seemingly plucked from a gothic fairytale and transplanted into the Sydney suburbs. It’s a house for dreaming about, wondering what it would be like to peer out its high windows. I still imagine I live in it every time I go past, with my pet raven and library with red velvet curtains and ladders against the bookshelves. All cities need these dream houses, places for wishes and desires to be planted.

3. Fibro Houses

At the opposite end of the spectrum to the gothic mansion are the fibro houses of the south western suburbs. Built in profusion after the second world war, these houses were quickly and easily assembled, and were a haven for many families who had moved from the overcrowded inner-city, or come to Australia as post-war migrants. Although many have been demolished to be replaced by houses twice their size, many still remain, especially around Bankstown and its surrounding suburbs.

These houses are bittersweet: their pastel colours and heart-shaped decorations belying the toxic material from which they were fabricated. They are a manifestation of 1950s and 60s suburban idealism, their neat proportions aspiring to a similarly neat life within their walls. They’re humble houses but proud ones, each customised with different colour paint, or different types of plants in the garden, or house numbers accompanied by silhouettes of horses and carriages. Their pale, thin walls give them an appearance of lightness, of malleability: Patrick White described them in Tree of Man as “brittle in moonlight, soluble in dreams”.

They are a type of house I know well, for I live in one very similar, and know its moods well. Fiercely hot in summer, icy in winter, the walls feel thin like they’re made of cardboard. Mid-afternoon, when all is still outside, I look out the window and imagine the street as it would have been when the house was built in 1960, and the past seems almost graspable, just under the skin of the present.

16 Comments on “Mirror Sydney, the book”

  1. Can’t wait to get my mitts on a copy!

  2. Marios Elles says:

    Wonderful! Congratulations VB!

  3. jml297 says:

    Congratulations on your upcoming book!

  4. mccnmatt says:

    Congratulations on the book Vanessa! Looking forward to seeing it!

  5. Kate Hawes says:

    Those magpies look like they’re posing for the cover of a gangsta rap album! Can’t wait for the book 🙂

  6. suecartledge says:

    Hope your launch is well publicised. I’d love to attend. Local history & architecture are passions of mine.

  7. Ash says:

    I’m excited about your book and the looking forward to your Bankstown stories.

    I notice that the front cover features that triangular shaped house. It was in Emery Ave Yagoona, however it is no longer there. It was built by Gold Star, a prolific builder in the Bankstown region in the 50s. In the 60s they expanded to estates in Fairfield and Parramatta and Ryde. My brother lives in a Gold Star house.

    There were estates in Yagoona, Panania, Sefton, Chester Hill and Padstow. They included a degree of prefabrication, with frames and trusses being assembled in a Sefton factory. However they were constructed on site rather conventionally, unlike the Van Dyke prefab fibro houses.

    There was the triangular one like on your cover, really a conventional rectangular house, but with protruding fins that gave it an unusual shape. I used to call them gingerbread cottages. There was a bigger one too, with a L shaped wing protruding on an angle. Not quite a boomerang shape, but dramatic nonetheless. Spotting these two designs on my way to school or driving around was always a highlight for me. The rest of the Gold Star designs were rather straightforward.

    Anne, the girlfriend in the movie “The FJ Holden” gives her address as 14 Stretham Ave Panania and indeed this is a Gold Star house. This house is no longer there either, a McMansion how takes its place. As Gold Star built for the private market, most of these houses have been renovated extensively or pulled down and rebuilt altogether, which makes hunting them down to get a good photo hard. This is in contrast to the Van Dyke houses, who built mostly for the Housing Commission and therefore maintained mostly with the original appearance.

    I would love to get some good photos to feature on Instagram, I really need a good day to go and hunt them down. I find that exploring Chester Hill and Yagoona bring out the emo teenager in me, who I wish to keep in a box. The “greener pastures” the Revesby side of Bankstown don’t have quite the same impact on me.

    Of course your hard work in putting together this book is to be celebrated. It is not just the fun parts but all the hours of editing that goes into it. Don’t think it goes unappreciated.

  8. Mark says:

    2. Kenilworth Witches’ House…
    I used to work a few doors up from the Witches’ House. One night getting a taxi home from work, the taxi driver told me he once drove the owner of the Witches’ House home, who invited him in for a cup of tea. In the kitchen, the owner opened up a trapdoor in the floor, which had a set of stairs leading down to a tunnel. This tunnel, the owner explained, led down to the shore at nearby Rozelle Bay.

    After hearing that story I always wondered where this tunnel entrance was on the Rozelle Bay shoreline and if there was any historical record of it.

  9. […] unease in herself seems more apparent. I’ll be interested to see what Berry’s new work, Mirror Sydney is like. Given that the strongest parts of this book were psychogeographical in tone, I reckon […]

  10. Sydney Mysteries says:

    Looking forward to the book, I saw a reference to it in the SMH today. I love the cover and it’s good to have a new and unconventional book about Sydney.

  11. Great news on the book! Congratulations ~ Neil

  12. Hi Vanessa, your beautiful book arrived today – congrats it looks fantastic – particularly the illustrations – Annandale and Kurnell are great. Can’t wait to find a moment to dive in.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thank you Peter – I’m so happy with how it has turned out and it’s a nice thought to know it’s out there starting to be read. Enjoy!

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