A roll-call of western-line train stations comes over the station announcement: Lidcombe, Auburn, Clyde, Granville. The pace of the list is familiar, with one-syllable Clyde a pause between the longer names before and after it. I’ve been through Clyde station many a time but don’t know that I’ve ever actually alighted there. I’ve had little reason to visit this small industrial suburb between Granville and Auburn, its boundaries the Duck River to one side, and the railway line to Carlingford on the other.
It is this Carlingford railway line that I have come to make a journey on, before it closes on January 5h. It’s Sydney’s least-used line, running on a single track for most of the way, north through the industrial and then suburban landscape. I know it best from the level crossing that brings Parramatta Road to a stop every half hour, as the alarms sound out, the gates come down, and the traffic waits for the train to go by.
No one lives in Clyde. It is entirely made up of factories and warehouses, its streets lined with granite and marble businesses, smash repairers, and mechanics. Turn out onto Parramatta Road and there’s a large factory with a long, grey wall that up until recently was a Mitsubishi distribution centre, but now is an auction house. I’d often noticed this long grey factory wall, devoid of doorways or windows, and in front of it, an expanse of lawn. It looked as if it was waiting for something. Well, something arrived.
I had never considered the scenario of watching the Parramatta Road traffic go by from the cockpit of a plane. The aircraft is marooned in the middle of the lawn, its engines stripped out and windows blocked off by real-estate signs. I climb inside it. The seats are gone from the cockpit but the control panel is still mostly intact, and I flick some of the switches as I watch the traffic, peering out through the grimy window. Behind me is a brown vinyl folding screen with a filigree pattern, the kind that I can better imagine in a 1970s rumpus room, but here separates the cockpit from the cabin.
To return to the station I pass the bottle recycling centre with its sour stink, and then turn to follow the river along a pathway underneath the casuarina trees. Their Gadigal name is guman, these trees with rough bark and thin, dark green-grey foliage. Underfoot there is a thick, dry mat of their fallen leaves. This area around the waterways had been a forest – and, being a meeting point of rivers, a meeting place for the Dharug clans of the west and east – before the colonists cut down its ironbarks, floating the logs down the creek and then the Parramatta river and into the harbour.
It’s a different kind of forest now, strewn with trash and abandoned tyres in between the trees. It hasn’t rained for many months; there’s a dry, cracking feeling to everything as I walk through, in between the mangroves and the trash heaps. On the other side of the trees is an industrial estate, with piles of wooden pallets and empty parking lots. A man steps off from a forklift and comes up to me with a curious expression, wondering what someone like me, wearing pink heart-shaped sunglasses and a patchwork dress that looks like something Holly Hobbie might have worn, is doing in this grim industrial scene. I say I’m looking for the station, and he points me in the direction of the gate, at the end of a long, shade-less concrete driveway.
The train is waiting at the platform, the departure time ticking down on the indicator board. When it sets out, the track veers off from the main line, following the path of the creek up to Parramatta Road. Here it glides through the level crossing, the scene I previously knew only from the other side, from being in a car behind the gate. To the side of the tracks is the signal box, a hut by the side of the tracks (see Lyndal Irons’ fantastic On Parramatta Road project for a look inside the signal box, and interview with the signal operator).
The train passes under motorway overpasses and the horse-racing track, and the branch line that used to extend to another railway line for the factories that lined the Parramatta River. The stations were named for the factories: Hardies, Goodyear, Cream of Tartar Works and Sandown, and this area of land is still poisoned from these industries, which also included an oil refinery, paint factory, and meatworks. Asbestos was used as landfill at Hardies, and at other factory sites heavy metals have leached into the soil. It is thought to be a promising area for future development.
Soon the scene changes to a row of 1950s houses, fibro and weatherboard with red-tile roofs. The land is steeper, dropping down into a valley beside the train line. To one side the view down below is a suburban patchwork of houses and streets and stretches of bushland. On the other, is a wide stretch of parched, yellow grass, striped with the lines from a lawnmower. Under one tree is a bright orange plastic chair, and I wonder who might sometimes sit there to watch the trains go by.
The track curves around and I can see Carlingford up ahead, the tall apartment buildings around the railway station. When the train stops a few passengers alight: some residents and a few trainspotters, who take photos with the indicator board – still the old, wooden kind, with the stations on wooden pins that can be flipped like abacus beads – and talk to the station attendant. The driver gets out from the cabin and walks down to the other end of the train, to set up for the return journey. A few metres on from the platform is the end of the line, two horizontal beams of wood, marking the end of the tracks.
The railway was first built to Carlingford in 1896 as a private line, then planned to extend to the fruit farms of Dural, although this extension never came to be. The line was bought by the government and has ever-since operated as part of the state rail network. Now in January 2020 it will be closed, to be replaced by light rail. It already feels like an experience from the past, stepping out from the short, four-carriage train at the small platform, having taken the journey from Clyde along the single track of railway, taking just twelve minutes in all.
Carlingford is a place I mostly know from drives my family made through it decades ago, when I was a child. I’d look out for certain details, wondering what they were, knowing that any request to stop to inspect them further would be denied. One of these details was the park beside the highway which featured a pond with three large white figures at the centre of it.
K13, I can now tell you, was a submarine, and the park is a memorial to submarine crews and officers who died during the first and second world wars. The white letters are stark against the brown pond underneath. When I approach it I see there are dozens of tadpoles swimming in it, and dragonflies hovering over the surface, with bright blue and bright red bodies. Everything is so hot and dry and still, and the traffic surges so relentlessly on the highway behind me, that it is a relief to watch the darting movements of the creatures around and within the water.
This part of Sydney is Burramattagal country, and in the distance I can see the place that has been named after it: the newly high-rise skyline of Parramatta. Pennant Hills Road runs along the ridge, and from here there is a view across the low, flat plains of the west and south west. I follow the road further up the hill, as trucks shudder by. The houses I am passing are empty, awaiting demolition. It’s difficult to walk here, and no one else is. The only other person I see is a man in a uniform with a device that looks like a microphone, pointed at the road, recording something on a clipboard.
The other place I remember seeing from the car and being curious about was a feature that appeared around Christmastime: the nativity display outside the Mormon temple. This, like K13, intrigued me as an out-of-the-ordinary detail in the otherwise familiar suburban pattern. I keep walking past the two shopping centres and sure enough, soon see the mannequins of camels and the three wise men, set up underneath a tree in the gardens of the temple. They are as I remember them having been when I saw them from the car as a child, and it is strange to be standing beside them now as an adult, like I am visiting a memory in a dream.
Things have changed in Carlingford since I pondered these details in passing, decades ago, the kinds of changes that have occurred across the suburbs – more apartment buildings, a larger shopping centre, the video store becoming a discount chemist – but in many ways it is much the same. The traffic continues, surging along the highway; the streets of houses lead off from it, down into the valley and the quiet, and the respite of the bushland.
As I sit at Carlingford station, waiting for the train back to Clyde and then the city, I can see across to Carlingford Produce, a store that’s been there as long as the railway has, over 100 years. It sells hardware, garden supplies, pet food, and stock feed, from a sprawling warehouse with a rusty corrugated-iron roof. Behind it are new apartment buildings, grey and white and square. As I wait, a rooster starts crowing from inside the warehouse, although it is mid-afternoon. It calls out once, then again. A moment later, the train appears, pulling in at the station slowly, then stopping at the end of the line.
Maybe it has been a little while since I’ve travelled up this stretch of Parramatta Road, or maybe it happened suddenly, but now there’s a great gap between Pyrmont Bridge Road and Mallett Street, where a whole block of buildings have been demolished. The light is the first thing I notice, how the demolition has opened the streetscape to the sky. I try to remember what had been there. A golf store, that’s right (and before that, a building supplies store distinguished by a window display that included a mannequin on a toilet) and a 1930s bank building with a brick and sandstone facade, a gym, then a row of former warehouses that had been repurposed as furniture stores. It was a bleak stretch: the other side of the road more favoured by pedestrians, with its slightly more appealing businesses – a toy store, vacuum cleaner store, and school with a row of jacaranda trees along the fenceline.
There’s no signage – apart from advertising – on the hoardings that seal off the block, but soon perhaps it will come, extolling the benefits of the Westconnex M4-M5 link tunnel, for which this land has been cleared. This will be a tunnelling site, from where the drilling machinery bore in to create the tunnel that will undercut Parramatta Road Creek on a path between Haberfield and St Peters. On the Westconnex website, a progress bar announces the works for the overall scheme to be now 47% complete. When I click on the “connecting communities” icon, a message comes up: “You are not authorized to access this page”. The benefits to communities may be concealed but other information is more easily accessed. I find out that the start of this year local residents had the opportunity to vote on the preferred colour of the hundred-metre-long construction shed that is to be built here to mask the drilling operations: mangrove, ironstone, or shale grey?
For now, the site is still being cleared, the remains of the buildings and their utility lines still in the process of being removed. The shed of mangrove/ironstone/shale grey corrugated iron is yet to be constructed. As I look across this newly opened stretch of land, I notice there are a few remaining buildings, a small cluster at the narrow end of the block. The wall at the edge of them has a sliced-cake look, and reveals a vertical strip of ghost signs: CASHDOWN, then below, Brown and Dobinson, with the note they have “removed to 145 Australia Street Camperdown”, and below it the tail end of a logo, interrupted by a doorway: “-oid”. Whatever it is, it is “Perfect”, the one full word to remain on this section of the wall.
I stand by the gate, looking up at the sign, trying to decode it, as the works go on inside: digging and churning, clods of earth and splinters of building rubble being chewed by yellow excavators. It would be useful if they could remove a few more bricks from the wall to resolve anothe letter of “oid”, but I don’t try my luck with the asking the man at the gate, who has already shifted the blue mesh that covers the wire so I can take a photo through the fence.
Later I get to sleuthing, find out that Cashdown was the C. Ashdown Carriage Company, that in 1913 it manufactured items such as Buggies, Phaetons, Buckboards, Sulkies, with or without Rubber Tyres, to suit pony or horse.
I feel as if I, too, am “under the paint” as I work to solve the puzzle, inside a network of details. On the way home I go past the building on Australia Street to where the motor garage Brown and Dobinson removed in the 1930s, though it reveals to me no further information. I take the fragments of the words “oid” and “ouer” and they rattle around in my head like an unsatisfying Scrabble hand. But then, like Cashdown became C. Ashdown, I realise “ouer” is probably “quer”, and I guess that “quer” is probably “lacquer”, which means “oid” is possibly an automotive paint.
A chain of associations stretches out, across time, and the city and its transport technologies. C. Ashdown closed in 1919, as the automotive era was about to begin, giving way to the motor garages, petrol station and car dealerships that are still a large part of Parramatta Road’s landscape, as much as it is reshaped, on and under the surface. A hundred years on cars dominate this landscape, and will continue to do so into the future, as the land is carved up to accommodate them. A sign such as this one is a chance to slice a few layers back through the recent past, to consider how much, and how little, has changed.
(update: I worked it out with the help of my fellow sleuth David Lever: the sign is advertising, as I suspected, an enamel automotive paint called “Lusteroid“… though now the sign has lost its lustre…)
The train emerges from the tunnel towards Circular Quay station and the darkness outside the windows is replaced by a long, thin panorama, a horizontal slice of sky and water bracketed by the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. It’s a living postcard, animated by the ferries and the clouds, watched by those waiting on the platform. People lean against the glass barriers to take photos of the harbour, or just gaze out, watching the ever-moving scene in front of them.
I join the throng clogging the top of the steps that lead down to the concourse. I hang back, not in a hurry, and wait until I’m the last to descend. As I walk down, I look above the stairs to where, set high up into the wall, there are ornamental grilles decorated by bronze fish. They have a stranded look to them, a little bit dusty, but with their rainbow sheen still visible.
I always look for them, one of the few decorative features of this station which, since its opening in 1956, has been relentlessly condemned as ugly, interrupting the view of the harbour from the city, and the city from the harbour. The construction of the station and the Cahill Expressway above it was a drawn out and unpopular process. Things came to a head at the 1958 opening of the Cahill Expressway, when despite the premier’s announcement that this was “a striking symbol of Sydney’s growth and maturity”, things did not go as planned.
If Circular Quay station is maligned, the Cahill Expressway is even more so. The railway line and the road above it forms a thick line that cuts across the view, as if it’s a low, wide belt keeping the city in check. There has often been talk of the expressway’s demolition: in 1994 Prime Minister Paul Keating even offered the NSW state government the funds to remove it. Yet it remains, visually intrusive, loved by no one, but not entirely without allure. A side-effect of maligned places is that people avoid them, which can, sometimes, twist their atmosphere into something unusual and interesting.
The Cahill Walk is a good example of this. To get to it I move quickly along the Circular Quay promenade, past people munching through pancakes at City Extra and passengers coming off the Manly ferry. Details flash up: a man wearing a t-shirt that says “winter is not coming”; the round bronze discs set into the pavement that commemorate famous writers. I step over A.D. Hope, Barry Humphries, and Kenneth Slessor, until I’m at a grove of palm trees hemmed in by concrete, that surround a glass elevator clamped to the side of the railway line and road above.
I press the elevator call button and soon the doors open in front of me, puffing out a cold, air-conditioned breath in welcome. I step inside, the doors seal me in, and the noise of the quay recedes. I’m inside a bubble, ascending, above the tops of the palm trees now, the view of the Harbour Bridge coming clear the higher up the lift rises.
At the top, the doors behind me open and I turn to face the four lanes of traffic on the expressway. A long, concrete walkway extends beside it like a grey ribbon.
Never, in all the times I’ve been up here, has there been many other people here. It’s one day of popularity is New Year’s Eve: a ballot operates for tickets to watch the fireworks from here. At other times, you might very well have it to yourself. This morning there’s almost no one else but me, apart from an occasional runner jogging by. It’s only a slight change of perspective from the Quay below, but has a completely different mood. If it weren’t for the incessant traffic, and the way the path trembles underfoot when heavy vehicles go by, it would be a tranquil, pleasurable place to be, rather than the exposed and sometimes slightly eerie experience it is to walk here.
The traffic speeds by, having just come off the Harbour Bridge. I watch the intent expressions of people behind the wheels of their cars, notice a man on his motorbike singing as he rides along, and feel the path shudder when a demolition truck goes by, the word CHOMP in orange across the front. On the other side is Warrane, the bay dominated by a gargantuan cruise ship with a steaming funnel like a kettle just come off the boil. The poisonous smell of the diesel fuel drifts across. On the front of the cruise ship is a man in overalls, tethered to a railing above, holding a paint roller on a stick, repainting the ship’s nose. The expanse of fresh white paint follows him as he moves slowly along.
Walking up here, alongside the expressway, is to have a feeling of floating mid-air, looking into the thicket of city buildings to one side and the harbour’s expanse on the other.
Below where I am on the Cahill Walk, the crowds of Circular Quay mill and disperse. Up here I’m alone, with traffic and jackhammering and construction noise filling the air as I look towards the building sites on the city’s edge. Behind them are dozens of office buildings, thousands of windows, each framing a view of the harbour. Anyone looking out of them at this moment would be moving their eyes over the same scene as me, watching the harbour, the ferries, the shifting clouds, that familiar scene, slowly changing.
Thank you dear readers for following Mirror Sydney in 2018, a busy year for me, with the book out in the world. It was a delight to meet some of you when I had launches and talks, and I look forward to more in 2019.
I’ve been writing Mirror Sydney for long enough that many of the places I have featured have now been demolished, or changed, or transformed. On my train trips across the harbour I have been observing the start of the demolition of the Port Operations Tower in Millers Point. The tower at the top is almost gone now. Once it is fully removed the concrete stem below it will be eaten away by robotic excavators from the top down. Could there be a more sci-fi fate than to be eaten by robots?
Despite all the city’s changes there are places that remain stubbornly consistent, and of all the different types of city places the stubborn ones are perhaps my favourites. Stubborn places can quickly turn elusive, though, because coming into notice is usually a harbinger of disappearance. Earlier in the year I had been quietly noting that, despite all the reconstruction at Wynyard station, the trip up to York Street required a journey through the 1930s via the steep, wooden escalators.
So it was no surprise when, back in July, there were reports of their potential removal. The arguments in favour of their replacement were more than simply their age. They pose a fire risk, and the wooden slats can be dangerous, as guide dogs’ claws have become stuck in the wooden steps. But as yet the Office of Environment and Heritage are yet to give their final decision, and the escalators remain for now.
This exit from the train station gives you a triple choice: you can either enter the Concourse Bar with its lingerie-clad bar staff, turn off for a trip along the corridor of a spacecraft (the new Wynyard Walk pedestrian tunnel), or climb aboard the wooden escalators. The row of four escalators, divided by shiny, wood panels have always reminded me of furniture, a sideboard, perhaps, or a cabinet, or a piano. This early photo of them, with one of the wells boarded over, looks even more cabinet-like – and with the added bonus of “shadowless lighting”.
Now panels are decorated by thick, round studs, like the heads of giant wooden nails, no doubt to deter people from sliding down what would otherwise be an excellent slippery dip.
In 1932 when the station opened escalators were regarded as much a novelty as a piece of infrastructure, and article after article in newspapers made mention of them as the city’s latest attraction, a “source of almost endless joy” for children. School groups coming from the country to visit Sydney made certain to ride the escalators for a taste of city life. For those unaccustomed, the Broken Hill newspaper the “Barrier Miner”, described the new contraptions thus (please feel free to skip the next paragraph if you know how to use an escalator):
The escalator looks just like an ordinary staircase when it is at rest, but when in motion all that one has to do in order to ascend to the top is to get on the bottom stop, take hold of the rail if desired, and stand quite still and be carried up to the top landing, just as a bucket of ore is carried up on a conveyor belt. At the top the passenger is gently slid on to the solid lauding; but as it seems unlikely at the first glance that the sliding will be as gentle as it really is there is often a bit of a jump by the inexperienced person, though those accustomed to travelling up the machine simply walk straight on as they reach the top.
Even into the 1940s the escalators were still entrancing young visitors.
It wasn’t just children who found the escalators exciting. A 1932 newspaper article describing an acrimonious failed romance between a 50 year old widow and a 70 year old travelling showman made mention of “a happy time riding on the escalators at Wynyard Station”, before the troubles began.
The trip may only take 48 seconds (or 18 if you are a “hustler”), but this is enough time for romance, thrills and altercations. Keep this in mind if you find yourself in Wynyard and choose to travel the 1930s way.
Before the eastern suburbs railway was built Edgecliff was a place of 19th century mansions, tin-roof terraces and steep, grassy vacant lots. It was a place to look back at the city, across valleys and ridges lined with haphazard rows of houses. Then the Eastern Suburbs railway opened in 1979, and with it came the Edgecliff Centre, a hulk of an office building that presides over the hillside.
The line of flags on its roof gives it an ambassadorial presence, although most enter the centre only to leave again. They descend to the train station or ascend to the grim, grey bus interchange.
Like much of Sydney there’s a sense of things having been ripped-up and replaced here. The streets retain their eccentric twists, preserving a sense of the topography that underlies them, but on the surface its a miscellany. Across from the Edgecliff Centre is a collection of art deco apartment buildings with names like Knightsbridge, San Remo and Ruskin.
The courtyard between them is a domain of neatly clipped camellia bushes and warnings not to park there. Beside the apartment buildings are a set of grand sandstone gates, once belonging to the Glenrock estate, now to a school. It is 3 o’clock when I walk by and schoolgirls are pouring out like ants from a nest.
On this stretch of street are shops selling niche items for a comfortable life. Cellos, chandeliers. A pilates studio has piles of white exercise balls in the window like giant pearls. In an ex-bank on the corner of Darling Point Road is JOM photography (at its former premises, above what was once Darrell Lea in the city, JOM made a bold claim with a prescient feature photograph).
Across from the row of smiling headshots is a monumental bus shelter with columns and steps and well maintained paintwork. The shelter is atop the high side of Darling Point Road, at the edge of the wall that divides the road. At its entrance is the name “Governor Ralph Darling”, in memory of the unpopular 1820s governor whose amorous name is imprinted on suburb names and roads across the city.
Inside a series of alcoves are recessed into the wall, like empty shrines, behind a wooden bench painted with the insignia of Sydney buses. Outside though, the bus stop sign is covered over with a garbage bag , with a message below announcing the 327 bus no longer stops here.
Now it is decommissioned the bus shelter is free to be the hilltop citadel it has always secretly been. I peer around the side of it, watching the storm clouds moving over the city in curls of grey and the traffic surging up the hill. From here the city seems a separate entity, neatly enclosed by its assortment of high-rise buildings, and the traffic an anxious, noisy river.
The citadel was created in 1925 when New South Head Road was widened, to reduce the steep grade of the hill. The dividing of the road created a broad concrete wall, a long bunker with a recess at the corner. Here the painted lady, has been through hundreds of repainted reincarnations since she first appeared in 1991. The wall is thick with layers of paint, embedded with glitter stars and confetti. Today it asks “Will you marry me Ingela?” of the traffic passing by.
Further along the wall is a square inset with windows and a door, the entrance to underground Edgecliff, a series of twisting caverns, a complete underground city where giant pearls and cellos and chandeliers are made… A tantalising thought, but when I stand up on tiptoes to peer in the slats I glimpse pipes and the top of a toilet tank and the true purpose of this room becomes disappointingly clear.
The weird geometry of this corner, with its bus shelter citadel, has long captured my attention. As a child I’d look out for it as we made the long drive to visit my great aunts in the eastern suburbs. Its grey edifice seemed important, like it held the secrets of this other side of the city with its steep streets, grand buildings, and tall fig trees. There was no painted lady then, just concrete and I perhaps misremember there being a line from a Smiths song painted across the wall. Perhaps it was actually there, or perhaps I just imagined it there when I dragged my gaze across the wall, as the car passed it by.
The following story was written as an essay to accompany the exhibition Substation 55A by Matte Rochford, which is showing at 55 Sydenham Road gallery until May 11th. It’s well worth an excursion to the industrial zone of Sydenham with its factories and hidden art spaces – the gallery’s open Saturday and Sundays, 1-5pm, and you can pick up a zine that includes this essay. All substation images in this post are by Matte Rochford.
From afar the building looks almost like a block of apartments. It’s constructed from dark brick, two stories high with a long window divided up into smaller square panes. At street level two columns are on either side of the entrance, a door marked with forbidding signs: Danger, Keep Out, a cartoon man spiked through with a lightning bolt. This is no apartment block. Despite its disguise it is a place people rarely enter and few people at that.
Amid the suburbs of Sydney there is a whole network of structures – sewer vents chimneys, substations, water towers, green postal boxes, telephone exchanges – that are irrevocably part of the landscape. They’re familiar elements of the suburban scene that link to mysterious workings. The light switches we flick, the taps we turn, the water that disappears down the drain, every one of these actions is linked to a city-wide system of pipes and wires and structures.
There are thousands of substations in Sydney. Many are “kiosk” substations, large metal boxes painted a nondescript shade of olive green that acts as camouflage, designed not to be noticed. The previous era of substations, brick buildings of varying shapes and sizes, were also designed with camouflage in mind: each was designed specifically to blend in with its surrounding environment. Substations in industrial areas were made to look like factories, in residential areas substations were made to look like Californian Bungalows or Federation houses. They borrowed the details from the surrounding buildings in an attempt to blend in to the streetscape.
Despite their camouflage these substations were also the public face of the growing city and its electrification. They were proudly labelled and numbered and observing them now the eye is drawn to the name prominently displayed on each facade. Some substations are decidedly grand: number 43 on Unwins Bridge Road in St Peters is a tall and thin building crowned with the monogram SMC (for the Sydney Municipal Council); number 341 on Canberra Street in Coogee resembles a splendid house with decorative brickwork and a balcony. In Cammeray, Substation number 77 closely resembles a castle with turrets, a tall arched doorway and a view to the valley below.
Substation No.1 was built at Town Hall in 1904, the year that electricity came to Sydney. While from the late 19th century there were a number of small private electricity generators, the experience of Sydney at night in the 1800s was one of dark streets, dimly lit by gas lamps. Sydney lagged behind country towns such as Tamworth, which had electric lighting installed in 1888. Once electricity came to Sydney there was a proliferation of substation construction and by 1911 there were so many that a new position was created to take charge of the growing network, the Substation Engineer. As the network grew and developed, more and more substations were built.
Start noticing an element of the urban landscape and the city comes into a new kind of life. Another reality overlays your everyday experiences. It was such for Matte Rochford when he began to collect substations. They’d long been of interest to him with their individual identities and their atmosphere of secrecy. They inspired exploring: all were part of a greater system of which only pieces were ever visible.
The substation near Rochford’s childhood home, No. 898, was surrounded by a lawn where he and his friends played, seeking out, as children do, places of vague ownership that become their own personal realm. The substation interrupted the predictable order of houses and shops that made up the Earlwood streets. It was like a place from a cartoon come to life, where a character like Doctor Claw from Inspector Gadget could reside. With its persistent hum and solemn brick presence the substation was a moment of science fiction in the everyday.
Since this time Rochford has had an awareness of the city’s substations and five years ago he deliberately began to collect them. He photographed the ones he was familiar with and ones he discovered as he travelled around the city and suburbs. That each was marked with a number only encouraged the collection. They seemed labelled for this purpose, like large, brick trading cards, prizes in a city-wide treasure hunt.
With each discovery he felt as if he had pocketed a secret. Their very locations seem covert. Individual yet linked, commonplace yet rarely noted, substations pop up at the end of alleyways or appear, like a reward, after taking a wrong turn. Substations have this aura of secrecy, appearing unpredictably, their doors always shut and their interiors inaccessible. Yet substations belong to anyone who chooses to notice them, in the way that by living somewhere, by experiencing it and observing it closely, it becomes a part of us.
Like their here-and-there appearances on suburban streets @matte_rochford ‘s latest substations pop up in my Instagram feed. No. 300, on Flood Street in Clovelly, is a Spanish Mission building with white decorative door hinges that look like arrows. No. 342, in Paddington, curves as it rounds the street corner, P&O style. By contrast No. 1401, in Artarmon, is clad with corrugated metal and looks like a garden shed. For a moment I contemplate each substation, considering it and what might be inside it.
While many substations mimic familiar buildings these are places most people will never enter: to imagine what lies inside is to slip underneath the city’s workings. The old brick substations are relics of a past Sydney, when electricity was a symbol of the growing and developing city and still regarded as a modern convenience. Electricity was once regarded as new, a strange thought for something now so integral to our lives. Our ideas about electricity have turned towards ecology and sustainability, and how power can be generated with less destruction to the environment. Of the coal power stations which once generated Sydney’s electricity only White Bay remains, a weathered ruin by Victoria Road in Rozelle. Sydney’s electricity supply is still mainly derived from coal, but the power stations are hidden beyond the city’s limits.
While networks of infrastructure are often beyond our comprehension, they manifest in countless objects and practices in our lives. Matte Rochford’s artworks use domestic electrical objects – VHS players, televisions, clock radios – and give them animation beyond their functional use. The VHS tapes and televisions he uses are objects which have been technologically superseded, yet they still retain a kind of soul. In Progressively Degrading Test Pattern, a test pattern from the end of a rental video was copied onto a succession of VHS tapes, each time the test pattern losing some of its integrity, until it becomes a ghost of itself. In The Clock Radio Symphony Orchestra 100 clock radios, alarms sounding in a cascade, seemed like massed consciousness rather than a collection of appliances.
The substations in Rochford’s collection are animated by scrutiny. Substations are discovered and documented, selected from their scattered positions like relatives long since dispersed to different continents, reunited after decades. No two are the same, although all are similar, all connected.
Further substation trivia: to have coffee in an ex-substation visit Substation Cafe in Alexandria. Some decommissioned substations have been made into houses and apartments. Others just mysteriously inhabit suburban streets while converting mains electricity. Which are your favourites?