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?