The World’s Largest Atlas

In Australia’s largest city, inside its largest library, is the world’s largest atlas. The book rests open at an image of the globe, the sweep of continents from Africa to Australia. People stand around it, taking photos and discussing the size of Kazakhstan, reading the names of cities and localities they had never before heard of. To those examining this vast world map the grand interior of the Mitchell Reading Room, with its lofty skylight, stained glass windows and book-lined walls are momentarily forgotten. Largest Atlas 1

The atlas is one of an edition of 31 published in 2012 by the Sydney publishing company Millenium House. The publisher (and author of an award winning book about carnivorous plants), Gordon Cheers, was inspired by seeing the Klencke Atlas of 1660 in the British Library. Until this new atlas the Klenke had been the largest in the world. But now the Earth Platinum atlas, at 1.8 metres tall and 2.7 metres across when open, is officially the world’s largest.


The atlas is quite a novelty. Some have come deliberately to see it, others are surprised to discover a huge, detailed image of the earth at the foot of the stairs that lead up to the upper levels of the reading room. As I stand examining the ridges in the Indian Ocean a woman comes up leading a little girl, who is walking along with her eyes shut. They stop in front of the atlas and the woman says “now – open your eyes!” The atlas is big enough to swallow the girl whole; she is impressed by sight of the enormous book.

People drift in from the linked open data conference that’s going on in the meeting rooms, their nametags identifying the far away places they have come from. A girl with her laptop in camera mode comes by and asks a man from Iowa to take her photo. She hands over the laptop and gets into position, standing beside the atlas, smiling and giving the thumbs up.

Inlaid into the floor of the library’s entrance hall is another often photographed cartographical curiosity. It’s a marble terrazzo reproduction of the 17th century Tasman Map, one of the treasures of the library’s collection. It shows the two voyages of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and the incomplete outline of the southern continent that came to be known as Australia. The irregular shape, open to the ocean on the eastern side where the lines break off, has an eccentric look, as if land and sea have merged.

Tasman Map 1

When Tasman was charting the coastline this land was understood entirely differently. On the map of his voyages it appears as insubstantial as a tracing. For Europeans the southern continent was a mystery and a potential colonial resource. Examining the map I try to fill it in, imagine it as country. For the hundreds of Aboriginal clans who populated the continent, it had been their lands for at least 40,000 years.

The marble map, like the atlas, is roped off and I peer down onto it at the Latin inscriptions, spouting sea monsters and the outlines of Tasman’s ships, the Zeehaen and Heemskerck. I look across the brown marble ocean and the red outline of the incomplete continent. The marble was quarried at Wombeyan, the colour chosen for its similarity to the aged paper of the map. Other marble came from elsewhere, green serpentine from Tasmania, black marble from Yass. It was constructed in 1939 by Melocco Brothers, who created marble interiors for St Marys Crypt and many prominent city buildings.

Tasman Map 2

Stepping outside again it’s a bright winter day. Having been staring at the entirety of the world in a book, then a long-ago ocean voyage frozen in marble, the real landscape appears almost hyperreal.

There’s a lull in the traffic and I dash across the six lane road in front of the library that is called, improbably, Shakespeare Place. Under the command of their personal trainers people are jogging on the spot under the date palms at the corner of the Botanic Gardens. I head past them and away, down the hill, towards the harbour.

On the way home I stop at Central Station and go in search the other Melocco Brothers terazzo map. It’s a map of Australia amid a green marble sea, the coastline meticulous. The land, each state a different shade of marble, is veined with the red lines of railway routes. It and a series of marble friezes depicting scenes from Australian history decorate what was once the booking office. Now the booking office is elsewhere and the map is partially obscured by the food court tables and chairs. A family sit in Victoria eating burgers. Pigeons traverse New South Wales pecking up french fries.

Central Station Melocco

The Earth Platinum Atlas is on display in the State Library of NSW until July 19th.

Macquarie University Treasure Map

Macquarie University Treasure Map

In the 1970s my grandfather worked as a lab technician in the Physics department at Macquarie University. After he retired he kept up his sideline of watch repair and would come into the university to pick up the week’s watches from the newsagency. As a child I’d often accompany him on these trips. On the way to the union building we’d visit Frank in the Biological Sciences building. Contrary to what you may be imagining, Frank was not one of my grandfather’s past workmates. He was a large Kodiak bear who had lived at Taronga Zoo until his death in 1978, when he was donated to the university.

Macquarie Frank

In his glass case Frank seemed colossal and I’d stare up at him in awe. A real bear was an extraordinary thing to behold and in my imagination Macquarie became a magical place. Inside the concrete buildings were unexpected things, ready for discovery.

Mac Uni Brutalist

Sydney has five universities, each with a particular character and mythology. Macquarie was designed and built in the 1960s. Back then its brutalist buildings rose starkly from the freshly cleared ground. Now the trees have grown up around them and the concrete has weathered, and there’s a harmony of greys, greens and browns. With the increasing respect for Brutalist architecture it has become easier to see the geometric beauty of these buildings, their shadows and shapes.

Mac Uni Brutalist 2

Macquarie was designed by architect Walter Abraham, who planned the university on a grid pattern around a central courtyard. To anyone arriving at the university for the first time and finding themselves among a maze of buildings with names like “E8A” and “C10A”, the pattern is perhaps not so obvious. Like all university campuses, Macquarie has its main thoroughfares, shortcuts and secret passageways. One of the thoroughfare’s is Wally’s Walk, a straight stretch of pathway lined with plane trees that was named after Abraham. Underneath Wally’s Walk is a tunnel, part of the network of tunnels that form a secret network underneath the campus.

Mac Uni Wallys Walk

The tunnels are inaccessible; other hidden treasures can be seen only occasionally. The Physics department in E6A is the home of the world’s largest laser transmission hologram, the beautiful “To Absent Friends” by Paula Dawson. The hologram is of a bar on New Year’s Eve, at the beginning, middle and end of the night. The room slips into greater disarray across the three panels. Peering into it, the illusion is such that the room seems perfectly real, like you could slip through the window and inhabit the red, sparkly world beyond. But once the lasers are turned off, the bar disappears and all there is to see is a conference room.

Of all the buildings at Macquarie University, it’s the Biological Sciences building, E8A, which has the highest density of curiousities. They begin with Frank in the foyer and continue in the Biological Sciences Museum, with its red walls and owls in perspex display bubbles.

Mac Uni Bio Sciences Museum

At the back of the museum, lungfish dwell in a tank. They’re ancient creatures, having existed in pretty much the same form for 300 million years. Apart from the lungfish the museum is often deserted, the only clue to previous visitors the entries in the guestbook, which comment on the strange smell – a smell like laboratories and upholstery – and the more grisly of the exhibits.

Mac Uni Dendro

In the nearby hallway there’s a dendrochronology display by the elevator, allowing you to ponder the history of the world as preserved in tree rings as you wait to ascend to class on the higher levels. At the back of the building is another trip through time, with the ancient trees of the Plant Evolution walk. As well as the concrete buildings, the other major contributor to the university’s atmosphere are the trees. The trees planted at the university’s beginnings have now grown tall. In the central courtyard 120 lemon scented gum trees were planted in a formation inspired by the phalanx, a unit of the Roman army lined up for battle. Sometimes after the rain, with the lemon scent of the trees in the air and the sound of the birds, it’s like being in a park rather than a university.

Mac Uni Central Courtyard

At the centre of the campus is the courtyard, surrounded by the Brutalist concrete buildings that were the first to be built in the 1960s. This included the library, a building of iconic sternness that was replicated on every computer catalogue card.

Mac Uni Catalogue Card

Mac Uni Library Old

In 2011 the library moved to a new building and was the subject of much gossip for its automatic retrieval system, referred to by most as the “robot library”. This made me imagine a metal man like Robby the robot appearing with my books but meant that the majority of the library’s collection would be held behind the scenes in a 4 storey high storage system of metal boxes.

Another feature of the central zone of the university are the murals, which decorate the walkways around the courtyard. Outside the bank, a hand scatters cash – the old pre-1990s paper notes. In another mural by David Humphries, a psychedelic combination of colours and characters marches across the wall underneath the old library.

Mac Mural Banknotes

Mac Uni Mural 2

Mac Uni Lincoln

Lincoln Building; Macquarie’s Aztec Temple, as noted in the David Humphries mural above.

The campus is divided so that the sciences are on the east side and the arts to the west. As the Biological Sciences have their museum of skeletons and specimens, Arts has an Ancient Cultures museum with a similarly clandestine atmosphere. There is only an air conditioning hiss as I stare at the ancient caskets and statues, the pottery vessels and fragments of papyrus manuscripts.

Mac Uni Caskets

In the nearby W6A is another museum, of Australian History, with a cabinet of milk bar ephemera and another with objects from one person’s year of living in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. A wooden drawer with a jumble of things, a tube of toothpaste, can of spraypaint, a Chick Corea cassette.

Mac Uni Tent Embassy

Out the back door of the museum is a courtyard and here Joy stands watching over the students who sit at the outdoor tables or shortcut through to other buildings. Like Frank, Joy has become another permanent, though inanimate, member of the university community. Joy’s first home was on Stanley Street in East Sydney and she was said to be the only statue of a sex worker on public display in the world. In 1996 Joy was damaged by a woman who attacked the statue with a hammer, seeing a resemblance between Joy and her recently deceased daughter. Other attacks followed, until in 1997 Joy was relocated to the “more peaceful, if duller life” in the W6A courtyard.

Mac Uni Joy

There are around 130 sculptures on the campus, as well as some unintended sculptural features, such as the “W3A steps to nowhere” and the “C10A Ramp to Nowhere”, created by various access modifications.

Mac Uni Steps to Nowhere

At the back of the gym is a wall with strange notches and protrusions which must have been designed for rock climbing practice but I like to think of it as a tribute to the old library catalogue cards.

Mac Uni Climbing Wall

When the university opened in the late 1960s, the students were described, by Phil Gibbs, as “a polyglot of hippies, yippies, pop fiends, acid rockers, student revolutionaries and social deviants”. There’s still traces of the university’s hippy past here and there, the Martin Sharp painting of Tiny Tim in the stairwell of C11A, the annual “Conception Day” festival, once a day of pranks (collecting garden gnomes from lawns across the North Shore, a street party stopping traffic on Epping Road) and now an unusually named music festival. The past issues of student magazine Arena, now bound into books and stored in the library, capture the spirit of the university’s early days.

Mac Uni Grow Your Own

Now God is more likely to accost you in the form of suspiciously friendly students wanting to invite you to prayer meetings, but Macquarie still has plenty of eccentricities. Alumni, wear your rings with pride.

Mac Uni Graduation Ring

* * * *

There is plenty of archived Macquarie University ephemera at the Jubilee website.

The Macquarie University Treasure Map was a part of the Creative Revisions exhibition at the Macquarie University Art Gallery.

A photograph of the author and Frank, reunited. 

Dulwich Hill Tourists

Dulwich Hill Map 4In a display cabinet behind the window of Luigi’s Bakery is a framed Daily Telegraph review, a soccer ball, a sheaf of wheat and a printout of a New York Times travel article from 2007. Dulwich Hill was the unexpected focus of this article, which begins with the 5am scene at Luigi’s, where the lucky few get their pick of the loaves and rolls that are mostly sold out by 9 or 10 in the morning.

Luigi Coke Can

After this article was published Dulwich Hill residents waited for the arrival of groups of New York tourists. They would soon appear, eager for a Luigi loaf or the 10 types of baklava at Abla. They would be seen buying postcards from the dusty rack in the newsagency, cards with koalas and views of Sydney and Bondi Beach. The Dulwich Hill postcard, though, only exists through experience.

The tourists step off the 428 bus onto New Canterbury Road, where an elderly busker wearing a jester hat has set up on milk crates. A battery operated monkey jerkily dances to music the man stabs out on his keyboard. The milk crates are decorated with posters of different monkey expressions, excitement, curiosity, anger. The tourists give him a few coins and continue to the corner of Marrickville and New Canterbury Roads. They’ve read the New York times article closely, so they know that this used to be the tram terminus. Now in its place is a bus turning circle and a tiny park, where old Greek men congregate at the benches to continue an endless conversation. Sometimes they’re outside the IGA supermarket, worry beads in their hands as they discuss the world, watching the buses and the traffic and the people coming out of the IGA with bags of groceries.

Veras Pharmacy

The tourists turn into Marrickville road, past Excellent Price Variety store, where every conceivable household item from bundt tins to lava lamps to cigarette lighters patterned with kittens is sold. They pass the pharmacy with a fold out sign picturing pills with sly, sleepy expressions and the Crescent Star Turkish community centre with its curtains perpetually drawn. At the start of the shopping strip is a dental practice with a waiting room decorated like a parlour, with lamps and Persian carpets, Egyptian figurines, a banjo hanging from the wall.

Behind the shops is a park called the Graham Green, which at first the tourists think must be named after the writer. Then they read the fine print on the sign. It’s named after Bob Graham, the principal of the nearby high school. Surrounding the park are streets of brick cottages and old apartments, a substation disguised as a block of flats, a big Victorian Rectory next to the church with a widow’s walk on the roof. Parked outside it and all the way up to Mad Era mechanics on the corner are Jaguars. The mechanics move them around like elegant, tapered chess pieces, as they bring them in and out of the workshop.

There are plenty of unexpected things in Dulwich Hill, although perhaps this can be said for any Sydney suburb, or any place investigated with curiosity. The tourists find many things with no ready explanation. The shrine to Cosima De Vito in the window of a cluttered book exchange, her face faded and water damaged in the many copies of the same portrait taped to the glass. The store is closed and they peer in through the window at the piles of books and magazines inside. The shop is near the corner of Beach Road, confusing as there is no beach in sight and the coast is many kilometres away. “Sous les pavés, la plage!” one of the tourist jokes. They choose Constitution Road instead and walk along it a little way. In the distance they can see what looks like a rocket poking up from beyond the railway overpass, ready to blast into space. The tourists take photos beside it, noticing that the hole into once children would climb to ascend to the top has long been covered and welded shut.

DH Rocket

Later, back in their city hotel room, they look through their photos of their Dulwich Hill visit as they munch on the bread rolls they had got up so early to buy from Luigi’s. There is a photo of them with the rocket, and outside the headquarters of Mrs Hugh Dixons Own 1st Dulwich Hill Troop Boy Scouts on Lewisham Street, and sitting on the bus stop outside the Salvos store with a large stuffed toy bear that had been dumped there the night before along with some old sofas.

Across from the Salvos they notice a dilapidated building with odd-shaped oval recesses on the facade. There are signs for a new development that is soon to take place on the site. The tourists wonder what the building might be like inside; it is obviously uninhabited. They peer through an iron gate towards the entrance to what was once a nightclub. The gate is padlocked but it swings open when they push against it.

Sweet Sherry

Inside the nightclub the dancefloor is piled with smashed up wood and glass. Upstairs they find what was once the storeroom, with shelves still labelled “sweet sherry”, “dubonnet”, “spumante” and other unfashionable liquors. There’s a kitchen up there too, with the cupboard doors open to reveal small, left-behind things, coloured lightbulbs, an empty bottle of methylated spirits. It could be an abandoned building anywhere, but it’s their Dulwich Hill adventure. Years later when they think of that morning, it’s this place that they remember first. How they looked out the broken windows to the street below, their faces appearing like ghosts to anyone on the street who happened to be looking up at that moment.

DH Corner Close up

Guide to Bankstown of the 50s and 60s

Guide to Bankstown of the 50s and 60s 2

I created this map for the Suburban Noir exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, which was curated by Peter Doyle and based on postwar crime scene photographs from the Sydney suburbs. The crime scene photos were a mixture of street scenes and domestic interiors, roads through raw, new suburbs, houses with floral carpet and wooden furniture and everyday objects elevated into the status of evidence: an aluminium kettle or a Diana Pottery (made in Marrickville) mixing bowl in a kitchen; a box of Federal (made in Alexandria) matches on a sideboard, television sets with their sturdy wooden cabinets on jaunty legs that often turn up in photos of stolen goods.

Sub Noir corner

The photos were from suburbs all over Sydney, but I chose Bankstown as a focus. In the postwar years Bankstown grew as a residential area and streets of fibro houses were constructed as well as attendant suburban amusements: Bankstown Square shopping centre, bowling clubs and orchid clubs, the drive-in cinema at Bass Hill. Bankstown’s previous incarnation as the site of Sydney’s World War 2 military operations was still apparent in the airport and the Bankstown bunker, both of which remain to this day. The map is of objects and places, traces that exist in the archives and still, here and there, in the Bankstown streets where the fibro houses still stand, in between their oversized brick replacements.

bankstown duo




Newtown in the 1990s Map

Apart from Mirror Sydney, my other project this year has been Ninety9, my recently published memoir of growing up in Sydney in the 1990s. A lot of the book is about music: my early teenage years coincided with the shift in pop culture in the early 1990s in which the newly labelled “alternative” culture flourished. Music, zines and community radio were all an important part of connecting me with a more underground version of Sydney, but there was nothing like visiting Glebe and Newtown to make my misfit self feel as if I’d found my true home.

King Street 1990s

The author, at a late 90s Reclaim the Streets, when the Oxford was still the Oxford.

When I walk along King Street it’s through a patchwork of time and memories. What is there now mixes with what used to be there and other less fixed memories: rumours, other people’s stories, displaced memories that are vague enough to be like dreams. I first visited King Street as a teenager. I’d try on secondhand clothes at The Look or go to the night markets in Burland Community Hall, or just watch the people a little older than me, goths and punks, people with bright hair and weird clothes, whose lives I hoped to emulate. I soon started seeing bands at the Sandringham Hotel and at Feedback, the venue above Newtown Station with rickety back stairs on the edge of a precipice above the train tracks.

When I moved out of home in 1997, spray painted in huge letters on the wall alongside the Footbridge Theatre on Parramatta Road were the words: Don’t Move to Newtown. These words were no doubt directed at the influx of suburban misfit teenagers like me, who had grown up aspiring to live on King Street and were now finally old enough to move out of home.

Despite the fact many had come before me, I felt that King Street and the inner west was the home that I had chosen, rather than the home I was born into.  I browsed books at the Cornstalk Bookshop, drank cheap carafes of wine at the Happy Chef and long blacks at Cafe Solea, spent late nights at the Oxford Hotel writing stories on beer coasters with my friends and going to parties in Newtown back streets.

On King Street these days I often navigate by what used to be there rather than what is, and use the mainstays as landmarks. There’s the “Goulds end” of King Street, and I still call the building above the station Feedback (others might call it by its previous names: Tracks, or “Toucan Tango” as it was in the 80s, with a giant Toucan and palm trees painted on the facade).

Despite moving much further along the gentrification scale, and the sudden proliferation of frozen yogurt stores, there is still plenty of 90s Newtown around. I decided I’d make a map to record the places that remain and those that are no longer.

I started by making a map from memory, listing the places I remembered best.

King Street Newtown Map Version 1

Then I discovered that on Archivepix there are photos of every building on King Street in 1991, which were taken for a study of heritage paint colours. Search “heritage paint scheme 1991” and you can travel all the way down King Street in 1991! It was before my time but it was lots of fun to see desolate south King street and Coles where the Dendy is now, and the Coopers Arms as the Shakespeare Hotel, the old cars, the people caught in mid-stride. From this, and old address listings online, I made a version of the map with street numbers.

King Street Map Version 2

Things were taking shape. I struggled with matching up the sides of the street and working out the placement of the side streets, but eventually came up with a hand drawn King Street I was happy with. There was a lot to include and so I decided to focus on the area from the Sando to Goulds.

Newtown 90s map WIP

Finally I put it all together. Here, dear readers, is the 1990s map of King Street, Newtown.

King Street Newtown 1990s map

Comments, suggestions, additions welcome – please let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed or if you have a particularly strong King Street memory in any of these places.


Newtown in the 90s – Making the Map

I’m doing a walking tour of 1990s Newtown as a tie in with my recently released Memoir Ninety9, and as part of it I’m making a map of King Street in the 1990s. No particular year – though it is strongest with mid-90s, which is the era I started visiting Newtown regularly. It’s still a work in progress but I thought I’d post it here and ask what else would be good to include before I make the final map. So please do comment if there’s anywhere you remember that would be good to include (click to enlarge).

Newtown 90s map WIP

Penrith Arcades Project Map

Penrith Arcades Map

I’ll be reading a story based on the Penrith Arcades Project this Saturday, July 13th, at the Penrith Regional Gallery, as part of Penguin Plays Rough, from 3pm – come to hear stories and pick up a copy of this map to begin your own High Street adventure.