The two main roads that cut through Pymble cross over in a complex intersection. Ryde Road undercuts the Pacific Highway in a tunnel, with slip roads filtering traffic between them. To one side of the intersection the train line runs across on an elevated track. There’s a thin strip of land beside the railway, with such businesses as a drive-in dry cleaners and a mini-golf putting green, with a course of astroturf winding around a landscape, decorated by a jolly fibreglass elephant amid chunks of sandstone.
On the other side of the highway the land slopes downwards, leading into a valley. On the north west side there’s a screen of tall trees, and behind it a long, curved building, nestled into the corner, tucked down below the level of the road. Built in 1968 as the Australian headquarters for 3M, the five-storey office building combines pale concrete columns with darker panels of rough concrete aggregate, like two contrasting threads woven into a grid. Its design echoes some of the city office buildings that were built with a similar curved shape, the best known being the AMP building that faces Circular Quay and was, in the early 1960s when it opened, the tallest building in the city.
The 3M building was much smaller, but was nevertheless striking in its aspect, set as it is below the level of the road, so the upper storeys, visible from the highway, seem to hover in space. Whenever going past it I would look over towards the red 3M sign on the roof and imagine the plentiful post-it notes and rolls of tape that would be in their stationery cupboards. I would think of the story of the invention of the post-it note: a 3M scientist wanted to create a strong, tough adhesive, but instead created a weak one that could be peeled easily off surfaces. He didn’t know how to apply his invention until he spoke to another scientist at the company, who had the problem of keeping bookmarks from sliding out of his hymn book. From this the post-it note was born.
Now the sign has been stripped from the roof and the building has been empty for seven years, as the local council and Bunnings, the purchasers of the site in 2012, argue about whether the building is to be retained or demolished.
The longer is it vacant, the more it falls into disrepair. Graffiti has accumulated on the walls, and the first floor windows are cracked and broken where rocks have been thrown at them. It’s a building I’ve only ever seen through a car or train window, in motion, from afar. I feel a sense of unreality as I approach it, as if I’ve stepped into a photograph. All of a sudden the scale changes and I see the height of the building in comparison to my body, rather than the surrounding scene of the highway and the traffic.
The back of the building faces onto a high wall reinforced by concrete slabs, above which is the highway, hidden by a screen of gum trees, present only as a groaning rush of cars and trucks. Down herel the grass is long and the ivy at the bottom of the embankment grows thickly. As I advance a brown rabbit darts out from the ivy and bounces away, its white tail bobbing against the green. The garden is lush and vital compared to the still, solid presence of the building, heavy with the undisturbed air captured inside it.
On the far side is a path that leads up to the highway. A camellia tree is in full bloom, the smell of its pink flowers sweetening the air. The path continues down around to the entrance, and I realise that in seeing the building from the road, I only ever saw it from the back. From the front, the curve of the building has a gathering effect, like it has curled in on itself to hold its contents in tightly. Most of the windows have the blinds drawn down, but through those that don’t I see the outlines of office furniture inside, the square ghostly shapes of tables and cabinets.
I approach the front doors and look inside. In a pair of mirrored interior doors a few metres in from where I stand I see my reflection, a woman in a navy blue dress and spotted scarf.
It is as if I’ve come for a job interview thirty years too late, and found the building vacant. I’m here but everyone has gone. There’s only the rabbits and the birds now, and hedges grown into wild, irregular shapes, and tendrils of ivy inching up the building’s concrete ribs.
The bright green carpet, the colour of grass in cartoons, absorbs my footsteps. The hallway echoes with sounds from elsewhere in the building, a click of a door shutting, a scrap of a conversation. The scene around me is as perfectly still, as if I am walking through a photograph from the 1970s. I’m moving through a cavernous space with towering beams and cylinders of concrete, inside the new William Balmain Teachers College, which opened in the Lindfield bushland in 1971.
In truth it’s 2015 and it’s the end, rather than the beginning. UTS, which inherited the college, has operated here since 1990, and has swapped this brutalist bushland enclave for a former TAFE building in Ultimo, and this campus is soon to close.
When the teachers’ college opened in 1971, a Sydney Morning Herald article described how: “If it were in Japan or Italy architects would make a special point of visiting it. As it is just in the backblocks of Lindfield on Sydney’s North Shore, not many people will see it”. Backing onto the Lane Cove River bushland, at the end of the residential streets that trail down from the Pacific Highway, it is perhaps not a place one might expect to discover a brutalist fortress. Designed by architect David Turner, it won the Sulman Medal in 1978, though it is only with the recent upsurge of interest in Brutalism, and the sale of the surrounding land for development, that it has come back into general awareness as an significant building.
Constructed to complement its bushland setting, the campus is a five storey split level structure, a complex network of courtyards, bridges, spiral stairs and walkways. It’s part Italian hill-top village, part castle, constructed in raw concrete. Navigating it is negotiation a labyrinth of levels and stairwells, a game-like exploration through corridors, rooms and halls.
I get used to its spacious stillness and following its hallways at random becomes an adventure. I count the 1970s fixtures, circles of aqua vinyl lounge chairs, bright orange spherical light fittings, pink railings. In the same 1971 article that described the college’s suburban location the green carpet is noted as a surprising feature: “it must have taken a brave man to select such a colour for a public building”, Eva Buhrich writes, going on to detail the “sweeping balaustrades” that “just for the heck of it, are finished with lolly pink handrails”.
I pass a table of free books set out for people to take and stop to flip through education textbooks from the 1970s, with black and white photographs of children playing and sitting to attention in classrooms. The surrounding office doors are decorated with postcards and notes, but all are shut and there is no one in sight. I pass a pottery workshop with a row of glazed miniature heads, a window display of pottery deep sea fish, a display cabinet of counting apparatuses and a giant size slide ruler.
In 1955, the English architectural critic Reyner Banham, in his writing on the “New Brutalism” described how: “what moves a New Brutalist is the thing itself, in its totality, and with all its overtones of human association”. There is indeed something very total about the Kuringai building. Unlike its northern suburbs Brutalist contemporary – Macquarie University in North Ryde – this building folds many within it, into one complex, united structure. The slabs and cylinders of raw concrete have a monolithic presence, and seem almost of the same stuff as the sandstone of the ridge on which the university was built. This merging was accentuated by the landscaping by Bruce Mackenzie, which preserved as much of the surrounding bushland as possible, and incorporated roof gardens and courtyards planted with paperbark trees.
There isn’t much time to visit the campus as it is – the university semester is almost over, and farewell gatherings for past students have been planned for November, after which it will close. After the university leaves the building will be converted into Lindfield Learning Village public school, to open in 2017. In it’s proposal, although “many aspects of the building will be retained”, some “internal elements” will be assessed for their “appropriateness for a school”. I guess that means the bright green carpet’s days are numbered.
There are plenty of archival photos of UTS Kuringai here, featuring 70s hair, knee socks, boxy computers and clunky AV equipment, and the campus in its heyday.
UFO sightings in Sydney, while relatively frequent, are nonetheless fleeting. You have to be looking at the sky at just the right moment to notice the glowing orbs and mysterious shapes that sometimes appear above us. Some areas like the Northern Beaches are known UFO hot spots with a database of encounters to prove it. But there is no need to visit the Narrabeen Lakes and wait for the bright lights. Alien space craft exist among us on the ground.
The bright lights and weird shapes seen over Narrabeen are perhaps attracted to the three spherical structures at the centre of the public school. These are binishells, concrete domes constructed in the 1970s in a NSW government project which saw 14 of these curious buildings appear across the state. The structures were masterminded by the Italian architect Dante Bini. He developed a construction method where concrete was sprayed over a membrane which was then inflated to form a dome. In the six years Bini spent in Sydney in the early 1970s numerous binishells were constructed in primary and high schools.
Binishells rise up out of the school grounds like concrete blisters or grounded flying saucers. Many a student, while sitting their HSC exams in a binishell hall, might have wished for the flying saucer to take off and get them out of there, but the only surprise movement to have occurred with one was the collapse of the Pittwater High School binishell in 1986. This led to investigations into their safety but with reinforcement the binishells were allowed to stay. They can be found dotted across Sydney, in Turramurra (Ku-ring-gai High School), Ashbury, Fairfield, Killarney Heights and Narrabeen North. Others at Peakhurst and Randwick have now been demolished. Plans for binishell houses – known as the “minishell” – were devised, but house domes never made it to the Sydney suburbs. (For binishell fans, visit the Groundwork exhibition in October to see the bini-related work by Zanny Begg.)
Sydney does have a number of space ship houses, however. The most notorious is familiar to anyone who drives north across the Spit Bridge. It perches on the steep hillside above Middle Harbour, its circular form bulging out in segments of tall windows. It has a kind of James Bond villian’s lair ambiance, bringing to mind images of lurid flared pantsuits, cocktails and the retro futurism of 60s style.
The house was built in 1964 by architect Stan Symonds, known for his free form, sculptural designs. He is responsible for various unusual Northern Beaches houses, including the Pittwater house with the surprisingly phallic floorplan (its recent sale was a subeditors dream for headline puns) and the Seaforth Dome house (listed on Airbnb for the very curious). The Seaforth house visible from the Spit Bridge is known officially as Vendome, or the Schuchard House, although it’s known by many as the space ship house or the flying saucer house.
I walk along the pedestrian path of the Spit Bridge towards the space ship house. The Spit Bridge is not a particularly striking structure most of the time, except for the 5 or so times a day a section of it lifts up to allow ships to pass through. The part that moves is a central section of metal girders and mesh. It shudders under my feet as the traffic rushes over it and the metal booms and echoes. I endure this disconcerting experience as I stop to peer over at the space ship house. The room that bulges out is like a fishbowl and I can see the indistinct shapes of furniture inside it. Then a shape shifts and I realise there’s someone in there, wearing a red shirt, moving about. Feeling voyeuristic I drop my gaze and continue across the bridge, as men in suits and sunglasses drive by in convertibles, and buses pick up speed before tackling the hill up to Seaforth.
From the street there is little clue to the space ship below, besides the house’s curved roof. But from here I can see down across Middle Harbour with its clusters of white boats, and watch as the cars stop on either side of the bridge, the boom gate go down, and the centre slowly rises.
The Seaforth spaceship house isn’t alone. Craft have landed across Sydney, in Earlwood:
and in Eschol Park near Cambelltown, the bizarre Mount Universe, the never finished headquarters for the Universal Power society. The structure, once visible from the surrounding suburbs but now obscured by trees, was based on Saturn’s rings. Construction began in the late 1970s but not completed, although the sign remains at the gates.
The 1960s and 70s were the era of space ship buildings. They were no doubt influenced by the space age, but their other dominant influence was concrete. The adaptability of concrete as a building material enabled the construction of the binishells and the free form structure of the Shuchard House. But of all architectural styles there is none more celebratory of concrete than Brutalism. As a architectural style it produced bold, solid designs in concrete. Although the name refers to the French term for raw concrete – béton brut – the “brute” in brutalism is a good description of the assertive effect of the buildings.
Among the office blocks of Crows Nest another space ship rests. An inverted concrete pyramid inside wide columns like rocket boosters, the St Leonards Centre looks like it could blast off if given sufficient force. Rather like the Sydney Masonic Centre, its inverted shape gives it a mysterious atmosphere and it’s hard to imagine what exactly might be going on inside.
The St Leonards Centre opened in 1972 as the central computing hub for the CBC Bank. Like the Reader’s Digest Building in Surry Hills its computer was a central feature of the building, and employees could enter the viewing platform to watch the Honeywell 6000 in action on Level 8. The building was described as “an architectural first – a sculptured office building” with “one of the most sophisticated computer installations in Australia”. More than 100 CBC bank branches across Sydney were linked to this computer, making it a kind of central banking brain at the core of the space ship. The pamphlet explaining this new technology describes how each branch will be able to “talk” to the computer through their terminals and receive an immediate response. Beam me up!
Of all of Sydney’s spaceships the most well known, and most central, is the CTA Building in Martin Place. Designed by Harry Seidler in the 1970s, it is so unusual a structure that seems more like a sculpture than building. The thought that it actually had an interior only dawned upon me when I visited it for the Kaldor Art Projects Thomas Demand exhibition in 2012. At the exhibition visitors discovered a series of tiny bedrooms, hotel rooms for commercial travellers passing through Sydney. The slits in the drum are the bedroom’s windows, with a view out across Martin Place.
The CTA Building was a part of Seidler’s MLC Centre design, built on a large Castlereagh Street site. Demolished to build the MLC Centre was Hotel Australia, the Theatre Royal, Rowe Street and the previous Commercial Traveller’s Association Club, a tall, sandstone building on the corner of Martin Place. It was replaced by the small, neat building, often described as a mushroom, sometimes lovingly, other time disparagingly.
Having reached the central space ship I was drawn to the entrance at the base of the curved stem. Inside I entered a metal capsule and was drawn downwards into a dimly lit, red cavern. The floor was patterned with dying stars, so bright they were difficult to focus on. I sat in a curve of dark red velvet and found a tube of cold, sparkling liquid in front of me. I sipped it and underneath my feet felt the rumble of the craft readying for takeoff. Music started: to my surprise it was Pulp’s “Disco 2000”. The extraterrestrials, with their superior knowledge, had known exactly what song would keep me at ease during the ascent.
The Pacific Highway meets the Gore Hill Freeway in a confusion of off and on ramps. On the Artarmon side of the intersection is a large Spanish Mission hotel now called the Shore Apartments. In the 70s they were the Shore Motel, advertised as “like a city in itself”, offering ‘Parisian Elegance’ and ‘Isle of Capri Escapades’. The Shore remains a highway oasis of palm trees and white stucco archways, a European holiday resort stranded in the wrong hemisphere.
On the other side of the freeway overpass is a block of old shops earmarked for demolition. This assorted bunch of structures once contained a boating store, a cluttered factory seconds place and a construction firm, but now are hung with banners for a new development. The ads promise “city meets village lifestyle” in the new 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments that will be built there.
It’s reaching the end of a Sunday afternoon and the light is golden, the shadows long. I drive past the Shore Apartments but can’t pay too much attention to the Parisian elegance as I’m watching the lane markings to avoid being drawn down onto the freeway. The freeway is quicker but I feel compelled to take the highway today. I like its curves and details, and travel it so infrequently that something is different every time.
A message from the past has reappeared. The banners on the front of the buildings might promote “village lifestyle”, but on the side is a flashback to DEFENDER SLUG AND SNAIL KILLER, in neat block letters underneath a line of metal flashing remaining from the building that once stood beside it.
In front of this old battle slogan is the concrete and flattened dirt of the recently cleared lot. It doesn’t look like a place where there would be much of a threat from slugs or indeed any creatures at all. Yet the sign gives me cause to imagine them. In particular I imagine the future, when the residents of the apartments find themselves dreaming of snails, mysteriously and incessantly. They google “snail dream meaning” and ponder the sensitivity and vulnerability it symbolises, but it’s to the power of the ghost sign their dreams really refer.
Waitara is one of those small, in-between suburbs that rarely attracts much attention. The Pacific Highway runs through it, lined mostly with car dealerships and auto services, before turning a sharp right and heading towards Hornsby. On the north side of the train line are streets of new apartment buildings that have, over the last decade, replaced the rows of cottages that used to be there.
There’s one small stretch of older buildings on this side of the tracks, along Alexandria Parade facing the train station. In the 1950s my grandparents ran a general store in the corner building that is now a real estate agency. My mother, who was a child at the time, tells me stories of the residents of Orara Street which sound like they are from Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South: much gossip and family drama, unexpected kindnesses and the occasional crime.
At the other end of the Alexandria Parade block is a 1920s-era corner store with a wide awning. It persists despite a backdrop of cranes and encroaching apartment buildings, although the windows have cardboard signs announcing the store inside will soon be closing down. In a wooden frame a sign painted in red capital letters is propped up against the front wall: Now is the time for a bargain.
This is the Waitara Curiosity Shop, a secondhand dealership that has been selling crockery and bric a brac from the corner store for 35 years. At the entrance is another framed sign which lists some of the stock in the store, among them: small furniture, standard lamps, dinkys, tricycles, rocking horses, fire-irons, “old and new items”, and the 5 rooms of “lovely items”. On the handpainted Curiosity Shop sign above the entrance, a 9 has been added to the phone number in a slightly different paint, touched up back in the 1990s when the city’s phone numbers gained an extra digit.
Inside is a maze of shelves and bookcases, filled with tea sets and crockery, souvenir dishes from towns in England, ceramic platters, ornaments, objects and contraptions. I talk with Richard the manager about the varying shapes of teacups and coffee-cups for a while, and then about the store’s imminent closure. The Curiosity Shop’s owner John, a man in his 90s who lived in a nearby nursing home, passed away earlier this year, and now the store must close.
Behind the counter are framed notices announcing that goods are sold “as is”, a small watercolour painting of the shop, and a sepia toned photograph of the Old Curiosity Shop in London after which the store was named. This London shop was named after the publication of the Charles Dickens novel in 1841, as it was was said to be the inspiration for it. Dickens described the shop:
“The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye…”
Sydney’s Curiosity Shop comes from a world of Dickens novels and knicknacks, the old and the curious. There’s a feeling of hidden treasure among its narrow passageways and the buildings echoes with footsteps on the floorboards as people browse the rooms. I follow a sign that reads “Upstairs For More Things” and climb the steep staircase. Up here the rooms are mostly empty. There are a few 80s movie posters hanging up in a doorway, a icily smiling Joan Collins, a 1985 calendar. A suitcase contains a tangle of dusty lace curtains.
The closing down sale has already been on for a few weeks, Richard says, and already they’ve sold a lot of the stock. Still, the shop will keep open until it’s all gone. He wraps my purchases in newspaper and writes each item down in the spiral bound book in which he records sales. The counter is surrounded by shelves with collections of small, useful, things, price tags and pens, stationery in shortbread tins, dishes of odds and ends, accrued over years.
I leave with my bag of newspaper-wrapped bric a brac. I’ll miss The Curiosity Shop, even though it is not by any means Sydney’s only secondhand goods dealer; there are many of them around the suburbs. It has, however, always been one of my favourites, a monument to curiosity in the changing suburbs.
It’s winter and the Manly Waterworks is closed for the season. The tubes of the waterslides are squeezed in between the cliff and the boardwalk, coiled up like fat snakes. We peer in through the wire fence at one of the slides, the “Insane Earthworm”. Around the end of the pipe is a painting of the earthworm, with huge bloodshot eyes, staring in a trance towards the ferns and fronds of the palm tree alongside it.
The waterworks is an eccentric-looking place, a construction of pipes and scaffolding with plastic chairs and beach balls marooned here and there. Recently, the owner of the Waterworks has applied for it to be heritage listed, arguing that, as one of Manly’s attractions since 1981, it has significant historical importance. It was immortalised in the BMX Bandits. People who went there as a child are now bringing their children for a slide down the earthworm.
Long before Manly had the Waterworks there was the Water Chute. Opened in 1903, the Chute was a cross between a rollercoaster and a waterslide. People would ride down a steep slope in a boat-like contraption which crashed into an artificial lake. Crowds gathered to watch the thrilling loss of composure of the passengers as they “shot the chute”, decorously dressed men and women screaming as the sped down the steep incline to the waters below. Eighty years before Nicole Kidman plunged down the earthworm with her BMX, local shoe store owner “Professor” Artie Adrian was making regular Saturday night appearances at the Water Chute, riding his bicycle down the slope and into the pool.
The Chute closed in 1906, going the way of many of other of Manly’s seaside attractions: the fun pier, the camera obscura, the Bioscope, the toboggan, the Shark Aquarium, the horse and cart rides and the balloon ascents. Manly has long been a place of novelty, modelled on the British seaside resort it briefly shared a name with, Brighton.
Before its transformation to European-style leisure resort, the area’s first European name – Manly Cove – arose from Arthur Phillip’s observation of the “confidence and manly behaviour” of the Cannalgal and Kayimai men who inhabited the peninsula. Manly Cove was also the place where in 1789 two Cadigal men, Bennelong and Colebee, were abducted by the British. A drawing of this scene made at the time shows the bay small and enclosed by trees. Now the same cove a mixture of apartment buildings and Norfolk Pines, with the ferries churning in towards the wharf every half hour.
Behind Manly Cove the land rises up steeply. On the top of the hill there was once a stone castle with battlements and a tower, built by the politician William Bede Dalley in 1881 as a place of retreat after the death of his wife. Dalley’s castle also included an early writer’s residency, described in 1904 by journalist Mary Salmon as a “haven of rest” for men of letters.
The castle was demolished in 1939 but their gardens remain, and the same vista across the Manly peninsula out towards the ocean and the harbour. Steps form a path alongside jutting rocks, up to the top of the hill. There are rainbow lorikeets sipping nectar from the yellow banksias and swallows circle overhead. Behind the park is a cluster of brick apartment buildings, some with tall chimneys, others with multicoloured bricks and curved balconies, castles of a different kind.
On the other side of the hill is all that is left of Dalley’s castle, a high stone wall guarded by two gargoyles, one lean and toothy, the other canine, a Bloodhound with a mean stare. The gargoyles look out over Ivanhoe Park across the street where bowlers are playing their Saturday morning games on the green. I follow the zigzag path through the park, past an old man carrying a padded briefcase who gives me a brilliant, white-dentured smile.
The most well travelled path in Manly is the one from the wharf to the beach along the Corso. Like the Roman equivalent for which it was named, this is a busy thoroughfare with tourists and visitors, locals walking their dogs or heading out to cafes. It feels perverse to be tracing an alternative path through the hilly streets. Apart from my friend with the briefcase and the bowlers on the green, there is no one else out climbing the hills.
I turn into Kangaroo Street, in search of Manly’s most omniscient, if lesser-known, attraction. It soon comes into view.
From its perch on the hill the Kangaroo has watched Manly grow from a village to a busy suburb. Constructed in 1857, it was commissioned by “father of Manly” Henry Gilbert Smith. Smith was responsible for many of the first buildings in Manly and the planting of rows of Norfolk Pines along the shoreline. He was also responsible for the sandstone mascot which, despite unfavourable comparisons to a teapot, has outlived the majority of Manly’s other tourist attractions.
The Kangaroo rises up from a patch of steep, rocky bushland. Paths trace around it, some more precarious than others. I follow one until I’m at the base of the plinth. Up close the kangaroo resembles a large pear with two stocky paws and a neat little face. Its body has seams running around it, revealing how it was constructed in sections, like a layer cake.
The kangaroo has a clear view of the Manly rooftops and the ocean beyond. In the distance I can see people strolling the Steyne, the beachside promenade named after its Brighton counterpart by Henry Gilbert Smith. The tiny moving figures in the distance seem remote from this high perch. Immediately below me are a series of rock platforms strewn here and there with empty Corona bottles and cigarette packets. Names and initials are carved into the soft sandstone underfoot, inscriptions from visitors recent and past.
From this position I can glimpse my next destination on the Queenscliff headland. It’s marked with a bright pink heart painted on the rocks, a tiny fluorescent chip in the stone wall. I farewell the kangaroo and begin the walk down. At the bottom of the hill is a curving road where I notice the mural on the back of the Salvation Army hall includes an homage to the kangaroo.
After walking along the Steyne to its northern end I reach the bridge across the lagoon. This is not the first time I’ve attempted this mission. A year ago I’d tried only to find the Queenscliff pool under renovation and the cliffs blocked off. This time there’s nothing to stop me from climbing up the stairs beside the still, winter pool and out across the rocks. I work my way along over rocks like stepping stones, moving further towards the tip of the headland and the spraypainted pink heart.
I round the corner and the entrance to the wormhole comes into view, a dark archway in the rock face. I step inside. In here the sound of the ocean is like slipping into the crevices of a seashell, a muted roar. The sandstone around me is unevenly chipped away in layers, wet with seeping trails of water.
As much as I expect the wormhole to lead to another dimension I emerge on the other side of the cliff, facing the ocean. Below me the waves smash into the rocks. The cliffs are layers of striated, eroded rock, complex in shape, as unique as a thumbprint.
The wormhole (also known as the Queenscliff Tunnel) was constructed in 1908 by local fishermen as a shortcut through from Manly to Freshwater beach to the north. Now the path to Freshwater has been blocked by rock falls, though it is still possible to clamber across them and make it to the beach. I don’t do this, though. I stand on the other side of the wormhole, staring out to sea across the restless water, towards the horizon. It’s not long before another group of Wormhole travellers emerge to join me, two hippy men with waistcoats and necklaces and a woman in a short black evening dress and no shoes.
“We’ve all made it through,” I say. “to the other side.”
* * * * *
There is plenty more Manly history at Manly Library Local Studies Blog.
Thanks to Steve B. for telling me about the wormhole years ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.