The arrow points towards the underground passage, urging me to “Keep on Walking”. Ahead of me is a white-walled tunnel, its curved ceiling and unadorned walls making it more resemble one of the hallways from Star Wars than a pedestrian underpass. There are no advertisements on the walls, no graffiti, just a string of round, black ventilation grilles that look like portholes, and two stripes of fluorescent lights along the ceiling.
This is one of my favourite Sydney tunnels. Its starkness is a respite from the visual clutter of the city, as if I’ve slipped into a connecting piece between the present and the past, or some other kind of Sydney. Even at peak hour it’s not a busy thoroughfare. More often that not I walk through it alone, expecting a band of Stormtroopers to come marching out from exit midway along it. But the only action is the few pedestrians heading between Museum train station and the office buildings above.
The Star Wars connection is not as much of a stretch as it could be: the underpass was built in the late 1970s, around the same time as the film was in cinemas. It was part of the Hyde Park Square development of two office towers and an underground arcade and sunken plaza, all connected to Museum station by the tunnel.
I reach the end of the tunnel and it widens out into a shopping arcade. On one side is one of the few remaining ceramic murals by Vladimir Tichy. It is a long wall of textured, bark-like tiles, with sets of vertical bars made from glazed, white bricks, which look like spears of bamboo, or stalactites on the roof of a cave. On one panel is the marker’s mark, carved in relief into the clay: Designed by V. Tichy, 1977.
Tichy is a ceramic sculptor who came to Australia in 1968 from what was then Czechoslavakia. He set up a studio in Parramatta, from where he produced many large-scale ceramic murals for public and office buildings, RSLs, and civic centres. There were once many Tichy murals in the city, but now the only other ones are in the lobby of Macleay College on Foveux Street, and at the entrance to Newton’s Pharmacy on York Street. The rest have been destroyed as 70s buildings are renovated or demolished.
Beyond the mural is the square itself, a sunken plaza between the two buildings. Designed for office workers’ lunches it had clusters of chairs and tables and a big, curved concrete bench you could either side on the inside or outside of. Now most of the square is taken up by a childcare centre, with soft artificial grass and a sandpit.
Once I reach the square I turn back towards the bright, white tunnel. It hadn’t always been so stark. In the 1982 book Subterranean Sydney by Brian and Barbara Kennedy it is described:
A new sixty-five metre tunnel under Elizabeth Street was opened in 1978 to take pedestrians from the complex to Museum Station. The new tunnel was given a modern-art atmosphere with wide bands of colour. The smooth lining of the tunnel was made of a specially toughened material and was said to be vandal proof.
At first, the white paint seemed to cover the wall panels so well that there was no hint of what colour it must have been before. The white paint extended tightly into the cracks, from floor to ceiling. I stood up close to it, scrutinising its surface, looking for the tiniest flake or chip to reveal the layer behind it. The surface was slightly rough, but uniformly off-white: it gave nothing away. I stepped back and looked around the tunnel, towards the side exit. Here a metal arrow on a pillar gestured obscurely to the right, devoid of any other guiding information.
I looked back to the white walls of the tunnel and saw something I had not yet noticed. Just visible was a slight change in texture, in the shape of a diagonal line. I followed it with my eyes. Near the curve of the ceiling another line intersected it at right angles. Then another line intersected that. I walked slowly along the tunnel, my eyes on the lines, and they came into life, diagonal stripes and squares. All of a sudden I notice a line of scraped marks at the bottom of one of the panels, which revealed slivers of bright green underneath the white coating. The next panel was scraped too, revealing yellow.
As I stood in the white tunnel it flooded into colour in my mind’s eye. Diagonal bands of green and yellow came into bloom. I felt a transformation come over me, too, as if I could, in that moment, see through time. Opening my notebook, I quickly sketched out the lines and shapes.
Between 1940 and 1960, the population of Bankstown grew from 42 000 to 146 000. Correspondingly there was a boom in house construction, and the suburban streets of Bankstown took shape. Neat, white fibro cottages, row after row of them, were constructed on bald blocks of land.
Fibro was a cheap building material, easy to work with. It was flexible too. Plans were easily adaptable, and owners often had input into the design or built the homes themselves. For many of the residents of the new fibro houses, this was the first home they had owned and symbolised their new, safe suburban life.
Since then fibro houses, like members of a vast family, have gone on to many fates. Some are still as neat as the day they were built, their pale walls bright in the sunlight, a perfect stretch of lawn at the front. Others are surrounded by dismantled cars, the garden grown unruly. Many have been demolished and McMansions built in their place, houses on steroids which fill up blocks of land entirely.
Post-war fibro houses are part of a past world of Holdens, typewriters, and polite advertisements for new household appliances. The houses exist as backgrounds in small, yellowed photographs trapped in albums or rediscovered as long forgotten bookmarks. Such photos are of strangers but recognisable nonetheless: families standing in formation on the front lawn beside newly planted trees. The suburbs look hot and raw, at the edges of the city as it pushed outwards.
Nowadays the trees have grown tall around the fibro houses. Cacti and conifers reach the roof, like pets grown into monsters. The streets have lost the uniform appearance of cottage after cottage, although there is regularity in the variety of architectural styles. Fibro. 70s brick two-storey with steeply pitched roof. McMansion. Every house has something to distinguish it from its neighbour, no matter how tiny a detail it might be.
From the top of the hill on Simmat street there is a view over Bankstown and Punchbowl, trees and red brick roofs. Far off in the distance are the recent high-rise apartment buildings of Wolli Creek and Rockdale, but nothing else breaks the pattern of tiles and treetops. It’s a view of Sydney as suburbs, with the usual bookends of the city and the mountains hidden from view.
The grass at the lookout is strewn the remains of past picnics, wrappers, bottles and McDonalds trash, as well as weirder things like a bottle of nasal spray and a headless my little pony. It’s Monday afternoon and no one is around apart from the occasional car passing by. I set off down the hill in search of the Bankstown Bunker.
During the second world war an airport was built in Bankstown and became a military air base. The hangars were made to look like farmhouses and sheds in order to disguise their true purpose. From above the airport might have been disguised, but everyone in Bankstown knew it was there and why. As well as the aerodrome an underground military operations centre was built in Bankstown and became known as the Bankstown Bunker. It was three storeys deep and a maze of rooms, including a map room with a huge map of Australia and the surrounding South Pacific area. After the war ended the bunker was sealed up until it was rediscovered in the early 1970s. A few years later the bunker was damaged by fire, and in 1975 a housing development was built on the land above it.
It’s not difficult to find the location of the bunker if you know where to look. On the corner of Edgar and Marion streets the clusters of dark brick and wood villas of the housing development are arranged around a central mound, a grassy hill with a few big blocks of sandstone, and it is under here that the bunker remains. Despite the fire the structure is intact, although all the fittings inside were destroyed. The entrances are all sealed these days, although there are rumours of entering it through an air vent in the backyard of one of the villas. It has at times been accessible, as this cave clan photograph reveals. Another tantalising scrap of bunker lore is that a 1986 episode of Burke’s Backyard was partially filmed inside the bunker. Footage of this great moment in television has not yet arisen online.
It’s a strange feeling to walk around on top of the bunker, imagining what must lie beneath my feet. Like the hill on Simmat Street this stretch of grass is deserted and my only company is twists of food wrappers, a pale blue dinner plate, a crushed packet of cigarettes decorated with a gory photo of what might happen to your throat if you smoke them. Underneath the grass and trees and blocks of sandstone is the 5 foot thick concrete shell of the bunker, and the remains of the rooms where men once plotted how Australia would be defended from enemy attack, walls streaked with soot and graffiti.
On the surface the scene is a regular pattern of suburban components, houses, parks, roads, corner stores. At the bottom of the hill is a mixed business with faded ads for newspapers on the awning. The ad in the centre, for the long defunct Daily Mirror, has been painted over white but the name can still be seen faintly. Newspapers, world wars, fibro cottages, they’re of the past but they are still around us.
At first the tunnel seems bland, the kind of white-walled passage that might be found in a hospital, or underneath an office building. Then a noise arises, a mechanic hum with long, high shrieks. As I walk along the tunnel the noise gathers in intensity. I expect to soon discover the basement of the city, where huge machines churn, keeping the aboveground functioning.
A sign points left: Domain Carpark, To Express Footway. Here the white walls end. A protruding fibreglass rock ledge marks the edge of a painted expanse of water and trees, a mural of Sydney harbour. I am about to experience the history of Sydney from colonial invasion to the present day in twenty paces. Above the ledge is painted a group of Aboriginal people holding spears. The man at the edge of the rock points to the tall ship which looms massively in the bright blue harbour water. The ship is roped to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which it pulls along in its wake. Incarcerated behind the bridge, the huge, brooding face of an Aboriginal elder stares, his hands clasping the bars. The Bridge then morphs into the white sails of the Opera House, and beyond it continues the pristine harbour. A relief panel cut out of the wall shows the foreshore built up with high rises, a window into the harbour’s despoilment.
The noise has intensified almost to the point of distraction and the source of it is now in view, the Express Footway. Two adjacent paths of smoothly moving black rubber tread stretch before me, one moving towards the Domain Carpark, the other away from it. Linking the carpark with Hyde Park, the footway runs for just over 200 metres at a pace slightly slower than that of walking. If you stand still and allow yourself to be conveyed, the journey takes five minutes.
I step onto the footway. It is a weekday morning and neatly dressed people with armfuls of documents power past in both directions, on their way to or from important business. They pay little attention to the mural, which stretches the length of the footway on both sides. At the start of it are painted two oversized children leaning over bright green hills, pushing along a fire truck and an ambulance with giant hands. Beside them another large child holds up a spiky yellow orb, a substitute for the sun, which feels far away in this underground gloom.
No matter the time of day or the weather outside the footway retains the same artificially lit ambience. It is a complete environment and I give no thought to what must lie above ground; the footway operates within its own atmosphere, with its own light, sound and scenery.
The versions of Sydney on either side of the footway are bright and painted in sloppy strokes. More Opera Houses appear, one salmon pink against a bright blue bridge, another indigo in a night cityscape, with wheels of stars above it. Then I am travelling through an ocean of lopsided sharks and turtles. The ocean swells into a frothy wave before it breaks over a long stretch of yellow sand. On the sand are dotted rainbow umbrellas and towels, with tiny sunbathers lying beside their beach bags and thongs. Max Dupain’s Sunbaker, here given the pink tinge of sunburn deprived of him in the silver gelatin original, appears huge in scale, Gulliver beside the Lilliputians of the beach scene. All the while the footway continues to hum and shriek. When I move to the side to let people pass, the edge of it shudders underfoot.
In the late 1950s extensive networks of moving footways under Sydney streets were considered as a solution to one of the newest civic problems, traffic congestion. The Sydney of the time was obsessed with improvements. Most of the city’s trams had run their final journeys and the tracks been dug up and sealed over; the Cahill expressway was under construction. Everyone had an opinion on how to deal with the growing traffic problems. One popular proposal was for the demolition of the maligned Queen Victoria building and its replacement with a city square and vast underground carpark. Headlines such as “Only a Bomb Will Shift It” and “Tear Down This City Horror”, accompanied by the familiar image of what is now Sydney’s retail showpiece are surprising, even shocking to the contemporary eye. Sydney desperately wanted to move forward, and the Victorian architecture which is now so celebrated was considered by many to be irrelevant, a relic of a less sophisticated time. The new city was one of maximised efficiency: expressways, underground carparks and functional buildings.
At the time of the footway’s construction in 1960 it was purported to be the longest moving footway in the world. It eliminated the steep walk up from the parking station to the city by cutting through underneath the Domain at an almost imperceptible incline.
The footway was officially opened on Friday, June 9th, 1961. Following his speech and the cutting of a ribbon, the first to ride the footway was Lord Mayor Harry Jensen, with his baby son. After the ride the guests of honour then gathered for a celebratory lunch of Lobster Mornay and salad-filled pineapple shells as hundreds of curious members of the public tried out the footway, eager to experience its novelty. Thousands of people were to follow in the coming week. Parents brought their children in from the suburbs to experience the future.
The dark side of the footway was quick to manifest and excitement soon gave way to doubts and fears. There were incidents: a child’s finger crushed, a man’s trousers ripped and the two 5 pound notes in his pocket shredded. Remarks about the footway’s “taste for pedestrians” appeared in newspaper commentary, as well as articles detailing the footway’s newest victims. One man had his trousers torn from his body when his trouser cuffs were caught in a gap at the end of the footway; the footway attendant had to drive him home to put on another pair of trousers. A woman lost a galosh. A Pekingese puppy’s hind leg was caught in the gap. This string of incidents led to instructional signs at each end: STEP OFF FOOTWAY – DO NOT SLIDE.
Urban moving walkways were a fairly new phenomena in 1961, although the first moving walkway had debuted in the late 19th century at a World’s Fair in Chicago. A film exists from 1900 of the moving walkway, or trottoir roulant, at the Paris Exposition Universelle. People awkwardly stumble on and off, some tentative, some joyful, some hamming it up for the equal novelty of the motion picture camera. Having never encountered a moving footway before they had to learn how to adjust their bodies to travel on them. The women in hats and gloves and the men in suits pictured in the Sydney newspaper reports of the 1960s seem almost as remote in time as these Parisians at the Exposition. The Domain Footway’s seeming appetite in its first few years can partly be attributed to the public’s adjustment to its unfamiliar technology. The 3/64ths of an inch gap at the end of the footway was a trap for the unaware.
Despite plans for cities networked by moving walkways, today they are rarely found outside the bland environments of airports and shopping malls. To encounter them anywhere else is a surprise, especially an example like the Domain Footway, with its loud noise and atmosphere of dingy strangeness.
Since its opening day the Domain footway has remained a novelty, a trace of an alternative future city that never came to be. Every time I encounter it I am surprised that it still exists, faithfully running under the Domain, out of sight to anyone but those travelling on it. While in some ways it is anachronistic, it is hard to locate exactly where in time it fits. It seems more like an element from a speculative fiction. The 1940 science fiction novella, The Roads Must Roll by Robert Heinlein, describes a dystopian future America where moving footways are the main mode of transportation and their smooth running is vital to the country’s economic and social order. When the Chief Engineer’s power is usurped and one of the main footways is stopped, he must go “down inside” the workings of the footways to try and restore control.
The “down inside” of Heinlein’s story is one of intense noise, the roar of rotors and whine of rollers in constant movement. On a smaller scale, this is exactly the noise of the Domain Footway.
Although the Domain Footway can hardly be seen as essential to the city’s functioning, it did suffer its own mechanical crisis in the early 1990s. By then the original mechanism had worn out and it was uncertain if it could be replaced. The company that had originally manufactured the components was no longer in business, but eventually a replacement came through from a company that designed conveyor systems for mining. Two huge, steel-reinforced rubber bands were manufactured in Holland, and installed as the footway’s surface. The refurbished footway was decorated by the “Tunnel Vision” mural, painted by mural artist Tim Guider, indigenous artists, and children from Woolloomooloo. Then, after years of stillness, the walkway was again rolling.
The mural paintings become a suburban scene with tiny people loading cars and walking back to their houses with shopping bags. Then I am passing a forest of sorts, trees and leaves on a green background. In places I can see the ghosts of tags where they have been scrubbed away. Here and there I notice messages written on the mural, “Gustav K was here”, a black pen moustache on the face of the large, sunbathing woman in a bikini, “Drown” written in small, angry letters above the head of one of the swimmers. One section of the mural is a newspaper collage, an abstract pattern becoming an eye, then a hand holding a pen, the word “Change” issuing from it. Headlines have been cut out and varnished to the wall to form a poem:
the good life.
the good life.
Other sections of newspaper immortalise the film listings from a time when Leaving Las Vegas and Dead Man Walking played in Sydney cinemas. I register all this as the footway moves me onwards, as I notice each of the people travelling past me on the other side, on their way towards the city. Most people walk, for maximum combined velocity. Every one of them looks away when I meet their eyes. It is not a place where I can imagine talking to strangers, although the footway was in recent times rebranded the “traveldator” for a speed dating event. Couples conversed for the five minute journey, before moving on to their next prospective partner and riding back along the footway together.
There is an incline and now I can see the end of the footway and the entrance to the carpark. The leaves in the mural become a string of barbed wire and then an inner city back lane scene. A boy looks down from a window onto a girl in a pink dress who stands, holding a doll, inside a cone of light from either a streetlight or extraterrestrial forces. It is a weird, lonely image, made even more eerie by the broken “exit” sign hanging down over it.
There is construction work at the end of the footway and the ceiling is a mess of exposed wires. Across from the carpark pay station is a noticeboard with neat, computer generated images of the parking station after its impending refurbishment. Beyond the notice are bays of uniformly grey or white cars, as if they come in no other colours. The majority of footway users are the drivers of these cars and the footway is maintained for their convenience. Joyriders like myself have them to thank for its longevity.
I consider the mural girl in the pink dress, painted inside her blue spotlight at the end of the footway. The image seems obscure until I decide that the light surrounding her is like a spell.
Places in the city like the footway form unusual pockets of space and time. While you are under their spell the overall logic of Sydney is inverted and it can be reimagined according to different principles. I feel cast in this different light as I step back onto the footway and let it carry me back towards the city.
The newspaper articles are from the City of Sydney Archives.
You can view the movie of the 1900 moving footway here.