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.
There’s an hour or so of the day left, and the birds are darting high overhead, calling out, on their way back to their roosts. The sunlight is fading and its low angle against the horizon elongates my shadow along the pathway. The path curves towards a concrete structure that looks like the turret of a castle, marooned among the grass and the trees.
Beyond the turret is the aqueduct, which spans the valley in a succession of brick archways. Built in 1888 as part of the network that conveyed water from the Prospect Reservoir, the aqueduct was only used for a few decades before it was superseded by a syphon system. But the arches remained, and since the 1990s it has been a cycleway, part of the Lower Prospect Canal Reserve. From where I’m standing beside the aqueduct, every so often a helmeted head is visible, as a cyclist speeds along the path on the top of it.
Although the aqueduct crosses a valley, Greystanes is high land, rising up towards Prospect Hill. Greystanes and Prospect are names which maintain its colonial history: Greystanes (Stane is the Scottish word for stone) was the name of a 19th century estate; the name Prospect was given to the area by Watkin Tench. But of all the names given to this area on the map of Sydney, the most resonant is Pemulwuy. A leader of Aboriginal resistance to British settlement, Pemulwuy led raids on settlers from this part of western Sydney, as he fought for his people and country.
I walk underneath the arches, over towards the far side of the park. The aqueduct is within a stretch of bush and parkland between two residential streets. This land was subdivided for housing in the 1960s, and the houses are the solid, brick family homes that make up so much of Sydney suburbia. They have a square, uncomplicated look, solidly inhabiting the blocks of land. At the edge of the park, a patchwork strip of Colorbond fencing seals off the backyards of the adjacent houses. The smell of dinners cooking drifts through the air. I hear the roll of a sliding door being pushed closed. This is a time for returning home, turning in.
On one of the fences is a metal plaque set down low, small as an envelope, but it catches my eye from afar and I go over to read it. Etched into the roughly cut aluminium of the plaque is a memorial: “Here lies Charlie, our first best friend”. I follow the fence-line for a while, passing underneath a pomegranate tree spilling over from a backyard, with fallen pomegranates on the ground beneath it. At the lowest point of the valley is a creek, crowded by the trees that grow around it. I duck under branches and carefully pick my way over the narrow eroded path from which two terracotta pipes poke out, dribbling water.
Walking between the back fences and the aqueduct I am moving between two atmospheres: the suburban world of 6pm dinnertimes, alongside the breathing-space of the urban bushland. The aqueduct, marching through on its concrete legs, has a weathered look, stained by water and weather. Over time, it has softened into the landscape, as much as brick and concrete can. Like the Annandale aqueduct that passes over Johnsons and Whites Creeks, the Greystanes Aqueduct has the look of an architectural puzzle. It expands and diminishes in size, the arches aligning differently with each change of aspect.
From the top of the aqueduct, where the cycle path runs across it, there’s a view across backyards and rooftops. The scene below is animated by small movements, and my eyes move across them. A grey cat sits watching a white cat prowling across a back garden. A cricket team walk off the field at the sportsground, their game over, their white uniforms bright against the green. The lights of the petrol station on Merrylands Road glow. Up here, on this path that leads above the valley, I can see all this with a bird’s eye view. I can almost imagine how it would be to be flying across here, as the light fades, and the shadows lengthen, and a dog’s bark echoes across the valley, and is echoed soon after by another.
I was walking slowly, the hot, humid day made the air feel thick and I had given into its languor. I’d turned off the main road, into a side street, lined by of Federation semis with dark brick walls and tiled steps. Looking up, I saw that in the centre of the gable of one of the houses was an insignia, ringed by a white frame.
I stopped to decipher it. As I had suspected, but not fully believed, it was the head of a dog. The dog was in profile, head and neck down to the collar, and wore an expression of obedient patience.
These kinds of houses come as a pair, each a mirror image of its neighbour. So as I walked on to the adjoining house, I looked up to see if it too had a canine mascot.
This house was painted in different colours, burgundy and cream to its neighbour’s green and white. The painter had not stopped there. For when I looked up to see the matching dog in the centre of the circle, I found it to have a new identity.
It is a small thing, but I like to think of these two moments. A century ago the dogs being outlined in the plaster and then, in more recent times, someone up on a ladder holding the brush, putting the finishing touches to the cat’s whiskers, with a feline sense of satisfaction.
This week, two filing cabinets were bought at an ex-government furniture sale. The purchasers were surprised to find them complete with confidential documents inside. As the resulting scandal unfolds, with its serious implications for national security, I can’t help but come back to thoughts of the two filing cabinets. Two unassuming white metal boxes, the cause of a lot of trouble.
In Canterbury, with the removal of a nearby house and some trees, another set of filing cabinets have captured my attention. Now starkly visible on the wall are the faded outlines of an office scene, a desk, chair and filing cabinets. The chair is of a familiar kind: upholstered in black vinyl with a heavy base of four steel legs radiating from a central stem. The legs end in the casters on which the chair is perched. Its kind still lurks in old offices or can be found stranded in sharehouse backyards furnishing the smoking area near the back door.
In this office the chair has been pushed back from the desk, leaving a space between them, as if whoever has been working there has just stepped away for a moment. On the desk’s surface is a pale square, a large document, maybe a map, its details faded beyond legibility. The green filing cabinet nearby has the G-M drawer open and the file folders visible inside, but no further clues as to the business that has gone on here.
This suspended moment is painted on the wall of a cleaning supplies business in Canterbury. In the corner of the office scene is the logo of the company it’s advertising: Brownbuilt. An additional sign for the office furniture business that sold these items is gone, with only the metal supports that once held it remaining poking up from the roof.
Brownbuilt still make steel office furniture and equipment, with a speciality in the most serious of office storage systems, the compactus. Looking back through the archives there seems to be no storage conundrum that Brownbuilt hasn’t developed a solution for. If you were a television network needing a film storage system, a hotel that needed efficient storage for linen, or if you needed a “car compactus” for your parking lot, Brownbuilt could help you. From their factory in Clifton Hill, Melbourne, and then in their large factory in Kirrawee in the Sutherland Shire, Brownbuilt produced all manner of steel contraptions and receptacles. One particularly entrancing photograph of a Brownbuilt factory shows a row of filing cabinets travelling along a high conveyer belt, dangling from it like bunting.
I know the kind of office that’s on this wall. It’s the analogue kind, with a vinyl and wood varnish atmosphere. In such an office the filing cabinets seem sentient; they guard the office’s memory. Still now, in some businesses that have changed little in decades – mechanics, old-school accountants, or rubber stamp suppliers – such scenes can be encountered.
The activities at this office are paused forever. Whoever was at the desk is an absence at the centre of the image, as the plans or instructions that made them step away are faded, unreadable, and the filing cabinet holds its secrets.
This block of Canterbury Road, Roselands, is bracketed by fast food restaurants. KFC is at the top, with its smell of hot fat and litter of refresher towelette sachets, its perimeter marked by rows of globular, red-leafed shrubs: chosen no doubt for their conformity to the KFC colour scheme. On the other end of the block is McDonalds, with its stunted palm trees and loitering, drive-thru traffic. On the other side of the road are building supplies warehouses, with a focus on tiles and bathroom fixtures. Faded banners for sales and discounts hang in their windows.
I might not have noticed this block in particular if it wasn’t for the monster. It presides over an abandoned lot beside the McDonalds that has, over its recent history, been a used car lot, then a water tank retailer. Now it is a site awaiting redevelopment. Over years of lying fallow the lot has fallen into disrepair, the weeds growing tall and trash accruing on the cracked concrete.
It is little different to any other vacant lot, except in one detail.
Draped over the corner of the canopy the monster first wore a leering expression, each white tooth clearly defined against the cookie-monster blue of its ragged body. Its appendages trailed down, swaying in the wind as it stared, vacantly, out towards the road. It could have been resting, awaiting reactivation. Or maybe it had it been trapped and vanquished there, its remains left as warnings to other monsters not to try to haunt Canterbury Road.
Now it’s more than a year since I first saw the monster. Over this time it has stayed much the same, weathering storms and sun and days gentle or fierce. The wind brings it to life, but never quite enough to reanimate it. But when I last went past it, I saw the monster had turned away from the street. It had moved towards the edge of the awning, a step closer to its escape, to flying free over Roselands and away.
Outside Eastlakes Shopping Centre Santa Claus is telling jokes to the construction workers, who are sitting resting under the plane trees that shade the entrance. He’s been on a circuit of the centre: waving to the people buying scratch lottery tickets in the newsagency and the men sitting in their permanent, coffee-drinking positions outside ‘Healthy Alternative’, the cafe at the front of the shopping centre.
I’m at Healthy Alternative too, but sitting inside, looking out through the letters of the slogan painted on the window – Gourmet Takeaway By Day, The Best Pizza By Night – as I eat my “Birth of Venus” sandwich. The cafe has a Renaissance theme, the chalkboards decorated with iconic artworks of the period given a sandwich-and-pizza twist. In the Sistine-Chapel-ceiling Creation scene God hands Adam a slice of pizza. On the adjacent board Michelangelo’s David holds a sandwich he has just taken a bite out of. On the chalkboard listing the drinks, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man grasps a beverage in each of his four hands.
The construction site I can see across the road used to be an additional section of the shopping centre, until it was demolished earlier this year in the first stage of the redevelopment plan. The main Eastlakes Shopping Centre, this perfect 1980s time capsule, has a reprieve until 2019. New slick signs have appeared at the entrance, promising “A fresh start. A new opportunity”, paired with an image of a pair of brown leather shoes, a camera, watch and belt. This must be the garb of the corporate giant responsible.
Eastlakes Shopping Centre wears this slick image like an uncomfortable uniform. Despite the surface changes, and inside the addition of brocade armchairs and feature walls of imitation greenery, Eastlakes is a trip back in time. The centre was built in 1964 as The Lakes shopping centre, along with the red brick apartment buildings and public housing blocks that surround it, on land that was previously Rosebery Racecourse. The suburb itself is built on the Kamaygal land to the north of Botany Bay: half of it is former swampland that was, for a century, the source of the city’s water supply. Now the dams are ponds within the Eastlakes golf course, on the other side of Southern Cross Drive, which slices through the centre of the suburb.
The shopping centre holds the 1980s like a genie in a bottle. The soundtrack, piped throughout, is a continuous blend of 1980s favourites: “Drive” by The Cars, or “Missing You” by John Waite, or “With or Without You” by U2, or “Don’t Know Much” by Linda Ronstadt or any other over-produced, atmosphere-and-synthesiser drenched song you could name. With the mood suitably set, you are then ready to follow the path set out by the floor tiles, a contrasting pattern of brown linoleum which zigzags out every five metres.
The zigzag path leads through Eastlakes’ collection of delicatessens, speciality grocers, bargain stores, and businesses that have changed little for thirty, some fifty, years. At the back of the centre is Super Scissors, an 80s time capsule of primary-coloured shelving, the window guarded by pictures of women with short, angular hairstyles and icy looks.
Despite its sparse decoration, whenever I’ve been passed Super Scissors there’s a haircut-in-progress, and someone waiting on the bench underneath a joke plaque: “sorry to keep you waiting but we are a bit tied up”, with a cartoon of a man tightly bound in many loops of rope, baring his teeth like an angry horse.
On the way to Super Scissors is a row of claw machines, with toys and chocolate bars trapped inside. There also used to also be a weighing scale which offered a ticket printed with your weight and an inspirational quote. The public weigh-scale is an under-utilised contraption, the kind I feel an innate sympathy for. When I took pity on it I felt self conscious slipping my shoes off and standing on the scale to await the result, but I was rewarded by a quote from Voltaire.
Now it has been replaced by a smaller, digital equivalent, parked beside the chamber of fun-size bars in the Chocolate Factory machine.
Eastlakes shopping centre is a busy place, irrespective of its time-capsule nature. I wonder if, in part, this is because it’s comfortable: worn-in and familiar, an extension of home. Groups of men sit for hours on the brocade chairs, worry beads in their hands, continuing a daily conversation that has spanned years. Before the enhancement of the lounge chairs they’d sat on the benches outside the supermarket and had the same discussions.
Underneath the social ecosystem of Eastlakes Shopping Centre I notice its slow transition into the 21st century. Mostly this means the removal of signs and contraptions: The Super Flipp marble pinball game outside the BKK Supermarket (BKK was the centre’s former name) is gone, for example, as are the video stores.
The Florist sign – a match for Elizabeth Bay Deli – with its curling font and seven digit phone number, has been replaced although the pink and blue teddy bears still watch on from the shelf at the back of the store.
Also replaced is the Eastlakes Sausage, which the deli retired a few years ago in favour of more contemporary signage.
Much, however, has stayed the same. The tiny office of the tax accounts has its framed certificates on the cinder block walls and rows of filing cabinets, as ever.
For clothing, although Jox and Sox is gone, there is still Trendy of Eastlakes.
In the west wing of the centre is the sugary island that is Super Donuts.
And, around the corner from Super Donuts is Unik Fashion and Junior Wear, with its window display of children’s formal clothes, tiny wedding dresses and suits like adult dreams shrunk into miniature.
Things will change slowly here until they change quickly. But I don’t want to think too closely about it; to me Eastlakes is beautiful just as it is.
Santa Claus is back on his throne now, outside of Budget Beaters discount supermarket, and a crying baby is being lifted onto his lap. What’s his name? Santa asks. “Noah,” his mum replies. As I watch her holding her phone out to take a selfie of the three of them, I imagine a future, adult Noah looking at this photo. It’s Christmas in 2040 and places like Eastlakes Shopping Centre are long-gone. The city has been remade. But its old places are held here and there, in snippets, in memories.
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.