The Blank Tunnel

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.

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Escalating Change

I’ve been writing Mirror Sydney for long enough that many of the places I have featured have now been demolished, or changed, or transformed. On my train trips across the harbour I have been observing the start of the demolition of the Port Operations Tower in Millers Point. The tower at the top is almost gone now. Once it is fully removed the concrete stem below it will be eaten away by robotic excavators from the top down. Could there be a more sci-fi fate than to be eaten by robots?

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Scaffolding on the tower at the start of demolition

Despite all the city’s changes there are places that remain stubbornly consistent, and of all the different types of city places the stubborn ones are perhaps my favourites. Stubborn places can quickly turn elusive, though, because coming into notice is usually a harbinger of disappearance. Earlier in the year I had been quietly noting that, despite all the reconstruction at Wynyard station, the trip up to York Street required a journey through the 1930s via the steep, wooden escalators.

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So it was no surprise when, back in July, there were reports of their potential removal. The arguments in favour of their replacement were more than simply their age. They pose a fire risk, and the wooden slats can be dangerous, as guide dogs’ claws have become stuck in the wooden steps. But as yet the Office of Environment and Heritage are yet to give their final decision, and the escalators remain for now.

This exit from the train station gives you a triple choice: you can either enter the Concourse Bar with its lingerie-clad bar staff, turn off for a trip along the corridor of a spacecraft (the new Wynyard Walk pedestrian tunnel), or climb aboard the wooden escalators. The row of four escalators, divided by shiny, wood panels have always reminded me of furniture, a sideboard, perhaps, or a cabinet, or a piano. This early photo of them, with one of the wells boarded over, looks even more cabinet-like – and with the added bonus of “shadowless lighting”.

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Now panels are decorated by thick, round studs, like the heads of giant wooden nails, no doubt to deter people from sliding down what would otherwise be an excellent slippery dip.

In 1932 when the station opened escalators were regarded as much a novelty as a piece of infrastructure, and article after article in newspapers made mention of them as the city’s latest attraction, a “source of almost endless joy” for children. School groups coming from the country to visit Sydney made certain to ride the escalators for a taste of city life. For those unaccustomed, the Broken Hill newspaper the “Barrier Miner”, described the new contraptions thus (please feel free to skip the next paragraph if you know how to use an escalator):

The escalator looks just like an ordinary staircase when it is at rest, but when in motion all that one has to do in order to ascend to the top is to get on the bottom stop, take hold of the rail if desired, and stand quite still and be carried up to the top landing, just as a bucket of ore is carried up on a conveyor belt. At the top the passenger is gently slid on to the solid lauding; but as it seems unlikely at the first glance that the sliding will be as gentle as it really is there is often a bit of a jump by the inexperienced person, though those accustomed to travelling up the machine simply walk straight on as they reach the top.

Even into the 1940s the escalators were still entrancing young visitors.

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It wasn’t just children who found the escalators exciting. A 1932 newspaper article describing an acrimonious failed romance between a 50 year old widow and a 70 year old travelling showman made mention of “a happy time riding on the escalators at Wynyard Station”, before the troubles began.

The trip may only take 48 seconds (or 18 if you are a “hustler”), but this is enough time for romance, thrills and altercations. Keep this in mind if you find yourself in Wynyard and choose to travel the 1930s way.

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