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 Pacific Highway is a ribbon of road that curves through the northern suburbs of Sydney. Between Gordon and Pymble the highway follows the slope of the land downwards, reaching its depths at the Mona Vale Road interchange, where multiple lanes of traffic roar towards each of the compass points.
The centres of Pymble and Gordon are peaceful north shore suburban kinds of places, with shops in old brick buildings, gyms retrofit into 70s offices, and the barbers, newsagencies and chicken shops that have existed for decades in various forms. The zone in between them, with the interchange at its centre, is a wilder place with roof rack shops and rug emporiums, car dealerships and the sombre headquarters of Gregory and Carr Funeral Directors. Among all of this one building stands out – the A-frame.
I’ve passed the A-frame thousands of times and observed its various incarnations: as a sandwich shop, then a caryard office and now empty as the site awaits redevelopment. As a child the A-frame was to me one of the most magical buildings in Sydney, a scrap of whimsy among the serious, functional highway buildings. It seemed right that it was a sandwich shop for so many years, as it was rather like a sandwich quarter itself.
Despite my many years of admiring the A-frame I have never stopped to visit it, never stopped to buy one of its sandwiches. Recently I decided I’d break my Pacific Highway journey and view the A-frame at close range. This part of the highway has a desolate feeling about it and is one of those zones that feels alien to pedestrians. I walk past the empty lots that were once caryards. Across the road from the A-frame is a car wash cafe. Outside it someone in a bear suit waves a sign for the $15 Car Wash Happy Hour at the passing traffic.
The A-frame is marooned in the centre of an expanse of cracked, weed-ruptured concrete. Although it has been empty for some time it has a curiously tidy appearance for an abandoned building. When I get up close to it I can see the patches where graffiti has been painted over, and the ghost of the sign for the car dealership, the Korean company Ssang Yong, over the entrance. The windows facing the street have been boarded up to prevent them being smashed but I can peer in the windows at the side. Here, abandoned on the steps, there is a laundry basket full of household goods – floral print plates, a wok, white ceramic mugs – all filled with water from the recent rain.
I look through the side windows at the abandoned office equipment inside – desks, a chair, a water cooler – which are haphazardly arranged and have a visible layer of dust over them. Nearest the door is a white laminate desk with a faded Daily Telegraph in the centre of it. The headline, “Island of Lost Souls” accompanies an image of people among a landscape of debris from the 2011 earthquake in Japan. To one side of the newspaper is an unopened letter, on the other, a green work glove. The room has a number of these tableaus of once useful objects, now lying forsaken. An unmarked CD. A brochure. Sheets of blank A4 paper. In the centre of the room a spiral staircase leads to the upper level and there is a glimpse of more deserted office furniture up there.
The traffic rushes by on the highway but the atmosphere of the A-frame and the cracked concrete lots that surround it is one of stopped time. As I explore I occasionally look around to see if anyone is watching me, but there is no-one nearby besides the bear across the street, busy shaking its sign at the traffic. The cars rush past and I feel invisible.
Sydney has few A-frame buildings and the majority of them are larger constructions, often churches, no doubt built in this style as they point in the direction of heaven.
A-frame construction was popular in the USA during the 1950s and 60s for vacation homes, and Australian versions can be found here and there in seaside towns, or as ski lodges in the snowfields, or in other holiday house locations such as the Blue Mountains.
Yet metropolitan A-frames are a rarity, and every time I travel along the Pacific Highway I expect the Gordon A-frame to have been demolished. But it remains, at least for now, a moment of eccentricity on the highway north.