The Hunter Street entrance to the Hunter Connection shopping arcade is a canopy of mirrored tiles and neon lights, like the entrance to a 1980s nightclub. The mirror panels reflect the street and the people walking past, the angles and edges scrambling and distorting the scene below. Go under the mirrors and inside and you’ll find that the mall’s irregular shape, each floor slightly different, and the narrow stairs and escalators that lead between them, give it a maze-like quality.
Hunter Connection opened in 1982, positioning it, in the history of Sydney city shopping arcades, between the 70s excesses of Centrepoint and the postmodernism of the late-80s Skygarden. Despite the travertine marble floors and the 150 metres of skylights noted in the newspaper articles heralding its arrival, its main drawcard was its efficiency as a thoroughfare: “Soon we will be a city of hedgehogs!” wrote the Richardson and Wrench real estate news, weirdly, in 1981, “the Hunter Connection – a pedestrian refuge and mall… will provide undercover links directly from Wynyard Station through to Hunter, Pitt and George Streets.”
There’s a satisfaction which comes from navigating the city underground through its subterranean shopping malls, an experience arising from the combination of the underground railway and later 20th century high-rise developments. Picking up on this potential, the early 1970s a Wynyard Pedestrian Network had been planned, an integrated system of walkways extending out from Wynyard station. The plan proposed that navigating the network should be “a visually interesting experience for the pedestrian. Walkways should not be barren or dull; they should be full of interesting things to look at as the pedestrian walks through – changing wall and floor textures – varied spaces – differing character and atmosphere.”
This has indeed occurred, though not in the way intended by the Wynyard Pedestrian Network. The Network never came to be, but walkways were eventually built, with Hunter Connection in the 1980s, and more recently the walkway on the west side of the station linking it with Barangaroo. On the Hunter side a change in atmosphere was brought about by the refurbishment of Wynyard station, which produced a jarring underground transition between the updated sections (wide, grey, slick shopfronts) and the original underground arcade (low-ceiling, mirrors and marble).
Across the concourse from the ticket barriers there had once been steps down to a stretch of arcade which housed niche businesses such as Odette’s Perfumery and the Wynyard Coin Centre. This part of the walkway is gone, but follow the new tunnel along and you soon find yourself back in time at the Hunter Arcade.
In this section I’ve always enjoyed the infinite regress effect of the facing mirrors, and the retro, pill-shaped signs.
Hunter Arcade flows on into Hunter Connection, joining up with the lowest of its three levels. Down here the shops are of the kind that deal in minor improvements: alterations, shoe repair, nail salons, and barbers, and Wayne Massage with its window display of enthusiastic endorsements, printouts from online reviews: ‘Sir Wayne “massage” king is da “miracle” worker.’ The alterations places have displays of face masks, made of fabric offcuts or novelty prints: unicorns, chickens, kittens wearing Santa hats.
It is just over a week since lockdown lifted and some of the stores still have their shutters down or are only tentatively open. A tiny watchmaker and jeweller’s store is open but has the grille pulled across. Inside at a trestle table a man sits on a stool, bending over a repair, holding the green rubber balloon of a dust blower in one hand, a watch in the other. Handwritten signs announce that the shop is closing soon, after being in business since 1972.
From this lower level I follow the escalators upwards. There’s another wing of the arcade here, which extends out to Pitt Street. It too once had a mirrored disco entrance, although it has now been replaced with a more contemporary design: perforated beige panelling that looks like the breathable panels of an athletic shoe. Instead of heading towards Pitt Street I linger outside an alterations business (their fabric face masks include one of an illustration of a chicken, divided up into cuts of meat), looking towards the escalators that lead up to the food court on the top level. On the wall beside the escalators is a feature wall of vertical lengths of silver and smoky-tinted mirror tiles, which reflect the menu boards of the restaurants. It’s hardly the most lavish wall feature, but there’s something Tetris-like about it that pleases me.
The food court level is the busiest, and with its mirrored ceiling and gold handrails it is reminiscent of one of the Chinatown malls (a cross between Dixon House and the Sussex Centre food court, perhaps). My favourite part of this food court is the narrow terrace, just wide enough for a row of six tables, where you can sit and overlook the street as you eat your lunch. It has a view over Hunter Street, where the road dips down and then angles up again, following the declivity which marks the path of the Tank Stream as it flows towards Warrane.
Sitting at one of the tables on the terrace, I watch the clouds drift over the patch of sky in between two buildings, and listen to the city, its roar of traffic, air conditioning units, and the crunch and clang of construction.
The city continues to be torn up for the Metro, which has claimed numerous city blocks. The Hunter Connection will not escape. It is slated for demolition too, to be replaced by a station, and already some of the businesses have relocated. Handwritten signs are taped to their shutters, some noting their new addresses, others just offering thanks and farewell.
On the foot court level is the walkway that leads to George Street, another stretch of marble tiles and gold handrails. I could follow it out to the third of Hunter Connection’s street entrances, across from the George Street entrance to Wynyard Station. If you enter this way you have the choice of going up, via the walkway, or going down, on the path that leads down to the lowest level. The downward path, with the intersecting angles of the three buildings surrounding it, has an unusual geometry, the red bridge of the walkway in conversation with the textured concrete wall it faces.
Instead of going out to George Street I stop halfway along the red walkway and follow another set of escalators up, following the signs for the GPO Box Centre. Unless you rent a GPO box, or you have engaged in a thorough investigation of the Hunter Connection, you likely wouldn’t know that this is where the General Post Office Boxes are located, instead of, say, the actual General Post Office (now a hotel). Upstairs from the post boxes is the Post Restante counter, the staffing of which must surely have been the quietest job in Australia Post over the last few months.
I like it in here with the GPO Boxes. It’s calming, this open space with plants in tall pots and buzzing fluoro lights overhead. Walls of post office boxes extend and follow corners which lead into hallways with more rows of post office boxes. Walking through here the theme song from Get Smart plays in my head, and I imagine I’m here on some kind of secret spy business. That I know which, out of the 7119 post boxes that wait above the Hunter Connection, is the one that holds the message for me inside it.