Trains leave Central station and head towards the city along an elevated track. There’s a feeling of gliding above the streets, looking across over the Surry Hills rooftops, the brick warehouses with old signs for tea merchants, the plane trees, the disintegrating green building where the neon golfer on the Sharpie’s Golf House sign hit his continual hole in one. Then the train heads underground. It passes through an intermediary zone where the street outside comes in glimpses through concrete columns, before entering the darkness of the tunnels.
The concrete columns are the foundations of the multi-storey car park which is built over the entrance to the underground railway at Goulburn Street. The car park is a concrete structure of beams and blocks, decorated with a breeze block facade and pebblecrete rendering. Perched above the railway tracks like a large chest of drawers it has a rather precarious appearance. The trains travel back and forth beneath it like the carpark is consuming them and spitting them back out again.
The Goulburn Street parking station opened in 1961, an era when there was a great rise in private car ownership. This was when car parks such as the Domain Parking Station were built and plans were to demolish the Queen Victoria Building and replace it with an underground carpark. Here the carpark was erected to cover the entrances to the train tunnels, which had previously been visible below Goulburn Street.
The car park is generally considered to be one of Sydney’s ugliest buildings, perhaps even the ugliest, (other well known candidates include the UTS Tower and the Blues Point Tower). In the spirit of home made carports and garages across the suburbs, it appears not quite level, especially when viewed from Castlereagh Street. Perhaps this is an optical illusion caused by the slope of the road, but it does have a rather jerry-built look.
Despite its precarious appearance and generally agreed upon ugliness, it is a Sydney landmark. The train lines running underneath it make it a curiously difficult building to modify or remove, although there are plenty of plans to improve its appearance. Plants have appeared on the exterior, trailing down over the concrete. A seagull pattern covers the panelling which faces the railway tracks. There has been talk of a rooftop cinema. Or converting it to a high school.
Up on the top level there’s a view across the Surry Hills rooftops and the tops of the trees which line the street below. The expanse of concrete is like a magic carpet, floating just high enough above the street to still feel connected to it. Parking station rooftops often have good views, or at least another perspective on familiar places. This one has a particularly good view over the Wentworth Avenue ghost zone. Wentworth is a street well supplied with vacant old warehouses in varying states of dereliction. The street was constructed after the Surry Hills slum clearances in the early 1900s, but now the large warehouses that were built to replace the maze of lanes and houses have fallen into decline. From up here the light shines through the empty top storey rooms of Sheffield House, which has been empty since the 1990s. It stands out with its three storeys of bay windows and large ghost ad on the side, its message unreadably faded. Further along the street is the Griffiths Tea building, scheduled for redevelopment, but still for now a dark brick ruin with anarchist graffiti in the windows.
Standing up here on the top of the car park the strongest feeling I have is that everything around me is going to change. It’s changing already and constantly: just a few blocks away the seemingly everlasting Oceanic Cafe has closed down for good. The long-empty old warehouses will be redeveloped, two of them – the Griffiths Tea building and Key College House – have recently been sold. In years to come if the high school plan comes into being teenagers might be sitting in class in this very spot.
The top of Sydney’s ugliest building is the perfect place for such contemplation. Here I can feel the city as a texture, a network of forces. This sensation ebbs and wanes, but it’s one that gains complexity the longer I live here. Changes cut through into it sometimes, as do particular moments and coincidences. Sometimes it just arises from being somewhere quietly, and looking closely. There’s always more to notice.