UFO sightings in Sydney, while relatively frequent, are nonetheless fleeting. You have to be looking at the sky at just the right moment to notice the glowing orbs and mysterious shapes that sometimes appear above us. Some areas like the Northern Beaches are known UFO hot spots with a database of encounters to prove it. But there is no need to visit the Narrabeen Lakes and wait for the bright lights. Alien space craft exist among us on the ground.
The bright lights and weird shapes seen over Narrabeen are perhaps attracted to the three spherical structures at the centre of the public school. These are binishells, concrete domes constructed in the 1970s in a NSW government project which saw 14 of these curious buildings appear across the state. The structures were masterminded by the Italian architect Dante Bini. He developed a construction method where concrete was sprayed over a membrane which was then inflated to form a dome. In the six years Bini spent in Sydney in the early 1970s numerous binishells were constructed in primary and high schools.
Binishells rise up out of the school grounds like concrete blisters or grounded flying saucers. Many a student, while sitting their HSC exams in a binishell hall, might have wished for the flying saucer to take off and get them out of there, but the only surprise movement to have occurred with one was the collapse of the Pittwater High School binishell in 1986. This led to investigations into their safety but with reinforcement the binishells were allowed to stay. They can be found dotted across Sydney, in Turramurra (Ku-ring-gai High School), Ashbury, Fairfield, Killarney Heights and Narrabeen North. Others at Peakhurst and Randwick have now been demolished. Plans for binishell houses – known as the “minishell” – were devised, but house domes never made it to the Sydney suburbs. (For binishell fans, visit the Groundwork exhibition in October to see the bini-related work by Zanny Begg.)
Sydney does have a number of space ship houses, however. The most notorious is familiar to anyone who drives north across the Spit Bridge. It perches on the steep hillside above Middle Harbour, its circular form bulging out in segments of tall windows. It has a kind of James Bond villian’s lair ambiance, bringing to mind images of lurid flared pantsuits, cocktails and the retro futurism of 60s style.
The house was built in 1964 by architect Stan Symonds, known for his free form, sculptural designs. He is responsible for various unusual Northern Beaches houses, including the Pittwater house with the surprisingly phallic floorplan (its recent sale was a subeditors dream for headline puns) and the Seaforth Dome house (listed on Airbnb for the very curious). The Seaforth house visible from the Spit Bridge is known officially as Vendome, or the Schuchard House, although it’s known by many as the space ship house or the flying saucer house.
I walk along the pedestrian path of the Spit Bridge towards the space ship house. The Spit Bridge is not a particularly striking structure most of the time, except for the 5 or so times a day a section of it lifts up to allow ships to pass through. The part that moves is a central section of metal girders and mesh. It shudders under my feet as the traffic rushes over it and the metal booms and echoes. I endure this disconcerting experience as I stop to peer over at the space ship house. The room that bulges out is like a fishbowl and I can see the indistinct shapes of furniture inside it. Then a shape shifts and I realise there’s someone in there, wearing a red shirt, moving about. Feeling voyeuristic I drop my gaze and continue across the bridge, as men in suits and sunglasses drive by in convertibles, and buses pick up speed before tackling the hill up to Seaforth.
From the street there is little clue to the space ship below, besides the house’s curved roof. But from here I can see down across Middle Harbour with its clusters of white boats, and watch as the cars stop on either side of the bridge, the boom gate go down, and the centre slowly rises.
The Seaforth spaceship house isn’t alone. Craft have landed across Sydney, in Earlwood:
and in Eschol Park near Cambelltown, the bizarre Mount Universe, the never finished headquarters for the Universal Power society. The structure, once visible from the surrounding suburbs but now obscured by trees, was based on Saturn’s rings. Construction began in the late 1970s but not completed, although the sign remains at the gates.
The 1960s and 70s were the era of space ship buildings. They were no doubt influenced by the space age, but their other dominant influence was concrete. The adaptability of concrete as a building material enabled the construction of the binishells and the free form structure of the Shuchard House. But of all architectural styles there is none more celebratory of concrete than Brutalism. As a architectural style it produced bold, solid designs in concrete. Although the name refers to the French term for raw concrete – béton brut – the “brute” in brutalism is a good description of the assertive effect of the buildings.
Among the office blocks of Crows Nest another space ship rests. An inverted concrete pyramid inside wide columns like rocket boosters, the St Leonards Centre looks like it could blast off if given sufficient force. Rather like the Sydney Masonic Centre, its inverted shape gives it a mysterious atmosphere and it’s hard to imagine what exactly might be going on inside.
The St Leonards Centre opened in 1972 as the central computing hub for the CBC Bank. Like the Reader’s Digest Building in Surry Hills its computer was a central feature of the building, and employees could enter the viewing platform to watch the Honeywell 6000 in action on Level 8. The building was described as “an architectural first – a sculptured office building” with “one of the most sophisticated computer installations in Australia”. More than 100 CBC bank branches across Sydney were linked to this computer, making it a kind of central banking brain at the core of the space ship. The pamphlet explaining this new technology describes how each branch will be able to “talk” to the computer through their terminals and receive an immediate response. Beam me up!
Of all of Sydney’s spaceships the most well known, and most central, is the CTA Building in Martin Place. Designed by Harry Seidler in the 1970s, it is so unusual a structure that seems more like a sculpture than building. The thought that it actually had an interior only dawned upon me when I visited it for the Kaldor Art Projects Thomas Demand exhibition in 2012. At the exhibition visitors discovered a series of tiny bedrooms, hotel rooms for commercial travellers passing through Sydney. The slits in the drum are the bedroom’s windows, with a view out across Martin Place.
The CTA Building was a part of Seidler’s MLC Centre design, built on a large Castlereagh Street site. Demolished to build the MLC Centre was Hotel Australia, the Theatre Royal, Rowe Street and the previous Commercial Traveller’s Association Club, a tall, sandstone building on the corner of Martin Place. It was replaced by the small, neat building, often described as a mushroom, sometimes lovingly, other time disparagingly.
Having reached the central space ship I was drawn to the entrance at the base of the curved stem. Inside I entered a metal capsule and was drawn downwards into a dimly lit, red cavern. The floor was patterned with dying stars, so bright they were difficult to focus on. I sat in a curve of dark red velvet and found a tube of cold, sparkling liquid in front of me. I sipped it and underneath my feet felt the rumble of the craft readying for takeoff. Music started: to my surprise it was Pulp’s “Disco 2000”. The extraterrestrials, with their superior knowledge, had known exactly what song would keep me at ease during the ascent.