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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Ghost Platforms & Subterranean Sydney

Travelling on the escalators that lead down to platforms 24 and 25 at Central station, I always look out for the ghost platforms. They are visible in glimpses through the gaps in the striped panels that enclosed the escalators, but only for a moment, as the escalators keeps moving onwards, down to the Bondi Junction line, or up to the ticket gates.

While thousands of people pass by them every day, the majority without knowledge of their existence, the ghost platforms remain still and undisturbed. What is mostly visible from the gaps in the panels are the station’s lights, which continue to shine even though the platforms are unused. The ghost platforms, numbers 26 and 27, are identical to the platforms below, although in raw concrete, and without tracks. A window in the door of the lift used to provide a glimpse of them, and I would sometimes take friends for rides up and down the elevator just for a ghost platform sighting, to the bemusement of others using the lift for more conventional purposes. The biggest clue to the platform’s existence can still be found in the lift: the button for platforms 26 and 27, although nothing happens when you press it.

The Ghost Platforms, image from urbantwilight.net

The ghost platforms are part of the city that never came to be. Similar blank, waiting spaces are found in the suburbs in corridors of land set aside for never built expressways, or buildings that remain forever for lease, as if cursed. These places are the architectural equivalent of the paths not taken in life, a reminder of the flipside of all decisions. I like to imagine that the trains that stop at the ghost platforms travel to all the potential Sydneys that could have ever been.

The ghost platforms were constructed as part of the plan for an extended network of railways stretching to Manly in the north, and east to Kingsford and Coogee, designed by John Bradfield, the engineer most known as the mastermind of the Harbour Bridge. The idea for an eastern suburbs rail line first took shape in the late 19th century. Eventually the eastern suburbs railway to Bondi Junction opened almost 100 years later, in 1979, after a long history of plans, proposals and revisions, and the building of still unused platforms and tunnels at city stations. Today’s eastern suburbs railway ends abruptly at Bondi Junction, at which passengers must ascend to the confusing heights of the bus station, or disperse into the shopping mall.

The ghost platforms were once used for document storage: photo by David Johnson.

Sydney has many tunnels, a secret chthonic world known only to urban explorers and those who work with infrastructure. A Telstra employee once told me how there is a telecommunications tunnel that runs under the centre of the city, large enough to drive through (edit: see comments); this is where he spent his days working. Under Sydney is another city, that of pipes, drains and tunnels, some useful, others abandoned. A network of disused high pressure water pipes run throughout the city from the days when hydraulic power was used to operate lifts. Railway tunnels built around St James station for extensions of the rail line that never came to be were once used as air raid shelters. In one St James tunnel is a large bell, a faceted metal structure that resembles a giant gemstone, once used by the ABC to create the sound effect of Big Ben. Another tunnel underneath St James is now a lake, populated by eels and the occasional drain explorer on an inflatable dinghy.

The St James Bell: Photo from urbantwilight.net

In the 1990s I sometimes came across the zine for the Cave Clan, Il Draino, and at the end of my street in Annandale, where there was a metal grate covering the concrete drainage channel that was Johnsons Creek, was a Cave Clan tag. The two Cs with a bolt between them was a promise of adventure. The members of the Cave Clan knew a different version of Sydney, an underground world of drains they explored and named. I read about drains with names like the Fortress and Eternity, and while I was too claustrophobic to ever be a drain explorer myself, I liked to imagine these underground realms explored by characters with equally curious names: Predator, Siologen, Trioxide, Ogre.

Read enough about the Cave Clan and as you walk around the suburbs you start to notice drains and secret doorways, details never meant to be detected. Part of the excitement of drain exploration is the subversive nature of the act, although most descriptions of drain exploration delight in the details of the underground environments equally if not moreso than with illegality. One of the founding members of Sydney Cave Clan, Predator, described the compulsion for draining in “A Sprawling Manifesto of the Art of Drain Exploring“:

We like the dark, the wet, humid, earthy smell. We like the varying architecture. We like the solitude. We like the acoustics, the wildlife, the things we find, the places we come up, the comments on the walls, the maze-like quality; the sneaky, sly subversiveness of being under a heavily-guarded Naval Supply base or under the Justice and Police Museum.

This underground city, like the city above, has its own architecture and atmosphere. It is a place from which the city can be reimagined, as in the dark, concrete drains one can only guess at what might lie above ground.

While the archetypal city is one of high rise building and towers, subterranean elements of cities have a quieter and more curious presence in the urban psyche. They seem mythological even when real: some cities have existed entirely underground, such as the ancient city of Derinkuyu, one of 36 underground cities in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, built in the 8th century AD. Some cities, like Seattle, have an underground version that mimics the streets above: when an area of Seattle city was destroyed by fire in 1889, the city was rebuilt on a higher level, burying the previous city streets one storey underground. Some people create their own underground cities, such as William Lyttle, the Mole Man of Hackney, who excavated a vast network of tunnels under his house in Hackney, East London before the council evicted him in 2006.

All cities have some kind of subterranean existence, even if it remains unknown and unexplored. Sydney, a place so feted for its sunlight and harbour vistas, has an underground which mirrors the city above. This dark city is concealed from the everyday and only visible in glimpses, when the city’s surface reveals what lies beneath it.

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Sydney Morning Herald article about Central station ghost platforms and tunnels. 

Histories of the Sydney Cave Clan: on Sydney Architecture and Siologen’s blog.

Photos of Sydney’s unused rail tunnels and ghost platforms.

There is a horror movie set in the St James tunnels called The Tunnel.

A comprehensive history of Sydney underground can be found in the book Subterranean Sydney by Brian & Barbara Kennedy, much of the information from which can be found on Sydney Architecture.