Sunday, 15 December 2013

Sydney's 'rough quarter' turns smooth operator - the renaissance of Sydney's Central precinct

How often have you heard people describe Chippendale, Redfern, Haymarket and Ultimo as Sydney’s “hot and happening” suburbs?

Probably never.  In fact, it has only been very recently that these former slums have emerged from their slumber and prompted a renaissance of the southern end of Sydney’s CBD.

I am on a guided tour led by Sydney Architecture Walks founder and principal guide, Eoghan Lewis, and he describes the Central railway line as Sydney’s “Berlin Wall” – it splits the city in half with an almost impenetrable barrier.

Eoghan says it provided not just a geographic divide, but a sociological separation, with those settlers east of the railway line generally the moneyed classes, while those to the west were the earliest residents of “struggle street”.

Central itself was pivotal to the city almost from its inception, being the link between the agricultural fields of Parramatta and the rapidly growing city. So vital and busy, in fact, that Central became the site of Sydney’s first toll-way. 

Sydney’s Central district (circa 1819), home to Australia’s first ever toll-way

 In 1811, Governor Lachlan Macquarie introduced a toll to pay for the maintenance of the “road” from Sydney Town to Parramatta. In reality, it was a rambling 25km dirt track through the bush that was so ill-constructed that in heavy rain it became an impassable quagmire for horse-drawn coaches and goods wagons, and when dry an axle-breaker of potholes and tree-stumps. As one of the tour party quipped “so what’s changed since then?”

Of course, there has been plenty of water under the bridge over the past two centuries. Central was probably at its peak one hundreds ago when trains and trams made it the transport hub of Sydney. Department stores bearing the names of their founders – such as Marcus Clark, Mark Foy and Anthony Hordern – opened in and around Railway Square, while Tooheys established a vast brewery just a little further down the road that would often envelop the area in an aromatic haze.  

 Central was at its busiest in the first half of the 1900s – the plume of smoke comes from the old Tooheys/CUB brewery site

Ladies would come in to the “Big Smoke” from the suburbs and country areas for shopping while their husbands would retire to the pubs to catch up with mates, play a bit of two-up or just down pints of amber fluid before their wives extracted them before (or after) the “six o’clock swill” got the better of them.

The second half of the 20th century wasn’t kind to the precinct though, with David Jones opening up in Market Street and then the development of Circular Quay pushing the city’s business and retail heart a lot further north towards Circular Quay.

Central declined rapidly. The department stores closed, the trams stopped, even the brewery closed. The area may have become the site for a tertiary institute – the Institute of Technology, which then became the University of Technology – but even that was quickly labelled as one of Sydney’s ugliest buildings. Urban decay set in.

As our erudite and passionate guide, Eoghan – an architect by profession – explains: “The suburbs that surround Central – Ultimo, Chippendale, Surry Hills and Redfern – were a cultural no-man’s land for decades, but in recent times, this part of Sydney has experienced a resurgence in popularity with a steady influx of young creative and a thriving contemporary art, architectural and design scene.”

The signs of change began just prior to the 2000 Olympics. The ABC moved its HQ to Ultimo, a brand new hotel – Mercure Sydney – brought contemporary style and comfort to the area, and a number of corporate office buildings were opened. But it has really only been in the past three years that people would have noticed the changes.

Firstly, the brewery site was re-developed and outstanding architects such as Jean Nouvel, Alec Tzannes and Norman Foster hired to create a dramatic design for Central Park’s buildings. Then, UTS decided to add some of the most dramatic new architecture seen in Sydney for many decades. The Frank Gehry “crumpled” building will open in the second half of 2014 and will become an immediate landmark, while DCM have designed a stunning building next to the existing “ugly” UTS tower. And down a sidestreet, Bates Smart designed a pre-rusted student housing building called Iglu. Off that same side street, a new street (Kensington Street) of boutiques, restaurants and galleries is set to emerge from the Central Park re-development that will inject a bit of Melbourne into the Emerald City.

The Central Park redevelopment has converted the former Toohey’s/CUB brewery site into a landscape of modern architecture-driven buildings, while retaining some historical buildings and adding innovative sculptures such as the Halo

 Art is already flourishing in the area. The White Rabbit Gallery looks as good on the outside as the modern Chinese art does on the inside. Central Park boasts the vivid “Halo” sculpture, designed by Jennifer Turpin, that spins in a fashion that makes viewers feel “a bit pissed”, according to Eoghan. He’s right. Amazingly, the sculpture pivots on a tiny 10mm marble.

The area doesn’t ignore the stomach either. We walk towards Redfern and on the corner of busy Cleveland Street the intoxicating smell of fresh bread comes from Sydney’s pace-setting Brickfields Bakery, where you can stop for artisan breads and cakes, plus fine coffee (I am told). However, you will need to like your coffee, because queues are known to stretch almost as far as the old Hellfire Club – which was for many years one of the area’s few – and rather dubious – claims to fame.

Redfern has an immediate connotation for most Australians, encouraged even more so by the recent ABC TV series, Redfern Now. But if it has been a hot-bed of controversy in the past, today it is a hot-spot for funky architecture.

In George Street – where a new purpose-built cycleway is just being finalised – a harsh metallic looking exterior amongst a row of Victorian-era houses has become a shrine for followers of uber-trendy house design. Engelen Moore were the designers and if the exterior is not to everyone’s taste, the interior’s bold design, expansive space and sharp natural light has made it a favourite for photo shoots in the glossy magazine world.

In nearby Stirling Street there is a remarkable take on the weatherboard house. Amazingly, the inner suburbs have been off-limits for wooden design because the material is considered “low class” by councils, but when plans were put forward to replace two existing wooden houses with one large wooden house, they were accepted and the subsequent result has become known as “The Ark”. The project has strong green considerations: passive solar design (good use of natural ventilation/cooling and extensive shading) no A/C (apparently it works without), solar hot water, 100% rainwater collection for re-use on site.  In combination with this, all the materials were chosen on the basis of their sustainable credentials.

While the changes to the style of houses and buildings have been quite dramatic, the commitment to open spaces in the precinct has been just as significant. That is best manifested in Prince Alfred Park that runs along Chalmers Street leading to Central Station. For as long as I know, this was a place to be avoided, especially at night. That wasn’t always the case, though, with an ice-rink, swimming pool and parklands attracting the crowds until about 50 years ago. More recently it became a home for vagrants, drunks and (at times) some even more unsavoury characters.

Prince Alfred Park provides vast open spaces and family-friendly facilities in the heart of the city

Today, it is transformed. Barely visible from the road, the grounds now include tennis courts, a magnificent swimming pool, fun children’s facilities that hark back to the days when it was the site of a quarantine station for animals (think elephant slide) and beautifully manicured grounds, ideal for picnics or a lazy doze in the sun.

The redevelopment won the Australian Institute of Landscape Architect Award for creating an “exemplary landscape” in a changing urban environment

“The redesign of Prince Alfred Park and Pool is a poetic reinterpretation of Sydney’s large 19th century city parks, and as such, is an outstanding contribution to Sydney’s heritage of urban parklands,” the jury said. “(It is) not only environmentally responsible but also a lyrical response to a forgotten site.”

We started at the Mercure Sydney Central so webegan to head back to the hotel, but not before a short, and very significant, detour.

We went under the railways that block off the two sides of Sydney (there are proposals to build OVER the top of the railways, but I think that might be in someone else’s life), through a tunnel that once used to be rather scary. Today it is full of people bustling towards the UTS and Ultimo. They walk past fascinating old photos of Railway Square and Central Station while they listen to buskers that range from the ordinary to the…very-ordinary. Think of singing in the shower…these buskers think they are the new Eric Clapton or Amy Winehouse, but in the end they are just interesting buskers giving the peace no chance.

We end up on the other side of Central almost outside the ABC. There are railway lines beneath our feet and as we look towards the site of the audacious Frank Gehry building (still under wraps, but the “crumpled” building design will make this a landmark as soon as it is unveiled), Eoghan explains that this will be another of the “connections” that finally links the various elements of Sydney’s forgotten south together.
The Goods Line will connect Central to Darling Harbour, converting an old railway freight line into public space featuring dining and entertainment areas, along with the (already famous, but not even unveiled) Frank Gehry UTS Building (above)

The Goods Line – a far better name than the previously utilitarian UPN (Ultimo Pedestrian Network) – will link Central with Darling Harbour in much the same way as the High Line did in New York. The 500 metre stretch of disused railway track will sit four metres above street level, and start from the end of the Devonshire Street pedestrian tunnel, span across a heritage railway bridge at Ultimo Road and finish near the Powerhouse Museum. There will be restaurant precincts and art and entertainment areas, and will finally end the "big divide" between east and west of the CBD.

Mercure Sydney has played a pivotal role in returning Railway Square to its former glory. The hotel has just undergone a multi million dollar refurbishment, and guests can enjoy the Sydney skyline views from the expansive second floor balcony or the rooftop swimming pool
I was part of a group being shown the area as a result of the re-launch of the Mercure Sydney Central. We returned to the hotel – which has just benefited from a multi-million dollar upgrade – and we had a spectacular dinner on the extensive balcony overlooking Railway Square. One of the group suggested – rather optimistically – that Railway Square could become Sydney’s version of Times Square. Well, there’s quite a long way to go on that score, but thanks to the progressive efforts of visionaries such as Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, the city is certainly heading in the right direction.
Further information:
Sydney Architecture Walks:
Mercure Sydney:
Peter Hook
December 2013