All week I’ve been meaning to tell you about last weekend’s Sydney Open, organised by the Historic Houses Trust, only to be distracted by bugles and bolts of blue light… but today’s the day. Sydney Open: let’s do it.
Billed as an ‘architectural adventure,’ Sydney Open is an annual event in which around 50 significant sites around Sydney throw their doors wide, and stickybeaks and architecture enthusiasts like myself can elbow our way in for a good old-fashioned sniff around. It’s an excellent idea, and one I thoroughly recommend to people as a way of seeing Sydney in a slightly different light.
Organisers (and we) got very, very lucky with the weather. It was forecast to be another shocker at the tail end of a week of them, and the idea of schlepping from one featured building to another in the driving rain would have been enough to put off at least this little busybody. Instead, last Sunday dawned bright and blue, a perfect day, and once we managed to drag ourselves away from the beach and our latterly sun-starved courtyard, we cruised into town and spent the afternoon poking our noses into posterity and planning both.
I’ve always wanted to get a gander inside the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) on Macquarie Street. As I’ve mentioned before, private clubs hold a peculiar fascination for me, and in Sydney, none more so than the venerable RAC. Personally I love how outrageously anachronistic such clubs are – they’re caught in a moment in time, increasingly ill-suited to modern life, and they’re eccentric and stubborn in a way I find enormously endearing. Today the RAC is like a stiff-backed old colonel, caught on the dance-floor at his granddaughter’s wedding during a thumping rendition of ‘Sex on Fire.’ Nobody’s sure quite how to handle his presence, but monstrous pride dictates he stands his ground.
I even feel some genuine affection for the dripping chauvinism of these places. Though a feminist by nature, I am also a romantic at heart – I wish such a thing as dinner and dancing still existed in the old school sense – and I feel nostalgic attachment to a place that still prints different menus for the sexes. At the RAC, only menus intended for the men list prices. And the ladies are privileged with the dessert list, because – ha – we’re obviously all sweetness and light. The absurdity of these matters of form is precisely what I adore about them – in this exhausting world of endless push and shove, such minor matters of etiquette take on a certain charm. And I was more than happy to succumb to it.
By the time we emerged, we were illegally parked, but decided to run the gauntlet since it was such a good park, and we were so close to a couple more properties that we thought we’d ever so quickly duck in and see. The first was the Chief Secretary’s Building, worth a look beyond its stunning exterior for the Governor of Sydney’s working office. It turns out Marie Bashir enjoys the ultimate corner office, a lovely capacious suite of antiques, Chesterfields and Victoriana little changed since it was occupied in the 1890s by the Colonial Secretary and Premier of NSW, Sir Henry Parkes.
Just down the road on Bridge Street is the Department of Education and Training, externally still intact as an example of the Edwardian Baroque, but inside now pretty bloody grim, a fairly horrifying example of what can happen when the public service aesthetic – here we can thank NSW Public Works – has its “modernising” way. I think I almost had a panic attack as we moved from one narrow grey Orwellian corridor to another, and when our guide (for this was also the severely controlled tour of the afternoon) ushered us into a soulless meeting room and insisted this is “where it all happens,” I told Llew in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t stand it for one minute more, let alone another twenty, and we made a break for the horrible institutional lifts. Depressing beyond belief.
Returning to our car (which was actually parked out the front of another noteworthy property, the Sir Stamford Hotel, which we had no need to inspect since we have loved it long time), we were delighted to find we’d escaped the hefty fine that was our civic due. We only had time for one more site, so we decided to go back to the future, heading down to the historic Rocks precinct to see and hear more about the controversial plans for Barangaroo (for some Lend Lease major stakeholder-style propaganda, and some good if curiously unrelated shots of Sydney, see a short film here, or the Barangaroo Delivery Authority has a pretty comprehensive website here).
Now, I love The Rocks, and in particular, the old residential and working streets overlooking what’s slated to become Headland Park, the development’s northern tip, is hands-down one of my favourite places in this whole entire city. If I didn’t have an almost physical need to be near the ocean, this is where I would want to live. I have fantasies – vivid, frequent – of one day opening a writers’ house there, because there are stories in the sandstone, tales in the terraces, characters in the cracks. And if they fuck it up, I’m going to SCREAM.
I have to say, the guy from the Barangaroo Delivery Authority did an excellent job talking the sizeable last group of the day through the plans before taking us for a walk through the site. I can’t for the life of me understand why they’re covering up the majestic sandstone wall that is currently one of the site’s most arresting features – this does not bode well – but I came away feeling rather more optimistic about the site’s future than I expected. In fact, I’d been feeling pretty tense about it all. Maybe he was just a very smooth talker, but he gave the distinct impression of sincerely and intelligently grasping the magnitude of their responsibility to get this right. The tour ran well over time, and he copped some colourful abuse from some of the crowd, but as we dispersed along the brilliantly named Hungry Mile at the end, Llew and I both felt hopeful.
Because we share a brain, a peculiar phenomenon that will be familiar to others in long-term relationships, by wordless mutual assent we then went for a long, satisfying stroll around the streets that so tug on my heart, before repairing to the Lord Nelson, Australia’s oldest licensed pub, for a beer (I had a small shandy) and a hearty if late Ploughman’s lunch. And there our Sydney Open came to a happy close.