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The Glory of Sydney

Few buildings survive from the early years of the colony. The settlers built quickly and crudely; their timber warped, and they found no limestone to make mortar for bricks. And though everyone thinks of Sydney as a "sun city, " it gets swept by torrential downpours when the big thunderheads pile up and dump inches of rain in a few hours on the coast. So walls washed out, chimneys tottered, roofs collapsed, and before long nothing remained of the "original" settlement.

The men who changed this and began to make a city from what had been a straggle of ill-built huts beside a small stream--the Tank Stream, it was called, the colony's first supply of running water, which now trickles through an underground pipe below the skyscrapers and dribbles unnoticed into the harbor--were a governor and a convict: Lachlan Macquarie (1761-1824), a Scots proconsul who came from India to assume command of Sydney in 1810, and ruled it with an iron but even hand for more than a decade, and his favored architect, Francis Greenway (1777-1837). Greenway had been transported (fourteen years for forgery), but he was the only trained architect in Australia. Macquarie put him in charge of all public works and in a six-year burst of energy, from 1816 to the end of his patron's governorship in 1821, he gave Sydney an astonishing number of buildings, ranging from a lighthouse on South Head to churches and convict barracks. The best place to savor the results of Macquarie and Greenway's collaboration is at the southern end of Macquarie Street. The governor had fancied himself a builder and town planner; he laid out what is still the central grid of Sydney, whose main boulevard, running along a sandstone crest above the harbor, he named after himself. He fixed the width of the streets and decided that traffic should go on the left side of the road, not the right--a fact that visitors from America should still bear in mind. Then he and his wife, who had brought with her a book of architectural designs, drew up the plans for a new hospital. It was financed, amid bitter accusations of cheating and kickbacks, with money from the rum trade--rather as the opera house, 150 years later, would be paid for by state lotteries. The Macquaries designed their Rum Hospital with verandas, a kind of sun shading they had known and liked in India. Thereafter, wide colonnaded verandas became a standard form in sun-struck Australia. Two of the three blocks of the Rum Hospital (1811-1816) survive (today they are the State Parliament House and the Sydney Mint Museum), and very handsome they are, despite their amateurish peculiarities of construction: the first presentable Georgian structures in colonial Australia. Greenway set out to make better ones, just south of them, at the corner of Macquarie and King streets on the edge of Hyde Park. One is the Hyde Park Barracks (1819), now a historical museum but originally built to house all the eight hundred male convicts who were working on government projects. It is a barn, but a finely proportioned barn, built of rosy handmade bricks and honey-colored sandstone, and topped with an elegant pediment that counterfaces the similar pediment on the church of St. James (1820-1824), several hundred yards away. The dialogue between these two Greenway buildings is Sydney's first conscious effort at civic harmony--church and state, as it were, twin emblems of authority gazing benignly at one another, each signed on a cartouche with Macquarie's name.

The Sydney I grew up in was still basically a Victorian city, low and brown, built of brick and the beautiful warm sandstone that is the bone of its coastline. The spires of churches stood out. Much of the nineteenth century remains--though it is overwhelmed by the gaudy, chaotic growth of tower blocks--and some of it only survived the wrecker's ball by a whisker. The finest of Sydney's nineteenth-century buildings is the Queen Victoria Building, a massive neo-Byzantine affair bubbling with domes and barrel vaults, finished in 1893 by the architect George McRae. After years of twentieth-century disuse it was sensibly and sensitively converted, in the 1980s, into what Pierre Cardin supposedly called "the most beautiful shopping center in the world." The most loved Victorian drinking spot is the Marble Bar, a florid gold-rush extravaganza of bronze and marble and stained glass that was saved from a demolished hotel in the 1960s and incorporated into the otherwise brutishly dull Sydney Hilton. The best entire precinct is Paddington, east of Sydney's city center. Its terrace houses--marching in harmonious tiers of buff, cream and salmon pink up and down the steep streets, graced with intricate wrought-iron balconies--used to be worker housing when I was a kid. But in the sixties and seventies, when the well-off began to recoil from the general flatness of Sydney suburbia and sought living space near their work, "Paddo" was restored, upgraded, gentrified and turned into a cross between SoHo and the iron-lace district of New Orleans, only mellower and less ostentatiously commercialized.

Until 1957 Sydney developers were forbidden to build anything more than 137 feet in height. This changed when a special act of parliament enabled the Australian Mutual Provident Insurance Company to put up Sydney's first true skyscraper at the head of Circular Quay--the first of a long series of dull curtain-wall slabs that would eat up the nooks and lanes of the older city, convert its narrow streets into sunless, windy slots and competitively dominate the skyline. Only quite recently has new modernist building in the center of Sydney gotten good, thanks to younger architects who entered professional practice in the early 1960s. A key project, in this regard, was the Darling Harbor redevelopment by Philip Cox. Born in 1939, Cox had a natural distaste for what he called "heavy thumping lumps of concrete and steel." Instead he took his cues from the anonymous marine and farm structures that are wound into Australia's cultural memory--ships' masts and spars, wire fences, iron verandas, tents and the great woolsheds, like rough timber cathedrals, that can still be found in the outback. At Darling Harbor, once a stretch of decayed industrial dockland, he created a brilliant complex of shops, offices and museums, including a maritime museum, and a striking aquarium through which visitors pass in a series of underwater tunnels sunk below the harbor and gaze nervously at the sharks and crocodiles swimming past them.

The Darling Harbor project affirms a main Australian theme: that the core of civilization here is really the coast. The master image of Australian literature a hundred years ago was the Bush, the pioneer's theater of struggle, endurance, disappointment and survival. The battling settler, the squatter, the stockman, still loom large as figures of the Australian imagination. They have the same power, and the same uses as symbols, as cowboys and ranchers of the lost Wild West do for Americans, or gauchos and bandeirantes do in South America. But most Australians (about twelve of the eighteen million) live on the eastern seaboard, and few of them have seen a kangaroo or a koala outside a zoo. Sometimes they invoke the Bush mythos or walk down King Street in a pair of elastic-sider boots or fend off the torrential downpours of Sydney with an R. M. Williams Driza-Bone coat (the most waterproof garment there is, apart from waders). But the Bush isn't real to them. What is real is the Bech, the fringe, the long strip where the continent goes into the sea, the actual extended center of Australian life. In no city is this truer than in Sydney.

Nowhere else in the world, except possibly in Honolulu, is urban space so completely integrated with beach culture. You can no more read Sydney without its beaches than you can understand Rome without its piazzas, or New York without Central Park. Europeans (and Americans, too, except in Southern California) think of city and beach as distinct.

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