Monday, November 29, 2010

Sydney in Half a Day

We had half a day in Sydney before our flight across the Pacific. Neither of us had been to Sydney for years, and it felt like an auspicious beginning for our Big International Holiday - a chance to mooch a little around a city that is practically (if not geographically) speaking, right in our backyard.
            We left our bags at the Sydney Central YHA Hostel (wonderful place, would do it every time) and hopped a bus down to Circular Quay. Where we immediately took lots of photographs of ourselves with the Opera House right behind our shoulders to send back to the office at home on Mr. Tabubil's iphone. Sometimes you just have to be heartless.
            We had a good solid mooch around the Rocks. There were a lot of Halloween-y advertisements for ghost tours, but we didn't see any haunts. It must have been the wrong time of day. The Rocks is one of Sydney's oldest neighborhoods- the warehouses and flophouses and tenements of the old town, built all snug and tight against the rock cliff walls of the harbor. The buildings are sandstone, and caught about by narrow wynds and closes, now re-vamped with brick and steel and clever little water-courses.

Today the old buildings are mostly filled up with art galleries and Italian restaurants and DFX duty-free palaces, but coming around corners, you meet unexpected lanes that have been retrofitted for habitation, with washing lines and Volvos and banana trees squeezed into corners of the rock.

We wandered along the harbor wall under the big bridge. So many rivets. That's what you notice. The hundreds of thousands of millions of rivets that hold it together. There's a big fold-out picture book in the school library about the construction of the bridge; it’s an important revisionist history that focuses mostly on the advantages taken of the workforce, the institutionalized injustices and the apathy - and antagonism - of the government. There is much discussion of the terrible safety conditions and the hair-raising ways the men working on the bridge met their deaths. There were no safety line in the 1930s - a man who slipped and fell was drilled vertically into the mud, and pulled out with his clothes all ripped and shredded up about his ears.
            It's an important story,but even the most aggrieved and burning union man must have looked up at that bridge and seen something great - not in spite of the manner in which it was built, but because of it. A measure of the achievement of man, built one rivet at a time.
          Under the bridge, we climbed back up the hill into the Rocks again. The air shivered and we heard a horn.  The sound was so loud that the bridge and the hill blurred and furred and our sight grew thin and stretched around the edges. We turned back toward the water and saw a whole city block sailing past us. An absolutely massive cruise ship was sliding under the bridge and blocking out the sun. On the decks, people waved and shouted, their mouths moving soundlessly under the weight of the great sound. We waved and shouted and screamed back at them and exhilarated, we galloped up the hill and stood on a wall to watch the ship glide out past the Opera House on its way out of the harbor.
            When it was out of sight, we walked back down the hill and out along the Quay to the Opera House, and I got rather cross.
Who can't love the opera house? Light airy shells, swoopy curves - conceived and built architectural ages before the advent of computer-generated swoopy things, and done with the discipline and rigor that comes from the need to pull against the limits of traditional construction methods and calculate all the engineering yourself - no software or space age material shortcuts.
            What I loathe hate and abhor is the ghastly mid-century-brutalist plinth it sits on.
I mean, look at it:

I mean, Seriously.

This horrible pebble-brushed mountain is one of those misguided mid-century experiments in urban engineering, designed in a fashion so ghastly that you wonder if some future meta-architects were reaching back into a particular impressionable period of history to find out how swiftly you can divide and depopulate a cityscape.  Perhaps for a futuristic undergraduate seminar in Post-Apocalyptica.
            It's a fact that the bright shells can house only a fraction of the Opera House complex, but there's no straightforward plot from there to this - burying them out of sight under a gravel-washed nightmare.  Even the grand portico for arriving swishily in expensive cars on first nights is a dark and dingy underpass squashed underneath the horrible staircase.
            That staircase - purity of architectural line, my bottom. It's mid-century poverty of spirit. Sterilization kills more than germs.

 We climbed the stairs (me harrumphing and hephalumping all the way to the top) and found pretty seashells lying on a rather bare and uninteresting shore.

We went inside to look for the ticket office, and were directed down into the bowels of what looked like the locker-room and men's-toilets level of an Italian municipal bus terminal.
           And I got cross again.
            Raw concrete is a valid and rewarding medium of architectural expression, but there is a huge and aesthetically significant difference between raw concrete as a choice and "We haven’t got anything left in the budget so let's snake the electrical wires over the bare form-work and pretend we meant to do it like that. If we blow out a few light bulbs, no-one will even notice."
            "I love it when you fulminate like that." Mr Tabubil said breathily, and swooned across a rack of postcards.

We bought tickets to the evening's performance of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and went to find dinner. We didn't have very much time before the performance, so we wandered further into the bowels and popped out at a little bistro down at the waterline. We ate our dinner on the least interesting waterfront promenade in history, but nobody in Sydney had a better view for watching the sun set over the city.
They couldn’t find a way to mess with that.

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