Hills Architecture

“It’s always a bit of a gamble going on one of these tours”, I thought to myself as I arrived at the corner of Cleveland and Elizabeth Streets, Surry Hills this afternoon. As I looked around the assembled group, I first noticed Terrance (the architect and guide). And then I noticed the younger woman dressed in a tracksuit, with more water bottles than I thought it was possible to carry, and with an apple wrapped in a plastic bag which she munched on for much of the way. And finally, I noticed a couple in their mid-forties: he was the quiet photographer-type; she was the more outgoing type who I was sure would have an opinion on everything. And of course she did…

Although we started the tour on Buckingham Street, Surry Hills, right across the road from an architectural firm which had established offices there in the 1980s, the main goal of this walk was to demonstrate how different social and economic trends had influenced the suburb’s architecture since European settlement.

After a brief overview, which covered both the physical characteristics of Surry Hills, as well the major socio-economic trends, including the slums, the factories, the designers and (in hushed tones) the gays, we set off on a planned two-hour walk.

The first main stop was one of Surry Hill’s hidden delights, a house designed by Francis Greenway. Although a classic simple-lined Georgian house (the kind of house a five year old might draw), this house has the added influence of a verandah.

As we made our way into the twentieth century and the influence of modernism, our group became clearly divided amongst those who appreciated functionalism and those who appreciated decoration. Oddly enough, the woman with an opinion on everything really hated the old Dental Hospital (which I think is terrific), but really liked the nearby government towers which currently house the RTA, The Weather Bureau and others.

Along the way, it was explained Surry Hills is home to many of Sydney’s architects, with about twenty-five percent of Sydney’s architectural firms based there. As a consequence, many architects also live closeby and have been often willing to experiment with their own homes.

Other interesting buildings we observed included the “Readers Digest” building (which incorporates trees on the rooftop), and the surprising back to “The Clock Hotel”. Seriously, if you’ve never gone for a walk behind “The Clock”, it’s well worth it, to see how the architects have designed something to look intentionally old (and to age by allowing water to drip down the concrete) to allow the building to merge successfully with the small backyarded homes of Surry Hills.

We finished the tour somewhat overtime (but no one minded, since we all enjoyed the tour immensely) at the St Margaret’s Hospital complex on Bourke Street. Although I’ve walked past it many times, I’ve never been there, and have never appreciated how interesting architecturally it is. Nor how it combines so well with the area. Quite fascinating.

Terrance was an EXCELLENT guide who spoke with honesty and passion, and the noisy woman turned out to be very kind-hearted. “Shall we all meet up again for another tour later this year?”, she said. Well I don’t know about that, but I’ve certainly pencilled in a few more of the tours run by the Australian Architecture Association based on the excellence of this one.

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